A scrap of paper from a torn receipt or a straw wrapper. Particulate pollution, stirred up by folks going in and out the door of a fast-food restaurant. Dust bunnies in the corner of the room, made up (as they are) of dust; contamination; and dead human skin cells, shed at the rate of a pound per person per year.

All this, over time, gets sucked into the coil area of the refrigerator, freezer, or a/c unit. And despite statistics that show cleaning out the coils regularly can save around 20 percent in energy costs, Richard Fennelly, CEO of CoilPod LLC, said he’s heard a leading HVACR expert assert that 80 percent of owners don’t do coil cleaning at all, and the other 20 percent don’t do it enough.

Several of the boots-on-the-ground HVACR guys had some opinions on why it’s important, why it’s so often overlooked, and what could be done to help the cause.



1. It’s better for the air we breathe and the Earth where we live.

Fennelly heads a company that manufactures dust containment devices for refrigeration coil cleaning using compressed air and vacuum.

“I think that the refrigeration industry actually has a weapon that could fight climate change,” he said. Fennelly cited a Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program knowledge brief, titled “Optimization, monitoring, and maintenance of cooling technology.” It gives an annual unneeded emissions value of 500 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (CO2eq) on a global basis.

“The U.S.A. has a GDP that’s about 15 percent of world GDP,” he said. “Using GDP as a proxy, we estimate the U.S.A. emissions reduction potential for better HVACR cooling equipment cleaning and servicing at about 75 million metric tons CO2eq yearly. Getting rid of the HFC refrigerant, that’s the inside-the-coil approach. And what we’re focusing on is keeping the outside of the coils in proper shape. Namely, you make sure they don’t clog up.”

Better optimization, monitoring, and maintenance of cooling equipment has the potential to save 30 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2050 — an additional 38 percent bonus over the refrigerant replacement, stated Didier Coulomb, director-general, International Institute of Refrigeration.


2. It extends equipment life.

Joe Kokinda is president and CEO at Professional HVAC/R Services Inc., a niche refrigeration installation and service company in Avon Lake, Ohio. HVACR equipment is designed in a test lab, under optimum conditions, he pointed out.

“The data that you read when you purchase a new unit ... it’s well known that within a week, it’s not even close to the EER they’re stating, just because of electrolysis,” he said. “We call it the white fuzz. They galvanize within a month, down in Florida, Houston, Louisiana. People are selling them for energy savings, and if you don’t have it in a pristine condition, it’s highly unlikely that you’re ever going to reap the benefits. If you don’t go out and do just the bare minimum, you’re not going to save any money at all.”

Then there’s the kind of white fuzz that flies from cottonwood trees, like summer snow, across the Midwest from June to the Fourth of July. And the leaves. And hail that smashes the fins if they’re left exposed.

“A lot of the companies, they’ll do their maintenance on HVAC units for spring startup and won’t revisit till heat startup,” Kokinda said. “With new efficient microchannel condensers and evaporators, you look at it sideways and it’s going to leak. You don’t know how many times they’ll stick these units on a roof with the condensers facing the west. All the weather in the Midwest comes from the west. We say, ‘We prefer to not come out and spend your money in the spring; we’ll do in the middle of summer, when it means something.’”

Rich Biava, vice president of GAC Services, compared HVACR equipment maintenance to an oil change.

“It’s just like a vehicle: You need a mechanic to look at those moving parts, especially when it’s been run hard over a season,” he said. “Drains can start to clog ... If you’re not getting maintenance, one day you’ll have water pouring all over your system, backing up, creating a situation where circuit boards could get damaged. You’ll end up with rust. Screws can come loose, bearings can get lose ... and you need a professional to understand what’s going on, provide some advice, and tighten where it needs to be tightened to improve the longevity.”

The consequences of ignoring maintenance can be dire. One client of Kokinda’s, who didn’t follow that advice, ended up with a brand-new unit that never got a chance to run before it broke down.


3. It saves money on energy bills.

How much? The Food Service Technology Center and City of San Francisco Environment ran a field survey of 10 units, and savings from doing coil cleaning varied widely, from about 3 percent to 50 percent. The average was 17 percent. The study also presented before and after results on four of the more badly fouled units. When the coils were cleaned, the units showed an average of 47 percent reduction in electricity usage required to run.

“You basically have to draw attention to the fact that doing the cleaning’s going to help the appliance run better: reduction of cost when there’s no malfunction, inventory is protected, the unit will last longer, and there may even be a warranty issue if the unit is new,” Fennelly said.

Biava does that through a visual demonstration.

“When you pull out the filter, and they can see the dog hair, the dust that’s collected because they have this 1-inch filter, and you go in and clean it, people can’t believe how much more comfortable their home is, and how their energy costs have gone down, because of just keeping it clean,” he said. “If you’ve got a really good filter on that — I’m talking a MERV-12 Aprilaire media filter, one of those 4-inch-wide filters — and are religiously changing it every eight months to a year, that coil that’s above that furnace, it’s not gonna be dirty,” he said.

A lot of people don’t realize the importance of a good filter or the importance of a tuneup, he continued.

“It’s up to us as leaders in the industry to communicate with our personnel, to allow them to communicate with the customers and the prospects,” Biava said.

“Preventative maintenance is a win-win for both contractor and customer,” added Pat Welty, owner at SCR. “The energy that is used to operate a system that is improperly maintained can be substantially more when all businesses are trying to find ways to be competitive and cut operational costs.

“The energy savings and extending the life of the equipment far outweighs the cost of the maintenance/repair bill,” he added.



1. The bean counters at the top don’t care.

Kokinda has worked with Fortune 500 companies like Dollar Tree. Maintenance isn’t a priority for many of them, he reported. In 2010, he took over several independents in the state of Ohio; within 10 months, he’d fired them as a customer.

“It comes down to buckets of money,” he said. “What I’ve been told is, if it doesn’t fit into their metrics, they’re not going to do the maintenance. The No. 1 way to curtail expenses is HVAC … but they don’t do it.”

For a different client, he started a project in 1996 where he went coast to coast, taking out old equipment that hadn’t been maintained and putting in new equipment (that, of course, wouldn’t be maintained going forward).

“It’s depreciable, over seven or eight years,” he said. “They’d rather take the depreciation and not service it.”

A lot of his customers also lease their spaces and choose to decline repairs because they know the lease will be up in three years anyway.

“They’ll leave two or three a/c units on the roof, completely out of commission, versus maintaining an object that’s part of their lease. It’s the almighty stockholder; you have to show a return.”

Fennelly said these types of building owners just don’t want to be bothered.

“The refrigeration service industry … they pay lip service to it,” he said. “Their entire revenue model is really based on ‘we’ll go out and fix it when it malfunctions.’ Many times, malfunction is caused because owners never bothered to clean the coils or retain a service company to come in two, three times a year for cleanings.”

For contractors trying to do the right thing, it’s a frustrating cycle.

“It gets to the point where it’s a morale breaker,” Kokinda said. “Our guys go out, they do the reporting, you provide all the paperwork with pictures, and they say ‘no.’ When a customer is like that … they’re a great customer on the one side, of course — I’ll do their installs, but I won’t do the service. Our clients, they’re all good people; it’s a corporate thing.”


2. Out of sight, out of mind.

Refrigeration coils aren’t visible the way a/c coils are. To Fennelly, it’s an out of sight, out of mind issue.

“The knee-jerk reaction, even in regard to energy efficiency programs, seems to go automatically toward a/c,” he said. With a house or a building, humans reside in the space and can complain if there are musty smells or a system’s not working well.

“Refrigerators and freezers, they house inanimate objects, and those don’t communicate,” Fennelly said. “The New York State Energy Research & Development Authority put out a solicitation for new ideas for energy efficiency. When I read it, it was talking exclusively about a/c — almost as if fridges and freezers don’t even exist.”

Passive advertising doesn’t really work, because of the lack of widespread awareness, he continued.

“Those independents and franchises, believe it or not, spend more on theft — for someone stealing a beer or a pack of candy — versus what’s really costing the money, which is that customers won’t come back once they buy a product that’s been compromised and have a bad experience,” Kokinda said. Since 2006, his current base of customers have grown to understand the importance of maintenance, he added. “The old days of run it till it breaks have come and gone for our clients.”


3. It’s not plug-and-play.

Many of the energy efficiency measures gaining traction are set-it-and-forget-it technologies. Take an LED lightbulb: You plug it in and immediately see the savings.

“I don’t have to do anything else with that light; I don’t have to go up and rub it in three months,” Fennelly said. “Solar panels are the same way. The maintenance going forward is minimal.”

HVACR equipment, on the other hand, will need cleaning again six months down the road.

“You do it today, and you can’t walk away and never do it again, because the coils clog,” he said.

While some companies have come out with self-cleaning coils, they’re usually patented for sale only with their unit, Fennelly said, and the vast majority don’t have that feature.

One company making strides in this area is Turbo Air, with its patented self-cleaning condenser, he noted. It uses a filter in front of the coils and a rotating brush that moves up and down two to three times a day to get rid of dust accumulating on the mesh.

Fennelly’s company, CoilPod LLC, offers a dust containment hood for blowing out clogged condenser coils in commercial refrigeration/freezing units.

“Our patented COILPOD compressed air and vacuum method can do the cleanings in about 15 minutes,” he said.

Still, it’s not automated; it requires setting up an appointment to have the work done, and he’s found that some equipment owners resist that.

“One technician I talked to, who had about 40 years of experience, said ‘I totally agree with you; this is something that really needs to be done. However, my clients want automatic solutions. What you’re preaching is not an automatic solution,’” Fennelly related. “What we’re preaching is work, and I think humans don’t want to do work.”

Fennelly believes legislation may ultimately be needed to bring about change.

“The pollution isn’t from the equipment itself; it’s from the power plant,” he said. “A certain amount is going right down the tubes if the appliance is not in tip-top shape. I could see where they go into food service and institutional health care facilities — not residential — and say we have an obligation to make sure HVACR equipment is operating within certain parameters, so we’re not causing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Publication date: 4/29/2019

Want more HVAC industry news and information? Join The NEWS on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn today!