Consider that the EPA ranks poor IAQ among the top five environmental risks to public health. The EPA also notes that levels of air pollution inside the home can be two to five times higher (and occasionally 100 times higher) than outdoor levels. It's not surprising, then, that according to the American Lung Association, approximately 160 million Americans are breathing unhealthy air.
Poor IAQ can be found at home and at work. A recent survey by Kimberly-Clark, a manufacturer of a wide variety of filtration media, showed that more than privacy, noise levels, or even employee restrooms, the nation's office workers are most interested in improving the indoor air quality in their workplace. In fact, just under half (49 percent) of office workers polled selected indoor air quality as the thing they would most or second most like to improve in the office where they work.
Manufacturers, trade publications, and seminars have all beaten the IAQ drum, explaining how contractors should be helping their customers clean up their IAQ problems. It's been an uphill battle, though, as many contractors either don't believe that IAQ products really work or else don't want their customers to think they're being pushy in suggesting additional products.
The surprising news to contractors may be that customers are actually receptive to learning about IAQ products, particularly if someone in their home is suffering from allergies or asthma.
If improving a customer's living environment isn't incentive enough, contractors should think about it from a sales perspective: IAQ products have higher profit margins and can also help even out the workload throughout the year. All these factors should lead contractors to believe they should be offering IAQ products and services to their customers.
Doing It RightCharlie Martin is a certified indoor environmentalist (CIE) and the indoor air quality department manager at Woodfin, primarily a residential heating oil/HVAC contractor serving the Richmond, Va., area. Woodfin is involved in the residential add-on/replacement market, which is a good fit for IAQ products. Articulate and knowledgeable, Martin is the perfect person to talk with homeowners about IAQ solutions and also train technicians about the latest IAQ products.
"We began our focus on IAQ about two years ago," noted Martin. "Customers were asking us about duct cleaning, because they had heard about it and were basically grasping at anything to improve their air quality."
While Woodfin does offer duct cleaning, Martin stated that before they perform that service, they talk with customers about their specific problems. "Maybe their ducts are just fine and don't need cleaning. Maybe it would be better to spend that money to improve their filtration, or tighten up their existing ductwork. Once you talk to customers, you will find out what their real problems are."
Woodfin has totally committed itself to IAQ, and service technicians go through weekly training classes to learn about the various IAQ products that are available. Martin encourages technicians to talk about IAQ with customers when they're out on a service call. He noted that it's easy enough to just ask questions, such as whether or not the homeowner is comfortable or if anyone in the house has allergies. Then he, or another IAQ specialist, can follow-up with more information.
To Martin, it's very evident when his company - and indeed, the whole HVAC industry - has not done its job of letting the public know who to turn to for indoor air quality problems. "It kills me when I walk into a house and see a $400 ionic air cleaner that is basically a joke. I feel sorry for people who were hoodwinked into buying them because they don't work."
Martin continues to plug along, though, doing his best to show homeowners what the industry has to offer and which products really work for their needs. "We don't just pop in and say, â€˜You need this filter and it will fix everything,'" said Martin. "First I need to inspect the house and see what the issues are before I suggest anything."
Getting The Message OutNo one agrees more with Martin about letting the public know who can help with their IAQ needs than Jim Crowder, president, Air-Advice, Portland, Ore. (www.airadvice.com). "The HVAC contractor is the single field service organization in this market that can address a customer's IAQ problems. And, yet, they're abdicating that opportunity and responsibility and leaving consumers to fend for themselves, so consumers buy off-the-shelf products that don't work, and their doctors continue to prescribe steroid-based solutions."
Crowder is concerned that if contractors don't act soon, some other entity will swoop in and claim the mantle of IAQ expert. "The IAQ industry is headed the way of the water purification industry," noted Crowder. "The water purification business started out as a massive opportunity for the plumbing industry to address consumer concerns about water quality in their homes. They lost it. They were the field service organization that was probably best equipped to solve the problem, and they didn't do it."
Perhaps one of the reasons why contractors have hesitated to promote IAQ is because there is such a wide array of products available. And since there is no single product that will solve every IAQ problem, contractors need to learn about all of them: humidifiers, dehumidifiers, filter products (from standard pleated to HEPA), electronic air cleaners, UV lights, photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) systems, etc.
Another reason why contractors may be reluctant to offer IAQ solutions is that they lack the training needed to feel confident in their recommendations. In addition, contractors may be unsure about the best way to talk to their customers about their IAQ problems and the value of HVAC solutions.
Fortunately, there are many organizations available to help contractors learn more about how to provide IAQ solutions to customers. The Indoor Air Quality Association (www.iaqa.com) is one, and then there are companies such as AirAdvice, which can help guide contractors through the sometimes confusing IAQ maze.
"We really want to help the dealer understand what the IAQ threats are, what their sources are, and how to find them, so they can be removed if at all possible," stated Crowder.
Manufacturers are also a great source of information, and some, such as Lennox Industries, take it a step further with a systems solution approach. "Our IAQ offerings are vast, and we base our indoor air quality principles on four very strategic steps: Source elimination, ventilation, clean and purify, and monitoring. Every solution is geared around these four industry standard strategies, and we're moving forward and educating our dealers as well as our consumers," stated Adam Stark, CIE, business development manager, components group, Lennox International, Richardson, Texas (www.lennox.com).
Lennox offers its dealers and consumers the "Healthy Advantage" program, which provides contractors and consumers with recommended solutions based on the IAQ issues that are within a particular home.
The program involves monitoring the air within a home for temperature, humidity, particulate, chemical gases, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide levels. With that information it's possible to customize good, better, and best solutions that will address the possible issue or issues within a home.
In addition, Lennox tests every IAQ product it manufactures and has third-party documentation to support the claims of every device. "If our filter is a MERV 10, we have the documentation to state that it performs to a MERV 10," noted Stark. "We go through very extensive lengths to make sure our products are meeting what we are stating they're doing."
More To OfferRheem is another manufacturer that offers quite a few IAQ products, including air cleaners, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and UV lights. "Rheem is working on packaging design concepts that will, in the future, make the selection and delivery of a customized integrated healthy home system easy for the contractor to sell and install," said Steve Hawkins, manager of residential products, Rheem and Ruud, Fort Smith, Ark. (www.rheem.com).
A Rheem healthy home system could include matched indoor and outdoor units, coils, thermostats, and IAQ components such as antibacterial UV filters, electronic air cleaners, dehumidification, and energy recovery components in a ready-to-go package.
"This kind of system integration will make it easier for customers to understand the value of balanced design comfort systems while helping them appreciate their contractor's concern for delivering added value to their investment and quality of life," added Hawkins.
Providing a packaged solution may help contractors who do not want their customers to perceive them as being pushy. Although, as Hawkins stated, most consumers would be insulted if a furniture or car salesperson immediately directed them to the cheapest products.
What contractors need to realize is that they're simply communicating the many options that are available in home comfort. It's not being pushy - it's being professional.
Still, it can be a hard sell. Just ask Martin, who states that it's been very tough to get his company's salespeople on board with IAQ.
"It's out of their comfort zone," he noted. "Although upper management is passionately behind IAQ, and that has been the biggest help."
The additional sales have helped, too. "We get a better margin on IAQ equipment, and when things were slow in April and May, I was still getting calls for IAQ. It definitely evens out the business. If you want to make a lot of money in IAQ, you can do that. But if your goal is to even out your work load to not have your guys idle in the slower seasons, then this is a perfect niche."
Publication date: 07/18/2005