More and more often, HVAC contractors and technicians are facing customers’ questions about indoor air quality (IAQ), especially during moldy seasons like fall and spring. Some contractors would like to avoid the subject entirely; others feel uncomfortable because they don’t want to appear to be cashing in on the latest trend (or, in the case of post-flooding mold remediation, cashing in on a disaster).

All are left with the dilemma of serving their customers’ needs without the appearance of scaremongering, which can cause a customer to label a company as a bunch of scam artists. How can HVAC contractors maintain credibility while serving customers’ IAQ needs? In a word, education.

Some contractors have long been involved with high-credibility training organizations such as the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA). This relationship helps them provide their technicians with the kind of guidance they need to represent the company appropriately. It also offers different types of IAQ certification, such as Certified Indoor Environmentalist (CIE) and Certified Mold Remediator (CMR).

Chuck Walker, CIE, CMR, IAQA board member and general manager and vice president of Climate Control Services, Delray Beach, Fla., admits that throughout the HVAC and IAQ industries, dealing with customers poses some difficulties. “It’s tough. We’re having a tough time within the industry, trying to agree on how much information technicians should give customers.”

According to one school of thought, technicians should tell customers immediately when they have spotted a potential IAQ problem, such as mold. The other school prefers that technicians not say anything about IAQ to customers, but report potential problems back to the office for a follow-up. Whether or not this second group encourages techs to mention moisture problems to customers is a gray area.

At Walker’s company, “We want to identify and notify the customer. We can refer them to IAQA or EPA Web sites. We have even gone to the extreme of giving the guys little Polaroid cameras to take to jobsites, to give the client a visual confirmation of what the tech observed.”

Do No Harm

The important thing for HVAC service technicians is not to disturb the mold (thus sending more spores into the airstream and perhaps inhaling some themselves).

“First, do no harm,” said Walker. Don’t bang on the side of the ductwork, or try to rip the liner out, he advised. “Let’s make sure what we’re doing will cause no harm to the indoor environment or its occupants.”

Next, go to the homeowner and carefully explain the situation. You almost always have to reschedule in order to do what needs to be done in mold cases. The tech probably went out there in the first place to make a repair and get things running. He has to stay on schedule, and the work will probably require at least one other person and a longer period of time.

“It’s important to remember that the tech is not a specialist in mold remediation, and he probably cannot make a determination about what exactly needs to be done,” said Walker.

“For their own protection, service techs carry higher-arrestance respirators in their service vehicles and are properly trained to use them,” Walker said. Whether or not they need to use them is a judgment call. The techs in Walker’s company are very careful not to unnecessarily alarm customers, and they consciously avoid any appearance of scare tactics. If they open the unit up and, after first visual inspection, see a lot of contamination that could indicate fungal growth, they are advised to quietly go out to the truck and get the respirator if they have a concern.

‘High-Level Scare Tactic’

Tom Yacobellis is president of IAQA and the owner and founder of Ductbusters®, a national restoration franchise that co-licenses HVAC contractors to conduct HVAC and ductwork restoration work (Buster Enterprises Inc.), Clearwater, Fla. He also was a founding member of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA).

“We don’t let them [techs] say anything,” to customers about mold, he stated. In fact, some states’ mold legislation prohibits it. In Texas, for example, the new mold legislation will make it illegal to tell customers about the presence of mold if the company plans on conducting the remediation as well. “We [IAQA] were able to get Texas HVAC contractors and duct cleaners exempted from the mold bill.” Still, the state’s regulations clearly state that companies cannot assess and remediate mold on the same project; it’s one or the other, he explained. HVAC contractors will not need to become licensed to assess mold.

Yacobellis stated that biological contaminants are being used as “a high-level scare tactic.”

“The reality is, there are very few companies that really know how to professionally assess and remediate mold and IAQ problems,” he said.

In addition, “We have found that most HVAC contractors make it worse by performing their regular service. Customers with health conditions are slowly starting to realize that.”

Improper Cleaning

HVAC contractors are finally starting to realize that coils need to be cleaned. The problem, according to Yacobellis, is that “Men hate to clean. It’s false pride: ‘I diagnose, or I repair motors; I don’t clean.’”

Another big issue is that when most contractors change out a customer’s system, including the ductwork, they take little or no precautions to maintain a clean indoor environment while removing the old ductwork and mechanical system. As a result, Yacobellis said, “pesticides, fiberglass particulate, and fine dirt [from the attic] can be distributed throughout the indoor environment.

“Without the use of appropriate containment controls during the system changeout process, gross contamination of the indoor environment can and is occurring on a daily basis. If any health-compromised individuals live in the house, such as small children or elderly folks, this scenario can quickly become a serious IAQ issue.

“The repair-replacement industry has a lot to learn with respect to restoration practices.”

When it comes to restoring, not cleaning, mechanical systems, he bluntly stated, “Most air conditioning contractors don’t know what they are doing.”

For example, he said coil cleaning training takes about three hours. However, typical coil cleaning “classes” sound something like this: “What’s good for cleaning coils?” “I think that this stuff is pretty good; it foams a lot.”

Most repair-replacement contractors who conduct wet chemical coil cleaning without removing the coil from the unit are saturating the surrounding fiberglass insulation and also leaving moisture and biological runoff within the fiberglass insulation that actually aids in the amplification process. In other words, they are making it much worse than it was, Yacobellis said.

Inappropriate coil cleaning not only can leave a chemical residue on the coils, it can also damage some coils so that they do not handle moisture as they were designed to do. “Wet coils provide the perfect environment for biological amplification,” Yacobellis said.

In general, “Most people think the problem is with the contaminants you can see; however,” Yacobellis said, “the IAQ problem is with the stuff you can’t see.”

He predicted a new breed of HVAC service called HVAC restoration. “Most techs don’t realize they are maintenance technicians,” he said. “There is a point at which the unit goes beyond the normal maintenance cycle, and it starts requiring restoration work.”

Walker pointed out, “Any emerging industry will have a number of unscrupulous people trying to get on board and make a quick buck.”

He stated that IAQ problems need to be divided into three main areas:

1. Identify the problem.

2. Identify the cause. “That’s where most contractors can get themselves into trouble,” he said. “They clean it up and tell the customer, ‘It’s all fixed.’” When the problem recurs in months or even sooner, the contractor may get a call from the angry customer — or a lawyer.

3. Perform the proper cleanup.

When asked about reported asthma increases, Walker wondered whether this is due to better diagnostic methods and reporting. “Regardless, I have definitely seen an increase. We have had some calls from people whose children have asthma, who have been referred to us by their doctors.”

Now that’s credibility.

Publication date: 09/29/2003