Contractors Share Biggest Energy Drains and How to Fix Them
Tips from The NEWS’ advisory board make energy management part of every call
Contractors don’t have to specialize in energy management to help their customers cut down on energy usage in the home. From cleaning coils to documenting duct leakage, contractors on The NEWS’ advisory board share their top culprits when it comes to energy management — and how to address them.
OFFER AN UPGRADE
It may seem like a no-brainer, but customers can’t invest in energy management solutions if they aren’t offered the option.
Butch Welsch, president of Welsch Heating & Cooling in St. Louis, replaces a lot of heating and air conditioning systems in homes in the 15- to 25-year range.
“When there, we will discuss the homeowner’s energy costs and try to determine the customer’s level of concern regarding those energy costs,” he said. “Assuming that energy costs are a concern to them, we offer some suggestions.”
Since Welsch is typically providing a price for a replacement installation, the company offers an upgrade in the equipment they will be offering: for example, a 90 percent efficiency furnace instead of a standard 80 percent efficiency furnace.
“For air conditioning, our base models in replacement are 14 SEER,” he said. “We will offer suggestions to the customer regarding upgrading to a 16 SEER or even higher.
“Unfortunately, on the air conditioning side, the cost/benefit ratio typical of the higher-efficiency equipment doesn’t provide for a great return just for the energy savings themselves,” he continued. “However, with the manufacturers we use, there are typically additional benefits to the high-efficiency equipment other than just the energy savings. For example, the units are often multispeed or variable speed, which provides a greater level of comfort in addition to the energy savings.”
Roger Grochmal, CEO at AtlasCare in Oakville, Ontario, takes a similar perspective.
“As far as energy management is concerned, we do our best to recommend the highest-efficiency products to our customers,” he said. “Our furnaces are all 95 percent to 97 percent efficiency.”
Since the area only has about 700 cooling hours per year and electricity costs are fairly low, getting customers to purchase anything much higher than 16 SEER is a challenge, he added. The company puts a programmable or Wi-Fi thermostat into every install, which Grochmal said has been pretty efficient at managing energy costs.
KEEP IT CLEAN
Checking for dirty coils only takes a few minutes, and it significantly impacts energy usage and equipment lifespan, said Chris Hunter, who is the founder of Hunter Super Techs in Oklahoma and North Texas and a business success coach with Go Time Success Group.
“Dirty coils not only hamper the heat transfer, but a dirty indoor coil also contributes to negative IAQ, premature equipment failure, and — of course — wasted energy,” he said. “Being on a routine maintenance schedule, where the equipment is maintained and kept clean, will drastically improve the life span and energy usage of the comfort system.”
The same goes for dirty blower wheels.
“As a tech, I got excited anytime I reached in and felt accumulation of dirt on the blower wheel,” Hunter continued. “The reason being is because I knew I was fixing to really help this customer save money and improve their comfort level: 1/16-inch of dust can cause a 20 percent reduction in airflow. That’s big!”
The blower wheel check takes less than a minute and can be done on every call. A pull and clean of the blower can be done in less than an hour, and its return on investment will be realized in a short period.
“Technicians run across completely impacted blower wheels all the time,” Hunter said. “The thing to remember with a dirty blower is, if it looks that way, the coil will more than likely look the same.”
For Rob Minnick, CEO/ President at Minnick’s Inc., Laurel, Maryland, energy management is more than equipment.
“Most companies will offer high-efficiency HVAC equipment,” he said. “[Which] to me is the wrong focus point … that this equipment will save the most energy, as this is the big elephant in the room. Most customers in our area say, afterward, it cost them more energy to have these systems, as the HVAC equipment is working against a nonefficient duct system and nonefficient home. It’s like putting a NASCAR engine in a 1970s Pinto with flat tires and expecting it to run a NASCAR race.”
Instead, he recommended looking at the home as a system.
“If we focus on … proper air sealing, insulation and ventilation, and the HVAC system, which includes proper-sized ductwork, we have a comfortable, healthy home that will now save energy.”
GET THOSE DUCTS IN A ROW
Rich Morgan, CEO, Magic Touch Mechanical, Phoenix, does several hundred home and building energy audits every year. He trains technicians and salespeople to look for common issues and discuss their observations with the customer to determine if a more in-depth energy audit makes sense for them. One of the top issues the company sees has to do with ducts.
“It’s pretty easy to determine, with a simple visual inspection, if ducts have been properly sealed,” Morgan said. “If the technician observes the fittings and connections are not sealed properly with mastic, we discuss conducting a duct leakage test with the client and the benefits of duct sealing regarding comfort, efficiency, and air quality.”
While interviewing the customer to determine what they love or hate about their air conditioning and heating system, Morgan often hears complaints about airflow and noisy ducts. That’s often due to improper airflow or high static pressure.
“After examining the duct design and sizing, we test the duct system’s static pressure, grill types, plenums, takeoffs, etc.,” he said. “When improvements can be made, we explain what we observed and what actions we can take to improve airflow and/or reduce air noise.”
After completing the recommended improvements, Magic Touch technicians test and document the results to quantify the impact the improvements made.
“For example, if we seal a duct system, we conduct a second duct leakage test to compare the pre and post measurements with the client.”
Lack of attic insulation is something that takes a few minutes to check, a few hours to fix, and has immediate energy saving impact.
“Plus, it’s very affordable, and some utilities offer rebate incentives for it,” Hunter said.
“Missing, misaligned, or insufficient attic insulation is another common home deficiency we find that can be spotted pretty easily,” said Morgan.
In some cases, he’ll photograph the issues in the attic and then share the images with the client and explain the impact that the problem spots are having on their comfort and efficiency. His technicians also use thermal image cameras during summer and winter, when the temperature delta is great enough to show the customer the hot/cold spots from below.
In addition to installing attic insulation, Welsch suggests tinting or shading windows, especially those on the west or south sides of the house.
“We also remind them of the importance of changing the filter in the furnace, and if they don’t already have a media cleaner, we will recommend one,” he said. “This is only an energy-savings device because we have found that if they have a media cleaner, they will maintain the filter media much more so than with a regular furnace filter.”
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