In order to get the desired level of efficiency, proper installation of the heating and cooling system is essential. It’s critical that installing contractors make sure ducts are tightly sealed and well insulated.
What's the big news in the new construction market? Would you be surprised to learn it's the 13 SEER minimum efficiency standard for cooling systems, effective Jan. 26, 2006?

"Right now the new construction market is kind of in flux," said Mike Owen, senior sales consultant, Dealers Supply, Forest Park, Ga.

Going from 10 SEER (the current efficiency minimum) to 13 SEER is a 30-percent increase in efficiency that will increase costs.

"From the builder's standpoint, the concern is pricing," Owen said. "The builder goes into a project trying to control costs; 13 SEER is a substantial upgrade. It's going to change the price structure. Whatever pricing they get from their installing contractor would be the determining factor."

Will that make for a more cutthroat, competitive contracting market? Not really, Owen said.

"In my opinion, it can't get much more competitive than it is right now; especially with production builders, who are extremely competitive."

Owen said that in new construction, it's mainly the size of the price tag that will matter, not so much the size of the equipment - as long as the builder allows enough space for it. The costs will, of course, have to be passed on to the home buyer. It will affect the entire U.S. new home market.

Keeping The Efficiency: Duct Losses Matter

Perhaps a more difficult task lies in making sure the customer gets proper performance from the installed system. Many things, little and big, could reduce the installed efficiency.

Higher efficiency systems have "less tolerance of screw-ups," said Glenn Hourahan, P.E., vice president of research and technology for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

"Occupants really don't care about efficiency as much as they do about being comfortable and healthy," he said.

"To ensure occupant comfort and satisfaction, system sizing and zoning are most important." In order to get a high installed efficiency, it's critical that installing contractors make sure ducts are tightly sealed and well insulated.

Airflow and good air distribution, good duct design with no high external static pressure (ESP), and minimal duct leakage are all vital when it comes to making sure an air conditioner reaches its installed efficiency potential.

"Uninsulated duct and high leakage will impact the system's ability, wasting energy," Hourahan said. If the duct system is drawing in unconditioned air through a leak, it compounds the problem.

High ESP can also be a problem when the homeowners have chosen a higher-efficiency air filter, which reduces the amount of airflow. "You need to check the manufacturer's restrictions," he said.

"I think the most critical factor is stopping duct leakage," agreed contractor Dewey Neese, CEO of Neese-Jones Heating & Air Conditioning, Alpharetta, Ga.

The company has been in business about 12 years, 50-50 residential new construction and retrofit work.

"The typical home has 25- to 30-percent duct leakage," he said. "Going to higher efficiency equipment, it's critical to reduce leakage, especially where ductwork is located in crawlspaces or attics."

According to Owen, codes in Georgia mandate that mastic be used at all flex duct joints. Be-cause of this and certain efficiency programs, "I have seen a vast reduction in duct loss in homes," he said.

Home efficiency programs like Earth Craft or Build Green require that inspectors "go in and not only test leakage of homes and check for air leaks, but also on HVAC duct systems so there is minimal leakage there."

Two technicians from Neese-Jones Heating & Air Conditioning install ductwork in a new tract home. New home installations represent about half of Neese-Jones’ business.

More Efficiency Factors

  • For contractors designing a new home system, a load calculation must be thorough and the contractor must steer clear of the temptation to bump up the unit's size. Oversized higher-SEER equipment, Hourahan said, will satisfy the load quickly and not take the moisture out.

    These systems achieve "a higher SEER at steady state," he said. "The coil is not getting as cold as it should be," which affects efficiency, "and it's not removing moisture," which affects comfort.

  • An incorrect refrigerant charge can affect installed efficiency. For new installations, "The condensing unit comes precharged, but line set length needs to be considered and modifications may be made," Hourahan said.

    For example, the installed line set may be 50 feet, when the factory thought it would be 20 or 30. The contractor needs to make sure the charge is correct for the application.

  • The addition of zoning equipment "may affect the perceived satisfaction of the customer," he said. Without it, "They may bump the thermostat up or down to be satisfied," and this affects their energy usage.

  • Last but not least, maintenance needs to be explained to the new home's owner. Lack of maintenance can lead to "significant efficiency degradation within a year or two." Consider the application, Hourahan said. Encourage maintenance from a contractor on a periodic basis; once a year is suggested by most manufacturers in order to maintain the warranty.

    Accessory Opportunities

    The nature of system upgrades may change with the increased minimum efficiency. With minimum efficiency leveled for the time being at 13, more emphasis can be placed on indoor air quality (IAQ) products.

    "I think that because of the mandated emphasis on efficiency, there will be more and more emphasis on IAQ products like air cleaners, UV lights, fresh air exchange, and so on," Owen said.

    The problem is getting to the prospective homeowner to present these options.

    "The heating-cooling contractor in most cases never meets the homeowner," he said, noting there are some exceptions, but in cases with bare-minimum equipment requirements, this usually isn't the case.

    There are two types of markets, Owen explained. In the spec market, the HVAC subcontractor "would have virtually no opportunity to meet with the owner because there is no owner yet. In a planned home, there are more opportunities to meet with the homeowner."

    At that point, the question becomes one that HVAC contractors in all markets grapple with: How do you sell something that is intangible?

    "One of the things that has really helped is that the consumer has become much more educated thanks to the Internet, online research, and the high profile of mold," Owen said.

    Equipment manufacturers are starting to take advantage of this trend. Ruud, for example, will be introducing a builder home-planning guide soon, Owen said. At the company's Web site, the builder can go online and select HVAC options.

    "It's using Internet technology to allow the homeowner to pick and choose," he said. "It's the same technology as picking a computer online. Ruud is aggressively going after that concept with the builder market."

    According to Neese, raising the minimum efficiency standard to 13 SEER is going to change the new home market significantly.

    "It's going to eliminate some upgrades," he said, noting that some homeowners will need help assessing their options. "A lot of our builders send their homeowners to us so they get a chance to talk to us," he said.

    "There will still be some efficiency upgrades," Neese added. "This 13-SEER minimum equipment is single speed."

    Neese does not believe the changes will result in increased sales of accessories, as demand for ancillary products is already very strong.

    Owen believes the industry has a chance to raise its own profile. "Homes are built so tightly now, other things become important," he said. He predicted products such as ventilators, dehumidification systems, and UV lights will become more standardized as the years progress.

    Publication date: 01/10/2005