The term ‘quality’ can mean different things to different people. This is especially true when it comes to HVAC installations. To some contractors, quality may simply mean installing equipment that (hopefully) meets local codes, while to others, it may mean making substantive changes to an entire home, including modifying ductwork and adding insulation.
Most homeowners do not know what a quality HVAC installation entails, as they may be more focused on the price than the process — at least initially. Only when the equipment is installed do they become very aware of whether or not it’s working reliably, keeping them comfortable, and saving money on their energy bills. If they have chosen a contractor who has a quality control process in place, they can rest assured, knowing that their equipment was likely installed correctly to begin with and that their new system will provide years of comfort and energy savings.
WHAT QUALITY LOOKS LIKE
As seen in a recent poll taken by The ACHR NEWS (see Figure 1), contractors differ in the ways in which they ensure their technicians have installed a system correctly. A large majority either have a quality control person on staff who checks each installation in the field, or else they have their technicians fill out comprehensive checklists to document that the system is operating as intended. Still, quite a few contractors seem to wait for callbacks to determine whether or not a system was installed correctly.
How do you ensure your technicians install HVACR equipment correctly?
A. Quality control person or manager checks each job. [49 votes] (26%)
B. Technicians must fill out comprehensive checklists with all systems measurements at the end of each job. [108 votes] (57%)
C. Nothing — we wait for callbacks to indicate if there’s a problem. [32 votes] (17%)
FIGURE 1: Contractors differ in the ways in which they ensure their technicians have installed a heating and/or cooling system correctly.
That’s a big concern to David Holt, director of business training and coaching at National Comfort Institute Inc. (NCI), who said that a typical HVAC system in North America only delivers 57 percent of its rated capacity to the building, usually due to airflow or temperature change issues. Many times, these conditions exist for one or more of the following reasons:
- Improper duct design;
- Poor installation practices;
- Damaged duct systems;
- Restrictive grilles and registers;
- Dirty blower wheels and heat exchange surfaces;
- Restrictive air filtration;
- Improper combustion performance; and/or
- Inappropriate refrigerant levels.
“Unless each of these areas is properly measured and evaluated, you can’t be sure the system is delivering the results the customer deserves,” he said. “Having a quality control process that is measurable and repeatable is the only way to guarantee the performance of the systems you install for your customer. If you don’t measure the performance on every installation to confirm it is working as the manufacturer intended, then you are simply guessing.”
David Peavey, owner of PV Heating and Air in Atlanta, subscribes to that philosophy as well, which is why every new system installed by his company is double-checked by a specially trained auditor who makes sure nothing was missed during the installation.
“I’ve built my business based on quality installations, and we strive to be the best,” he said. “If you’re not auditing your crews, how do you ensure that your quality is as high as it needs to be? If people aren’t getting checked and critiqued and coached, they’re a lot more likely to let stuff slide.”
That is particularly the case during long, hot summers, when installers are often tired and burned out by the end of the day. At 5 p.m., they may not have the energy to fine-tune a system, so having a fresh pair of eyes come in to ensure everything was installed correctly is essential, said Peavey.
“We do really complex installs that include a lot of ductwork modifications, so we need someone to test and balance everything after each installation,” he said. “We want to make sure the system is performing the way it was designed to perform and that the airflow is exactly where it needs to be. That kind of testing requires a person with a skill set that’s different from the installer’s, which is why we have people who are specifically trained to do these audits.”
Having someone check each installation is an expensive proposition, but it is an integral part of the company and not something that Peavey ever plans on changing.
“When we started our company, we wanted to be known as the best in the business, rather than just a box swapper,” he said. “It’s always been part of our strategy to provide a different approach that includes back-end testing. My goal is to always do everything right, and I’ve proven that you can do that and make money doing it.”
Jim Cannella, owner of Orange Home Services in Elburn, Illinois, also relies on a second pair of eyes to check installations. While his installation supervisor does not check every installation in the field, he spot checks them randomly, so the installers never know when he may show up on the job site. Technicians must also fill out comprehensive checklists that are reviewed by the supervisor, and if something doesn’t look right, he will go out and check the installation. In addition, the salesperson who sold the equipment always visits the customer after the installation to check out the new system and make sure it is operating properly and the customer is happy.
“We don’t do this as much to check on the installers as we do to make sure our customers are getting what we promised,” he said. “Quality control is very important, because it’s the only way you can make sure your customers are getting what you sold them.”
CHECKING THE CHECKLISTS
Corey Hickmann, owner of Comfort Matters Heating and Cooling in Maple Grove, Minnesota, also relies on surprise inspections to ensure equipment has been installed correctly. In addition, he has a very detailed startup process in place, which can take the installer an hour or more to complete.
“One of the biggest problems that can occur in all installations is improper airflow, so we’re adamant on making sure that’s correct,” he said. “We also check duct pressures, temperature rise and drop, and wet and dry bulb temperature, and we do this using digital refrigerant gauges. We have found that the old mechanical-style gauges are just not accurate enough, and it’s very common for them to be 10 to 20 percent off.”
Once Hickmann’s technicians complete the startup process, they fill out comprehensive checklists, take a picture of the new equipment, and upload everything to their software program so a supervisor can review the installation. In addition, they leave a carbon copy of the completed checklist attached to the furnace and/or air conditioner, so that future service technicians can verify that it was operating correctly on the day it was installed.
Making sure the system is operating correctly is something that installers at Comfort Matters definitely want to do, as they are rewarded financially for jobs that are problem-free.
“We track the installation for six months, and if there are no problems, the installers get a bonus,” said Hickmann. “When they have a financial incentive to make sure the installation is correct, that generally makes them a lot more aware and cautious of what they’re doing. We only have callbacks on about 1 percent of our jobs, so I think this system is very effective.”
Another way to ensure an installation goes well is to do the necessary legwork ahead of time, which includes making sure the design is correct and that the customer understands the process, said David Byrnes, LEED AP, owner of Green Integrated Design in Phoenix, Arizona.
“It starts with a good site inspection to take measurements of attic roof studs, attic access and clearance, existing ductwork sizes, and static pressures,” he said. “Communication with the customer is also important, so they know what they are getting into before our install team arrives. They need to realize that their home will be a construction zone for a few hours, and it will likely be loud.”
Once the installation is complete, Byrnes uses checklists to ensure the system is operating correctly. The checklist prompts the technician to measure static pressure (which he said is often too high on the return side); test condensate lines and clear the drains; make sure the unit runs in both heating and cooling modes (if it’s a heat pump); measure wet and dry bulb temperatures; ensure correct refrigerant charge, and check that the equipment is level.
“Checklists are necessary because no one is perfect and we all make mistakes,” he said. “But having the checklists and processes in place minimizes those mistakes in the first place. It’s really essential for growth. There’s no way I could remain in business and grow to be bigger than a one-man show without good training and checklists.”
Comprehensive training and checklists are offered by a number of companies, including NCI, but Holt noted that the focus should be more on obtaining accurate test results in order to properly ascertain if the system is performing as promised.
“When you consistently deliver what the customer deserves, they are delighted with you and your products,” he said. “Delighted customers willingly pay a premium price for your premium products and routinely help you grow your business through five-star ratings, testimonials, and referrals. But this requires a clear definition and design of the system followed by appropriate installation practices and verified through operational performance measurements. Consistency is the key to long-lasting quality. Here’s a rule of thumb to follow — only check the systems you want to be sure are working properly!”
See more articles from this issue here!