Audience members look on at the HVAC Contractors Forum.
MAUI, Hawaii - Matthew Smith realized he was in a fix. The owner of Smith Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Stockton, Calif., was at a project last year, trying to inform an owner and a general contractor that there was danger in starting up the HVAC system during construction. The two parties stopped him cold.

"They basically asked the question, ‘Where do you come up with this opinion? We have never seen anything in writing that discusses the concerns of an early startup of equipment. Show us an authority. Show us someone who can back up what you say because what we see is an uncooperative sub.'"

Thanks, in part, to this conversation, Smith and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association (SMACNA) are attempting to produce a white paper on this exact subject. Smith, chairman of the HVAC Contractors Council Steering Committee, introduced this issue at the association's annual convention. He came to the HVAC Contractors Forum looking for member input and certainly received plenty of ammunition.

"Over the last year, I've had the opportunity to speak to different contractors in different areas," he said.

"It seems like everyone has a horror story or something that they've faced over the years in dealing with utilizing the HVAC system for early construction heating, or a lot of times for comfort purposes, or a lot of time for helping other portions of the project. It's gone so far as for using it for humidity control for curing floors, for cabinetry work as special laminates require it.

"But what is important is that there be a clear understanding - both on the contractor's side as well as the general contractor's owner - of the complications and issues that can affect our systems that we are ultimately responsible for.

"I think we, as contractors, maybe have made the mistake and let this go a little bit too far in trying to work together with the contractors, in trying to accommodate some of these needs, but I think we've compromised a lot of our liability."

Matthew Smith, chairman of SMACNA’s HVAC Contractors Council Steering Committee, came to the HVAC Contractors Forum looking for member input on the issue of system startup, and he certainly received plenty of ammunition.

Less Liability, More Sense

SMACNA's aim is to have the white paper available during the first quarter of 2005. It is developing this white paper, in part, to help educate owners and general contractors to the problems associated with the early startup of equipment so solutions to this problem can become standard practice with the industry.

At the convention, Smith came to get input from members.

"We talk about how critical indoor air quality is. If you start your HVAC equipment during the construction process, I don't care how many times you change filters, you don't have control over that project," said Smith.

"I've gone back on projects where filters have been removed. I've seen so many different circumstances to where these systems are being operated with colder than normal return air temperatures, which can contribute to premature heat exchanger failure.

"We ultimately are responsible for these systems, not only responsible until accepted by the owner but after that point. So, we are working with industry experts to address a white paper and we felt this was a real good way to address it."

According to Smith, the finished message will be "the tool for us, as contractors, to help educate the people on how important our systems are."

"And, I think that is another issue," he interjected.

"We are trying to be more recognized on how important our essential systems are, how critical they are to the entire project. You talk to a lot of people about [general] contractors and owners, and what they don't see, they really don't care about. If they feel comfortable, they assume everything is right. And a lot of times that is not necessarily the case. So, this is a real important issue. Let's remember where our liabilities are. Let's be smarter contractors."

Contractors Comment

When asked for comments or concerns, there was not a lack of hands raised. The first contractor noted that sometimes during a project, the electrician may not be able to supply full power. In the end, the contractor noted that this could cause a problem with the equipment in the future.

Another pointed out the manufacturers' stand.

"Manufacturer's warranty is 18 months from the day of delivery or 12 months from startup, whichever comes first. The larger jobs, you are going to use chillers where you are going to need that extended warranty, no matter what," said the attendee. "You are also going to have to bring the equipment back up to its original conditions at the time you turn it over to the owner.

"As far as electrical services go, there is no way in the world you can operate systems on temporary power - period. That has to be known up front by the owner and the general contractor.

"Plus, you need people who qualify to maintain that system while it is running. And who is going to do the startup? Is the factory going to do the startup or is your own service department going to do it? These are all issues that need to be addressed before you put out a white paper."

Smith noted that, in his brief research to date, there is at least one manufacturer who notes in its written material that the use of HVAC equipment during the construction process voids all warranties. He agreed that SMACNA will be working with all the major manufacturers on this project.

Spotting Tom Mikulina of Trane in the crowd, Smith wanted to know how Trane viewed the subject. Mikulina promised to get with Smith after the forum, saying "This is a really big deal."

One by one, members relayed horror stories. One told of how he was caught in the middle of a confrontation. Due to the hot weather outside, the owner wanted the A/C started, but the manufacturer noted the company would then not honor the warranty. "I'd like to change it from a white paper to a red paper and put ‘Warning' on top," said another, which provided a little comedy relief.

Another member noted it should be stated in the specs who is going to take care of what.

"Anything to get the liability off of our backs," he said. "A lot of the time, these systems are being run above and beyond our control. I was doing a job last week where the temporary [thermo]stat stayed at 60 but the construction people got to it, wired some wires together so you have the thing running out of control."

The same member said he furnished the project three sets of filters, but within a week they were plugged. "The guy who said he was going to change them never did. The owner does not want to get stuck with a sick building and yet we are stuck in the middle."

In addition to this white paper, Smith agreed the association needs to ultimately provide warranty disclaimer language, as well as contractual permission language.

"That could be a part of our bid package, whereby we can state that these are contractor provisions in order to incorporate that in with the contractor signing. That is part of what we are trying to develop here," said Smith.

"Most of the time when this request comes up, it is a crisis situation. There is not a lot of planning. Most of the time, at least in my experience, I get a call today that says, ‘By the way, I have cabinetry work coming in and their laminates won't set up unless the area is maintained at 72 degrees and 35 percent humidity. I need someone to get here and start it up.'

"We need to be aware of these things with better planning. We need to have everyone aware and have a better understanding of what it takes."

One attendee made it clear that "we have a rule if the sheet rock is going on, we don't start. We don't care who, what, where, or when. We don't do it - period. As you move through the project, you have to be willing to stand up."

"They [owners] can do what they want, because they hold the checkbook," said the attendee. "On any project now, the biggest team player seems to be a circle of lawyers that move in at the end of a project."

His point: If you just say you cannot start a system during a construction process, you are not a "team player."

"We are looking for manufacturers to back us up," answered Smith. "Certainly no one is willing to touch this. It just happened. The more we allow them to do this, though, they are just going to continue to take advantage of it. It just has got to this point. It's time we deal with this in some way.

"Should this white paper become a standard, I'd love for it to be a standard. I think it should. I think this should be an important issue for SMACNA and for the contractor."

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Publication date: 11/29/2004