Asking, Assessing, Answering Are Key to Home Performance Success
Contractors with the right questions can find solutions to issues customers may have given up on
CroppMetcalfe Services has provided home performance contracting (HP) space longer than most. The Fairfax, Virginia-based company is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, having spent more than half of that time in HP.
For some perspective on where HP has been and is today, we interviewed Andrew Oser, a home performance specialist who runs the division for the CroppMetcalfe.
ACHR NEWS: How do most of your home performance contracting cases present themselves to you? Are there a couple of most common symptoms people are calling about that tend to suggest potential for broader work than a single, specific fix?
Oser: There are a number of customer complaints where HP testing is recommended. Condensing ducts, home too humid or dry, dust or allergy issues, rooms hard to heat or cool, or uneven temperatures in the home.
ACHR NEWS: HP can involve some detective work. What do you include in a home performance consultation, and how do you handle pricing (if any) for that?
Oser: The initial evaluation includes a blower door test to determine leakage of the home, thermal imaging, duct design and sizing (this allows us to determine the duct system can handle the capacity of the HVAC system and is set up to supply and return the proper amount of air to each area of the home), insulation survey, leakage survey, plus other tests which are specific to the home and its problems.
ACHR NEWS: Do some HP projects come out of conversations with customers who are having you work on something specific? I’m interested in how your team does or doesn’t raise the topic, any training they might receive along those lines, etc.
Oser: We teach all of our field and office staff to be on the lookout for HP issues and ask questions about customer problems which may lead them to a HP solution.
For example, if a customer asks about adding ductwork to a room or area, we will ask questions about comfort issues, which usually lead to HP testing. The same can be said for dust, duct cleaning, allergies, and humidity issues.
ACHR NEWS: On the business side — would you talk about what investments CroppMetcalfe made, whether in equipment or staffing or training, to launch a home performance division that was ready to go? (If you outsource any HP services, I’m interested in alliances you may have formed with those companies.)
Oser: Each tester (auditor) must have a blower door, thermal imaging camera, and flow hood. We used to outsource insulation but have brought that in-house, and we now have a truck set up with an extraction machine to remove insulation and a machine to blow new insulation.
One of the largest expenses is training for field personnel. All HP co-workers are sent to HP-specific training multiple times a year. In addition, we perform substantial training in the office and in the field for HP co-workers. Further, we perform regular training for all office and field staff to keep HP “top of mind.”
The one service we do not perform in house is Aeroseal. We have a great partner who has been doing Aeroseal for many years.
ACHR NEWS: When did CroppMetcalfe begin its HP division, and how many employees does that side have?
Oser: Twenty-three years ago. We were one of the first in the Washington area to do blower door testing. We currently have a manager, supervisor, team leader, three crew leaders, three HP-specific crew members, and two duct cleaners.
ACHR NEWS: My general impression is that HP had a wave of good “buzz” a few years ago that has subsided to some degree. Would you discuss any trends regarding HP as a portion of your overall business mix, or trends regarding the number of companies in the area offering similar services?
Oser: There are still only a few companies who handle HP from soup to nuts (from testing to remediation). There are a number of companies who do testing only, and others who sell HP work without testing. HP is one of our fastest growing divisions in terms of year-to-year percentage-of-revenue increase.
ACHR NEWS: For a home that is a real candidate for HP, obviously picking and choosing from a set of recommended measures will not deliver the full results, and I guess it could even create new problems once in a while. Could you discuss and example or two of how you handle this, when it may be strictly budget-driven on the customer side?
Oser: All homes are candidates for HP testing and upgrades. As work is normally based on comfort, health, and safety, and normally not energy efficiency, a customer must be in some sort of pain before they seek us out.
As mentioned previously, we train our people to ask questions about potential pain points to A) see if they have them, and B) see if they are bad enough to want to do something about them. Many people think certain things just can’t be made better and often don’t bring them up. We try to ask specific questions to bring those pains to the surface.
The more pains a customer has, the less “budget” comes into play. They simply want the pain to stop and to live in a comfortable, healthy, and safe home. That being said, rather than bundle our recommendations, we prioritize work in a number of options. This allows customers to do things in stages. We do not create staged game plans, which could make things worse. That’s the danger of performing work without testing.
ACHR NEWS: I noticed a section of your company website about Maryland home performance rebates. What role have they wound up playing?
Oser: Not much. We have always stayed busy with HP work with or without rebates. People who are seeking to do work just because of the rebate (rather than because of pain) are harder to sell and need financial reasons (ROI) to do the work. Often, that is not possible, as customers will almost never save enough money on their energy bills to justify the investment.
That’s why we focus on comfort, health, and safety, as it’s harder to put a dollar figure on those items. We make sure the customer understands that if they do the work, they will get some energy savings; however, it is unlikely that it will pay for the work.
ACHR NEWS: Your company lists several products and services under the HP umbrella. What one or two have consumers warmed up to in recent years, whether due to increased general awareness or other circumstances?
Oser: Aeroseal is now included on nearly every HP job we perform. It is one of the few HVAC/HP services that not only makes a home more comfortable, healthy, and safe, but can also pay for itself over time.
ACHR NEWS: What aspects do customers tend to be most reluctant about, even when it would be a good idea? What response has been most successful for you?
Oser: As we focus on pain and not energy savings, a very high percentage of people move forward with our recommendations to solve their issues. As long as a customer feels we are trying to help make their indoor environment more comfortable, safe, and healthy, they will usually follow most if not all of our recommendations. In fact, our average sale has increased dramatically over the last few years.
ACHR NEWS: I think of HP as originating on the existing homes side. Is this translating at all to new construction, and if so, what mix do you see in your projects?
Oser: We only perform HP work on existing homes which are outside of the builder’s warranty. Often, we find new homes built to higher HP standards have flaws in construction, which lead to all sorts of comfort, health and safety issues — some severe, as the issues that are behind walls are difficult and costly to correct.
ACHR NEWS: Finally, more than one industry leader mentioned your firm when the topic of home performance contracting came up. For contractors in other areas who may be interested in this work, what’s a “secret of your success” that you can share?
Oser: To be successful in HP, you must make it top of mind for everyone in your company and then keep it that way.
At CroppMetcalfe, HP is in our blood. We believe that we can make our customer’s lives better … more comfortable, healthy, and safe through HP. We originally became involved in HP because our customers had indoor environment issues that were not being solved by repairing or replacing equipment or other IAQ bandaids.
Companies need to believe that HP is the core solution to the people’s issues and that without addressing the home’s envelope, duct system, and insulation, they will never truly solve customer’s problems — and that in fact, trying to solve them with equipment may actually make things worse.
For example, new equipment utilizes variable speed motors and multistage equipment to provide greater comfort and dehumidification. The problem is, when you hook the new system up to a leaky and undersized duct system in a poorly sealed and insulated home, you will have all sorts of issues. Most recently, the biggest one is sweating ductwork.
Many contractors will blame the new high-efficiency system and dumb down the system (taking away many of the features designed to make the home more comfortable, safe, healthy, and yes, energy efficient), instead of explaining to the customer the real problem is their home and duct system. And yes … we can fix it!
See more articles from this issue here!