Attack the Distribution System First, Studying Airflow
For greater profit and satisfaction, pause the replacements and follow the airflow
Take a minute to dream up a testimonial worth putting on an HVAC contractor’s website, on all the vehicles, and in a radio spot. Most people won’t come up with a better one than “We Didn’t Know What Comfort Was” until they called Firm X.
As it turns out, Mark Pippin didn’t have to dream it up, because Firm X is Pippin Brothers Home Services in Lawton, Oklahoma.
“And not just one or two customers, but a bunch of them,” said owner Mark Pippin. “We knew we hit the right spot.”
Attack the Distribution System, Then Replace Equipment
The philosophy that led Pippin to that moment is no secret. National Comfort Institute (NCI) president Rob Falke has been promoting it for quite a few years now, and one might sum it up as: First, attack the distribution system. Second, replace equipment.
Open by inspecting, measuring, and diagnosing, he tells contractors. Then, before anything else, focus on any appropriate duct solutions.
Some contractors express concern to him about “getting shopped” by customers — taking the information offered on an initial evaluation over to the competition. Falke advised handling this by giving customers the airflow, static pressure, and system temperature information from his testing at that point, but not the detailed scope of work.
In his opinion, that post-testing conversation also represents a key opportunity that many companies miss.
“Change the subject to what’s important to the customer, and you have a distinct advantage” over the competition, according to Falke. Or rather, stay on the subject — the condition of the customer’s ductwork — and resist straying into trying to win the job by talking about “your company’s age or annual revenue.”
Falke said the short answer for why contractors should concentrate on the condition and performance of the air distribution system first is simple. It might be unusual, but it generates “superior retrofit project results” for the homeowner. For the contractor, he said that the experience of others reveals that another benefit of this philosophy shows up in the form of significantly reduced warranty costs and callbacks.
WORKING STRESSED: At his AHR session, National Comfort Institute president Rob Falke characterized a typical air distribution system’s health by comparing it to a human whose blood pressure is 210/130. Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Josie Walck
In his view, the problem at hand — and also the opportunity — is that most systems are hardly running like they should. Putting the status quo for residential air distribution systems in relatable blood pressure terms, Falke said that “typical fan/system static pressure is equivalent to 210 over 130.”
That is a case of working too hard to deliver something less than what the customer should be receiving from the system, he said, and a homeowner who has called an HVAC company obviously knows something isn’t right.
“A study of seven duct-first equipment-second projects documented the average system jumped from an installed system EER of 6.42 to 8.95,” he explained. “That’s a 39 percent improvement. Equipment replacement alone can rarely boast such an increase.”
The improvements varied greatly from case to case, but that set reflected the differences in each particular situation, he explained, mirroring a true variety of calls.
Falke acknowledged that the shift in thinking (and doing business) is not simple, but advised contractors to do three things.
“Question the results of your current replacement projects. Invest time assessing the duct system and its impact on the equipment on one job. Or, prepare to respond to an evaluation of the performance of your own equipment changeout project.”
On the business side of the business, Falke preaches finding “the sweet spot of install quality and price” with this approach. In other words, recognize how close to perfect a contractor can make the new system, at an investment of time and resources that makes sense for their profit margins.
While Falke said the approach can typically yield a sweet spot of 85 to 90 percent, he noted that “often, a contractor might verify/test their own work and find themselves around 65 percent, then commit to work that number upward” using this method.
Falke relayed that contractors who move to this strategy tend not to go back to the old ways of doing business. Some have told him that they now felt it would be “immoral” to simply change out equipment without providing this sort of duct-centric attention. One of the approach’s adherents described the previous standard operating procedure another way.
“That ain’t right.”
Static Pressure Testing Can Help Duct System Work To Perfection
Mark Pippin and his brother founded their company to do commercial work in 1978. To meet requests, they opened a residential side in 1990, which enjoyed a certain level of success.
PLOTTING A COURSE: Static pressures taken at the equipment help evaluate supply and return duct system resistance to airflow and are also used to plot fan airflow.
Then one day when NCI was fairly new, Pippin went to a seminar outlining the philosophy built around airflow.
“It’s just like a light bulb went off in my head,” Pippin said. “Well,” he remembered thinking, “that’s going to separate us from everybody.”
And it did — eventually. Pippin brought an NCI trainer to Lawton for a couple of weeks. On one hand, he realized that this approach would let his team find and solve problems that they couldn’t figure out before. On the other hand, the transition proved hard for the team.
“Harder than going flat rate,” Pippin figures now. With techs, he recalled, he found it “very difficult … to go in and change the way they do things.”
Once the training ended, his crew went back to work, and the transition continued. Pippin said it took six months of “pounding and pounding.” If a report came back and it didn’t have the static pressures on it, “I just sent them back out there.”
Things started to click. They established specific names for four different static pressure points and four points of temperature. Just knowing how to deal with those eight data points opened the door to a new level of diagnostics.
Finally, some of the techs who had liked the old way fine “caught on and realized that this [approach] really made them smarter than everybody else,” he related. “Then they started grasping it.”
Building on that progress, Pippin Brothers hired salespeople to use the airflow data as a sales tool. The sales team did not have to unlearn a procedure they had spent years using, so as one might expect, Pippin said this phase was less contentious.
Pippin found that his area was ripe for a good practitioner of air distribution fixes.
“Your average ductwork out here leaks about 57 percent,” he reported.
The company started solving airflow issues that might have stayed mysteries before. They started doing more balancing in accordance with the particular load. The team noticed a pattern where local builders would do a great job with running supply ducts, but “almost every house had messed up returns.”
Pippin Brothers found its new gear, including lot of work improving comfort in new additions, and that is when the new wave of stellar customer comments started to build.
However, as Rob Falke had kept in the forefront for his audience, it is still a business, and this new approach required adjustments on the money side.
Pippin does not charge for that initial testing, which does not take long.
“But you’ve got to make sure you’re charging the right price per hour” for the actual work and accounting for necessary overhead, he said, “because you’re going to spend a lot of time working on ductwork.”
He said that is why many of the larger companies shy away from this approach. According to him, they will often prefer to knock out one or two projects in a day using the common approach, whereas Pippin Brothers might get one done in two days.
Of course, a greater number of projects will not involve replacing an air conditioning unit. When that unit finally does go or gets close enough that it needs to be replaced, two factors come into play. First, a customer may likely remember and call the company who saved them a premature major expense, and now, the ductwork is in better shape and will help the new unit to perform as expected.
Pippin said that not only does improving the ductwork allow customers to feel just as comfortable with a higher thermostat setpoint, but they can sometimes sell a lower-efficiency unit and still deliver proper comfort.
These days, Pippin sees utility rebates pushing his customers — sometimes to replace equipment before it is needed, but also somewhat surprisingly, to improve their ductwork. So where his used to be the only company around doing what they do, now there are five or six.
Pippin Brothers still has plenty of work, though, and it isn’t lowering its standards. If the ductwork at a home is too bad, they will not install a new unit unless the ductwork gets improved as well. Otherwise, Pippin knows, the customer will not be satisfied, and the impression of both the manufacturer and his company could suffer unfairly. So his team works the method, and it pays off.
"Once you learn about it,” he concluded, “you won’t do it any different.”
|Test Site||Pre-CSP-r||Post-CSP-r||% improved|
Table 1: Pre- and post-system delivered cooling capacity for seven sample projects, using the Cooling System Performance Ratio (CSP-r) for comparison.
|Test Site||Pre-ICS-eer||Post-ICS-eer||% improved|
Table 2: The pre- and post-system comparison for the same seven projects, using installed cooling system EER (ICS-eer).
Static Pressure Testing in Florida
The “attack air distribution first” philosophy is not solely for contractors or residential work. Falke’s own family business was not standard HVAC contracting work but testing and balancing.
Darl Works, founder of Performance Air Balancing, followed this route as well. Works has worked in the industry since 1985, and his Crystal River, Florida, company contributes to many nonresidential projects.
While Works cut his teeth on a range of installation and maintenance over the years, his company does not do installations today. Thirty to 40 percent of Performance’s work now is functional performance testing. Sometimes, this may come as a scheduled aspect of the commissioning process toward the end of a project.
In other cases, such as the 40-year-old condominium building currently on Works’ schedule, an owner has a problem or a local mechanical contractor calls Performance in to sort out what needs to be fixed.
What the company does not do is change the major equipment, such as an air handler.
“We work on everything outside the box,” Works said.
The rule of thumb does not constrain business opportunities at all. Works said the company “has never backed down from anything of any size, and we’ll take on everything,” building a solid reputation using the NCI’s approach. Works also referred to NCI’s Falke as one of the best mentors he has ever had.
When a company specializes in identifying mistakes another HVAC professional made somewhere along the line, that presents other challenges.
“We became pretty fluent in writing letters to people who think that they’ve done a pretty good job of mastering engineering,” Works said. The commissioning and functional performance testing areas often involve project team member sensitivities around finger pointing, accountability, and reluctance to come back out to a “finished” project. Performance earns its reputation by finding the real issue, communicating well with those involved, and referring to specialists like mold remediation firms when needed.
A surprisingly common issue, according to Works, is that a set of design drawings will show one set of equipment requirements, but then the equipment schedule will somehow show selections with different (often lesser) capabilities.
Another problem that arises more than one might think involves out-of-town consulting engineers’ failure to acclimate to the local climate and its demands. Works described a current nursing home projects where the design was implemented as drawn, but that design resulted in negative building pressure and constantly excessive humidity.
Other times, the issue may be as simple as a maintenance team that “upgraded” the exhaust fans in a system, not realizing that changing one part of the airflow equation (even with good intentions) can create new issues if done without regard for the overall system dynamic. Each solution is tailored to that situation, Works said — “never cookie cutter.”
The NCI philosophy, combined with studious documentation skills and strong communication, has allowed Performance Air Balancing’s five-person team to stay successful solving problems for almost 15 years, often helping expensive facilities and their occupants in an unforgiving environment.
Focus On Air Distribution First
Pippin and Works back up the progress Falke sees in adopting this strategy.
“It is used by HVAC service companies, engineers, commissioning firms, and facility management and maintenance teams,” he reported.
In Falke’s estimation, after years of first employing and now promoting this model, focusing on air distribution first does require more effort by the designer/contractor than a standard change-out project, and it demands more knowledge and ingenuity.
On the back end, Falke sees it increasing the cost and the profit of the project, while the approach and its documented results satisfy a more demanding consumer. Not every contractor wants to sign up for that, which can translate to one final advantage — and the chance for slogan-worthy reviews — for those who do.
The HVAC Eightfold Path
National Comfort Institute president Rob Falke presents with a slide deck that goes into greater depth and detail, including several bullet points for each item below, but here is a quick overview of the eight steps in the “system first, equipment second” project approach.
For more information, contact Falke at email@example.com. As he tells his audiences, “We help for free.”
- Interview decision makers and define the project approach for them. Talk about assumptions, testing, and benefits, and agree on the approach’s principles and likely increased cost.
- Inspect equipment, accessories, controls, and the distribution system. The mission here is to discover system defects that are deteriorating system performance.
- 3Compareinstallation to design, specs, and best practices. Spot the obvious improvements and pinpoint beneficial upgrades.
- Prepare diagnostic reports with design data. Falke states that the preparation of diagnostic reports has “a profound effect on your comprehension of the system.”
- Test and record air pressures, airflows, and temperatures, and compare to design.
- Diagnose the system and document needed improvements. This includes identifying highest resistance to airflow, current fan adequacy, sizing/load assessment, and more.
- Prescribe a solution for each defect discovered and present those to the decision maker. “Interview and inspection information tell a story when coupled with system test data,” Falke said.
- Proceed with design and construction, including equipment replacement. No matter whether the client is an owner, engineer, commissioning agent, or contractor, “nothing happens until somebody sells something,” Falke said. Organize and present solutions to the satisfaction of the customer.