“Do It Yourself” Means Profit Opportunities for HVAC Contractors
From pre-project advice to fixing follies, understanding the modern DIY’er
Even the label “do-it-yourself” doesn’t do justice to the long tradition of the DIY impulse. After all, the phrase suggests that there’s some other option, like calling a specialist. For many generations and many tasks, “yourself” was the only option if “it” was going to get done at all.
DIY DNA is hardly foreign to the HVAC industry, either. It seems safe to assume that many technicians were born with the inclination and cultivated it growing up, before they ever chose a profession.
However, the consumer DIY mindset certainly runs counter — at least at first glance — to HVAC contractor revenues. Taken too far with modern technology, it can also run contrary to equipment or system performance, possibly threatening homeowner and even technician safety.
These days, much (but not all) of the DIY energy in the HVAC space is funneling toward mini splits. It’s “new” equipment. It targets those nagging indoor spaces that for so long have been either difficult or impossible to make comfortable. Moreover, manufacturers and major retail outlets have seized on this set of circumstances and started to cater directly to this clientele with equipment bearing lesser-known brand names.
Looking at two real DIY mini split installation examples and talking with a pair of HVAC contractors about their business approaches to the DIY population affirms a couple of things: DIY does not (always) translate to “reckless.” And contractors have found more than one way to deal with this part of the market successfully.
MINI SPLIT SUCCESS
If anything sealed the deal for making mini split installation a prime DIY target, it’s the coincidence that mini splits can excel right where so many DIY’ers live: the garage workshop. For Cressel Anderson of Makercise (https://makercise.com) and Tim Tuttle of The Average Craftsmen (www.theaveragecraftsman.com), this was the setting for their own mini split projects.
Each man posted an extensive and thorough account of his project, including detailed notes on steps, tools, and expenses, along with many documentary photographs. Each man, while pro-DIY in general, also made the effort to give assorted warnings and caveats about attempting this kind of project.
For example, Tuttle did not mince words.
“*****ELECTRICITY IS DANGEROUS. HVAC WORK IS DANGEROUS. PLEASE CONSULT A PROFESSIONAL SHOULD YOU CHOOSE TO INSTALL YOUR OWN MINI SPLIT SYSTEM. THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. DO ALL WORK AT YOUR OWN RISK*****”
Both men wound up with reportedly successful installations. However, neither project was a completely DIY, 100 percent successful installation, and both men were upfront with their readerships about how and why.
In Tuttle’s case, he enlisted a licensed HVAC technician (presumably off-hours) to review some finer points beforehand and then to execute the refrigerant-specific phase of the setup. Tuttle handled the infrastructure, electrical, etc., himself.
Meanwhile, Cressel mentions to readers that he did not bring in a separate HVAC professional. What he did do was go to the trouble of studying for and passing an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Certified Technician course in his area; that achievement (combined with the laws in his locality regarding such work) put him on firm legal ground to attempt his project.
Despite his preparation, he made a costly mistake. Here is how he explained it to his audience:
“Where I went wrong was in the hose/adapter combination I was using,” Cressel stated. “The mini split adapter has a Schrader valve depressor and a Schrader valve. A Schrader valve keeps refrigerant from blowing out of the system when nothing is connected to the fitting, exactly like on a bicycle tire. The mini split a/c has a Schrader valve in the low-side port. The adaptor depressor opens the valve on the mini split a/c when you install it, but the Schrader valve on the outward end of the adapter — where you connect the blue line — keeps refrigerant from dumping through.
“I did not have the Schrader valve depressor installed,” he continued. “This means, although I pulled a vacuum, that vacuum was isolated from the mini split a/c system by the adapter’s Schrader valve. Palm to forehead, newbie mistake.”
The result: “My R410a from the pre-charged outdoor unit was now mixed with the water vapor and non-condensable gases present in the unevacuated lineset. To function well, I knew that the refrigerant would need to be recovered and that the system would need to be charged with virgin refrigerant.”
That’s what happened next, and the system is performing as designed. Using bold italicized type, Cressel described this as the most advanced DIY project he has attempted.
What do these projects mean? From a public perspective, it is comforting to know that at least some responsible DIY’ers are at least attempting to take precautions and are not sugarcoating the obstacles and risks of trying to do this when they discuss the idea with a wider audience.
For HVAC contractors, it raises the question of a company policy regarding this kind of off-hours work. It also invites some thought about where a contractor might fit into this process, both for advanced and comparatively successful DIY’ers like this and for others who might respond to the ALL-CAPS warnings and suggestions with a reaction more along the lines of “Hold my beer.”
BUILDING CLIENTELE IN THE GRAY AREAS
A contractor can field a variety of DIY-related requests for one slice of business or another. Total Air & Heat in Plano, Texas, has been in business since 1957, and as such, company president Steve Lauten noted that they have pretty much seen it all. Sometimes — perhaps more than one might expect — they can help.
A customer who has bought HVAC equipment directly or on the internet and wants Total Air to install it?
He hasn’t seen much of that beyond mini splits.
“We always talk to the customer, and in some cases, we proceed with installing the equipment with the clear understanding that we will not warranty the equipment, just our install,” Lauten said.
Customers who want to buy the equipment from Total Air and then install it themselves?
“This request happens more often, but we have agreements in place that we can’t sell our major brands without installation,” Lauten said. “Many HVAC contractors don’t realize as part of being a dealer of most major HVAC brands that this restriction is part of the dealer agreement.”
Customers who have not bought anything elsewhere yet and are trying to understand their options?
Lauten sees this regularly.
“We mark up the job like we normally would, less the cost of the equipment or parts supplied,” he said. “This scenario is becoming much more frequent for plumbers who install items bought by the customer. I think it’s a mistake to not at least consider the request.”
Customers who want to buy parts to do some repair work themselves?
Total Air will sell repair parts over the counter, he said, with the written explanation that they can’t return the parts. What Lauten likes about this policy is that it “opens the door” with the customer as they proceed through their project. A DIY’er might buy the part, get into the job, and get nervous about whether they’re doing it right.
“Many times,” Lauten reported, “they end up asking us to send a technician to complete the work.”
Lauten explained that his company’s earlier, pre-mini split experience in the HVAC business informed its current attitude toward DIY inquiries. Early on, he said, he received many requests to install specialized filtration systems for people with allergies.
“By reviewing the project,” he recalled, “it led to a lot of business. It led us to specialize in IAQ way before many of our peers.”
Still, like many of his peers, he has seen his share of DIY gone wrong. He mentioned two cases in particular when asked for a worst-case situation.
“Most [cases] involved customers who used a ‘handyman’ who had no business doing the work in the first place,” Lauten said. “On one job in particular, dryer vent was used for vent pipe on a gas furnace. The handyman had also used vapor barrier board to make a supply plenum. We had to rip it all out and start over. Another job, the customer ran all the same size duct to every room, without cutting the flex duct, so there were lots of sags, and no airflow!”
THERMOSTATS: THE OTHER HOT SPOT
Lauten’s examples remind readers that mini splits don’t necessarily capture all of the modern DIY attention, and Josh Matney can attest to the same. Matney is service manager at Fayette Heating & Air in Lexington, Kentucky.
He noted that his location has a specific consequence that contractors can appreciate. Kentucky requires an individual to have a state-issued HVAC Journeyman Mechanic license to perform HVAC services and installation.
“This cuts down immensely on DIY’ers and jack-of-all-trades folks having access to HVAC equipment,” Matney said. “However, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the internet comes into play.”
With nearly 20 years of perspective in the industry, Matney sees the rise of the online video as a major driver of DIY activity these days. In an area where self-installed mini split is legally less practical, the perennial DIY impulse has turned toward the home thermostat.
“It’s seen as a repair anyone can do without experience,” Matney related.
Doing it properly without experience turns out to be another matter altogether. When Fayette Heating & Air receives a subsequent call, it usually finds one of three things. Often, the power was never cycled off, or the system’s fuse or transformer was shorted out. Or the thermostat was never the issue to begin with, and the system requires further repairs.
A related scenario can unfold when Matney’s company has diagnosed a bad thermostat in the course of a service call, and at that point the owner decides he will replace it himself. Matney points out the inferior warranty coverage offered by most big-box units, compared to what a contractor can offer (typically one year against defect, as opposed to a more comprehensive five-year guarantee), but that doesn’t deter everyone.
Should the consumer proceed, Matney said, “also overlooked by DIY’ers is completely cycling the system through all modes of operations, not only to confirm proper stat function but also proper equipment operation and investigation into the cause of the stat failure.”
Fayette Heating and Air adopts a DIY policy that serves to draw a somewhat harder line.
“As a company that doesn’t apologize for price and prides itself on having the most qualified technicians with the best guarantees around, we will not (in 99 percent of cases) install equipment that was purchased elsewhere, equipment that is used, or sell equipment to the public.”
It will, however, service any equipment in the HVAC realm for its customers. This includes servicing DIY’ers who made an unsuccessful attempt to repair their own equipment.
Whether for thermostats or mini splits or the occasional other equipment — and whether online video and how-to venues serve to help consumers avoid or entice them toward DIY trouble — that part of the HVAC service business for contractors doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
The Customer Is
Always Right Occasionally on the Verge of Disaster
As the main article points out, mini splits may be the newest object of interest for many DIY’ers, but their fundamental independent and/or stubborn streak runs much deeper. Josh Matney of Fayette Heating & Air recounted one memorable service call (or as he put it, a “horror story”) from his pre-mini split days in the field.
Mr. DIY was doing some remodeling. This included some plumbing, a little electrical, and a new thermostat. Upon arrival, I was made aware that the stats sold in the big box stores were junk and continue to be bad out of the box. Mr. DIY was on new stat No. 3 at this point.
This call was the perfect storm of a client who had just enough knowledge to be dangerous and electrical work that had been done that affected the HVAC equipment. Speaking with Mr. DIY, I learned that the issue that prompted him to replace his stat was that the breaker for his outdoor unit was tripping every time the a/c attempted to start.
This information lead me to inquire about the electrical panel, which was in clear sight with the front cover laying on the floor. Mr. DIY told me that he had replaced the existing 30-A breaker with a shiny, new 100-A breaker. When I asked why he replaced it and massively oversized the breaker, Mr. DIY responded with, “Changing a breaker is easy; I wanted to cover my bases. I know that breaker isn’t weak.”
Dumbfounded, I attempted to explain the folly in his thinking. I would have had more success explaining it to a kindergarten class. So I set aside the breaker panel for the time being, and I popped the stat off the wall, finding the issue instantly. The stat required a common wire, and one wasn’t hooked up. I explained to Mr. DIY that a common wire was required to be tied into the stat to power the display. I was quickly moved aside so he could wire in one of the spare conductors while telling me that “the old one had batteries.”
He quickly installed the stat back onto the base and, as expected, it did not come online. I started to explain basic electricity and how the same conductor needed to be tied into the common circuit at the indoor. Before I could finish my sentence, Mr. DIY had the indoor open and was hooking up the common wire. I briefly warned that the power was on, but at this point, I was along for the ride.
This call was going poorly because as a young tech, I failed to gain control as the professional. To my surprise, he made the connection correctly, and the stat came online. He set it cool, and after the delay, I heard the breaker trip in the panel for the outdoor unit. I could now start to diagnose the actual issue with this system, and I traveled to the a/c system outside to check for shorted wires and components. All the while, Mr. DIY explained that the a/c was fine and that the problem was “these junky stats.”
As I continued walking to the outside unit, I told Mr. DIY that he had a problem outside and that’s why the breaker tripped. I confirmed there was no power and that the breaker still tripped in the panel was for the a/c. I pulled the disconnect, and after a brief check of the unit, I found that the wire for the start winding was burned off the compressor terminal. The compressor and all other components ohm’d out fine, with no other shorts.
I explained to Mr. DIY what needed to be done to make repairs.
As expected, I was told “This isn’t the problem, it was ‘only a loose wire’ and ‘I’ll fix that right now.’”
I watched in awe as Mr. DIY re-stripped the wire without removing the burned portion, crimped on an incorrect spade connector, and beat the connector on with the back of a screw driver.
I was finished with this service call at this point. Mr. DIY was combative towards me as I was explaining how the repair of the compressor wire was performed incorrectly, how the oversized breaker was in clear violation of electrical code, and how both were safety issues. I advised against resetting the breaker until it was replaced and the wiring could be repaired correctly. Mr. DIY defiantly walked inside and reset the breaker.
“You left the disconnect out,” he said.
He was right, and there was no way on earth I was going to plug it in. He took off to the a/c and made a beeline to the disconnect. I gave what would be my final warning not to plug it in, and the fireworks ensued.
The makeshift repair job on the compressor wire obviously had a bare or burned spot still on the wire, or the connector itself was touching the compressor case. The short blew a hole out through the compressor case instantly, enveloping Mr. DIY in a fog of R-22. Luckily, he was OK, having somehow avoided multiple risks of death or serious injury from the high-voltage short or the inhalation of R-22.
I calmed Mr. DIY down (maturely, without screaming “I told you so!”). Mr. DIY had a newfound respect for HVAC, and he developed trust in the professional who was there to provide solutions. Mr. DIY became a lifelong client of mine throughout the rest of my years as a service technician.
See more articles from this issue here!