Tough economies are a lot like naturally occurring brush fires. The devastation clears a lot of dead wood, making room for new growth. That’s not much consolation for the dead wood - but you might want to keep your eyes peeled for signs of new life.
For instance, current economic trends are renewing interest in the IAQ/duct-cleaning market, which has been neglected by far too many HVAC contractors. It has even sprouted a relatively new segment: HVAC restoration, which one company estimates is a multi-billion dollar industry.
According to long-time duct-cleaning market specialist Tom Yacobellis, some associations, like the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) and the National Air Duct Cleaners Association (NADCA), have created system restoration standards that offer performance- and results-based guidelines for performing this work.
There is a real need for this work, he said, beyond repair and renovation required due to smoke or other environmental damages (which the standards also address). “Restoration is the missing field from the HVAC industry,” he said. Many unmaintained systems are too young to replace, but their condition is beyond the capability of normal maintenance to restore.
RESTORATION STANDARDThe ACCA standard, “Restoring the Cleanliness of HVAC Systems,” points out that “the need for cleaning may arise when the HVAC system operation has resulted in the buildup of debris which may adversely impact the indoor environment and performance of the system. In such cases, the HVAC system will require cleaning activities beyond those performed in normal HVAC mechanical maintenance and service.”
The standard was created to return the system to a “reasonable serviceable condition,” though not necessarily an “as-new” condition. It also helps the contractor or owner determine whether replacing components, or even the entire system, is more feasible than the associated cleaning would be.
It makes this critical point: “This standard asserts that when any portion of an HVAC system is cleaned, the entire HVAC system also must be considered for cleaning or replacement as well.” It fully recognizes the potential for cross contamination within the system.
How far does the standard go? In some cases, following it may lead to complete system dismantling. The HVAC contractors who decide to enter this field need a certain level of training and experience to perform the work to the level required by the standard and local codes. This is no place for rookies or DIYers.
“It’s a procedural standard,” said Yacobellis. “The consumer can verify that it was followed.” Most mechanical systems “historically have not been cleaned,” he said. “Whatever has been done in the past, is not what we’re doing today. It requires constant discipline, checking on ourselves to reach the minimum standards. These mechanical systems were never built to be restored in any way.”
Historically, the a/c business has been installation, service, and maintenance,” Yacobellis said. “During the production of that standard and ASHRAE 180 [the maintenance standard], I was able to characterize that the reason HVAC contractors have not understood why this business exists, is the difference between maintenance and ‘restoration.’ There was controversy over that word.”
The standard defines what restoration is. “If the system has missed several consecutive maintenance cycles - whatever the manufacturer says to do - and you’re in the fifth year of operation, you’re likely to be outside the realm of maintenance. If they get to year seven and the system is already decaying due to rust and microbial growth, beyond normal maintenance, that’s a signal to change it.”
With higher-efficiency systems, however, it doesn’t make sense to replace them so soon. “Simple maintenance will not return those systems to its original operating system. Restoration fits between maintenance and replacement.”
WHERE IT STARTSAccording to Yacobellis, “Restoration generally starts with the fact that the entire system must be dismantled, restored through certain processes and procedures, and cleaned, taking the system apart from the air handler, A coil, blower - both sides of coils have to receive at least a thorough dry cleaning, but in areas where it’s wet, we define coil cleaning as Type 1 and Type 2 coil cleaning,” he said.
If the system was subjected to drywall dust during construction, it can be blown off. Beyond that requires Type 2 (wet cleaning). “Some coils actually, in a short cooling cycle area of the country, as soon as it goes back into the heating coil, it dries off and blows through,” Yacobellis said.
The standard also speaks to system restoration after a fire or smoke damage. “The fire restoration industry didn’t have any guidance for us,” he said. “There was no standard to follow the impact of the fire particulate. A/C systems that aren’t even running are affected by fire particulate, unless you have smoke dampers.”
In the future, he said a new standard may determine the amount of soot particles (based on char) that have been distributed through a fire or catastrophic event. “We have developed a test, and we’re in the process of validating the test, which validates the amount of char that has entered the mechanical system, and how it was impacted,” Yacobellis said. “It’s also going to be an ANSI standard.”
Much of the information has been handed down from experience with large mechanical systems, he said. “A coil that has been impacted for many years cannot be fully reconditioned in one sitting. You cannot completely emulsify the dirt that has calcified on the surface, if at all ... it may take several months and several visits.
“After the initial restoration of the coil, it’s part of a process. It could result in up to an additional 20 percent increase in airflow.” However, “Just because you’ve chemically cleaned the coil, doesn’t mean it’s as good as it should be,” he said. “You actually use the air conditioning cycle to restore the unit.”
MEET DUCTZYacobellis is now VP of Corporate Operations for a franchise operation called DUCTZ, which specializes in commercial and residential HVAC restoration services - done right. This is not a $49 duct-cleaning service. The company estimates that this is a multi-billion dollar industry “that remains unscathed by economic conditions.” The company opened more than 50 new franchises and earned double-digit unit sales increases across the board last year. In addition, in 2008, franchise owners benefited from more than $4 million of pushdown work from their parent company on national projects resulting from natural disasters.
“When people ask us, we don’t compare our prices for cleaning ductwork,” Yacobellis said. “Just cleaning the ductwork alone is in violation of the NADCA and ACCA standards. The entire mechanical system must be cleaned; in residential work, cleaning must be done at the same time as replacement or the system recontaminates itself.”
John Rotche, DUCTZ founder and president, comes from a business background. He started with ownership of a one-van duct-cleaning company with his brother-in-law. “I was working with a lot of restoration contractors,” Rotche said. “Anytime there’s fire and smoke damage, nine out of 10 times mechanical systems need to be restored.”
He networked with a lot of contractors, those who recognized that their customers needed their systems cleaned and restored. “Through attending various associations, I saw there are a lot of great people in the industry, and a lot of not-so-great companies doing it. There was no national name at the time predominantly focused on the restoration of mechanical systems.” It looked like a big opportunity.
“When we started franchising, our core was building a brand,” he said. “Early on I got involved with NADCA, and focused our efforts on being the best trained organization in the industry. If you focus on being the best, you’re on the way to being the biggest. We continue to focus on being the best at what we do, and have grown to being the nations largest.”
However, his big revelation came when the importance of good IAQ hit close to home. His young son was rushed to the ER with respiratory problems. “My son, six months old, was laying there with tubes and respirators.” The next morning, a respiratory therapist diagnosed the condition as asthma. Among the top 10 things to do to help, the therapist said to have the air ducts cleaned.
“It rattled me emotionally to some degree,” said Rotche. “I know how to build brands from a business perspective, but now I understood the emotional impact our business had on people’s lives. We create a healthier environment through improved indoor air quality for people. From that point on, I wanted to make sure we had the absolute best people on our team in this industry.”
So, he introduced himself to Yacobellis, who at the time owned DUCTBUSTERS. “They had about 25 franchises, we had six,” said Rotche. “Tom knew who DUCTZ was, in that both our companies were performing high profile projects down in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina.” He told Yacobellis, “I don’t want to compete with you. We’d do much better together.”
After that happened, DUCTZ got on the radar of property restoration giant BELFOR, which eventually became DUCTZ’ owner. “It was a very positive tipping point,” said Rotche. “BELFOR has been able to push down over $4 million worth of work to our owners.” That means in addition to local projects, franchisees are able to work on large-scale national disaster contracts that otherwise would not have been open to them.
The system also allows several DUCTZ franchises to partner on larger jobs that smaller companies might not be able to handle alone. They don’t need to turn down these large opportunities, but instead they allow their fellow franchises to have the opportunity to take advantage of the extra work during slow spells. It offers the power of a community of companies.
“If you can’t do it with your current staff, call the home office,” said Rotche. “We inform all of our owners of a large project. And owners come together, from coast-to-coast, performing on projects on land or sea, offering their expertise where needed.”
“We partner with many a/c companies,” said Yacobellis. The type of work the companies do as part of DUCTZ reduces their maintenance contract nuisance calls. “If you have a big company with 10,000 contract customers, what happens when the first heating cycle hits in the South? Nuisance calls due to clogged drains, and being short of refrigerant. Clogged drains are due to dirty coils. It’s a huge waste of money.
“If you have a division that sends a letter that says yes, we will maintain your system, and we have a division that restores systems. We have to bring it up to speed before we will maintain it. We bring mechanical systems back to a maintainable condition for the service company to take back over again.
“This industry would never even exist if maintenance was done properly,” Yacobellis said. But it’s not done properly, and this new growth market does exist.
“When times are good, people will replace their systems,” Yacobellis said. “Times are not good right now.” There’s a much better chance to sell system restoration.
For more information, visit www.acca.org, www.ductz.com, and www.nadca.org.