High fuel costs, alternative fuel sources, changes in energy efficiency ratings, deregulation, rolling blackouts, summer brownouts, interruptible service, and the list goes on. Although hvacr contractors may have a good grasp of the costs associated with energy efficiency, it’s a safe bet that many homeowners and business owners don’t share that same luxury.

And why should they? They depend on our trade to provide solutions. And with the fluidity of the energy market and the products served by it, now is a critical time to be in a position to offer advice and sell upgrades in order to lower energy bills and ensure a happy, loyal customer base.

The News asked its contractor consultants the following question: “In light of the ever-increasing energy prices, do you suggest any of the following to your customers?”

  • Switching to a more efficient system;
  • Programmable thermostats;
  • Energy conservation;
  • Frequent filter changes and inspections;
  • Alternative systems (e.g., radiant or baseboard heat); or
  • Other.
  • Here’s how some of our panelists responded.

    Residential Customers

    Tom DiPietro is very explicit with his suggestions. “We try to sell high-efficiency equipment all of the time. The homeowners usually do not see the justification in higher prices when it comes to a/c because of the amount of hours they use a/c. Heating, on the other hand, is no question.

    “Programmable thermostats are figured into every job unless the homeowner doesn’t want them. We try and recommend things like humidifiers, so the customer can keep the heat at a lower setting and still feel warm. The programmable thermostats can be utilized so the heat or a/c doesn’t run longer than needed.

    “We also make every attempt to sell service contracts to every customer and stress the importance of servicing and proper operation. In addition, we work to customize the homeowner’s system to their needs and wants.

    “Apparently, customers need to learn the hard way. High winter energy bills result in more energy-efficient heating equipment. Despite the saturation of news regarding the California electricity shortage and very high electric rates, New England has not had a very hard time selling high-efficiency a/c systems.”

    Bob Dobrowski stated, “We have elected to take a proactive approach as compared to reactive. Do you jump on the bandwagon or bail out because of fear? Some companies may elect to downsize, fearing consumer reaction will affect sales.

    “We are only selling higher-efficiency equipment. We are educating customers of their options. Those that are purchasing are buying the higher efficiency — with a service contract — and asking how they can run their units less frequently. This includes selling a programmable thermostat with each job.

    “When selling and installing higher-efficiency equipment (at higher costs), labor and material costs usually equal out. The bottom line is higher gross profits.”

    Bill Flynn said, “Several years ago we developed a building tune-up checklist using tasking from EPA’s Energy Star Program, which incorporates preventive maintenance as part of a ‘Build-ing Tune-Up.’

    “The objective of this tune-up is to make buildings more energy efficient through maintenance activities and other procedures that are free or low-cost, and thus profitable on their own. The checklist is full of simple tasks that are very effective. Potential savings can reach up to 15% of annual energy cost.

    “We use this ‘Energy Saver Tasking’ two ways. First, we incorporate these tasks in every comprehensive preventive maintenance program we sell, adding value to customers and differentiating us. Second, each spring we send out mailers to prospective customers using these tasks as reminders of the value of a spring start-up plan, reinforcing the message that quality maintenance reduces costs.”

    Harry Friedman suggested, “Switching to a higher-efficiency system will save operating costs. If, for example, the customer up-grades a 10-SEER system to a 14-SEER system, they can potentially realize a savings of 40% of operating cost.

    “This question is, will the savings per month justify the investment? In Florida, most of us operate our cooling system for a significant portion of the year, so the savings is more dramatic and a higher-efficiency system often makes sense. However, we also have many seasonal residents who would not benefit from the higher efficiency.

    “Here are other energy-saving measures that we often use:

  • Heat recovery systems that capture heat produced from the cooling system’s condenser to heat the water in the home;
  • Zoning the home so that each area of the home is controlled at the operating temperature needed; and
  • The use of ceiling fans, which allows the homeowner to raise the thermostat a few degrees.”
  • Steve Miles said, “With energy prices on the rise and no end in sight, it only seems right to recommend energy conservation to our clients.

    “In my opinion, a high-efficiency heat pump matched to a high-efficiency gas furnace is probably the best of all worlds. You receive the most economical way to heat — short of cutting a lot of wood — that there is. Depending on which form of energy is the best value at the time, you have an energy-efficient way of heating with it.

    “Studies have shown that dirty, unmaintained equipment can lose up to 25% of its efficiency. High-efficiency air cleaners coupled with maintenance agreements are no-brainers for energy conservation and equipment longevity. We include a maintenance agreement on all equipment we install.”

    Scott Getzschman said, “My recommendation for systems less than 10 years old would be to make sure and get maintenance. This will reduce the chance for untimely problems and the need for repair. It also will allow the system to stay operating as efficiently as possible.

    “If the system is over 10 years old, the customer should be given the option of replacement, especially if they have repairs costing over $300.”

    Roger Grochmal added, “We have a very well-educated customer base. They understand what’s happening to the price of energy and, for the most part, have been proactive.

    “We are seeing a wholesale shift towards high-efficiency furnace installations. We are also seeing a big interest in radiant systems and have begun to recommend these to our customers as well.”

    Aaron York gave his thoughts. “We strongly encourage total system replacement with high-efficiency filtration systems, humidification, etc.,” he said. “We also recommend looking at infrared heat, which can generate lots of work for contractors by saving their customers big bucks. Every customer is incentivized to purchase a maintenance inspection agreement. After all, clean equipment runs more efficiently and saves big bucks.”

    Commercial Customers

    Hank Bloom said, “We constantly advise high-efficiency equipment for all of our building management customers. These systems have been paying off huge dividends for these customers — not only in energy savings, but in remote diagnosis, which saves on service calls and overtime labor.

    “Our goal is to install a building control system in every project. We are doing that in 95% of our buildings, with over 200 systems successfully installed. We are also promoting energy wheels or heat exchangers for buildings that need makeup air. These devices have great paybacks.”

    Charlie Klapperich told The News, “Our company was founded on the practice of promoting energy conservation through various practices that apply to the environmental conditions of a building. Some of the measures we take are:

  • Installing and retrofitting hvac systems to accommodate fuel switching measures and incorporating hybrid heating systems;
  • Providing energy management systems and controls; and
  • Installing flat plate heat exchangers to provide cooling during non-peak hours of operation.
  • “These, as well as countless others, need to be continuously promoted — otherwise one is not providing a proper level of service to the clients.”

    John Spezza summed it up, “We’ve been high-ending our customers for 30 years and they have thanked us for our efforts.

    “If you have to change the old beast anyway, why not put in the best and the most efficient? It will always pay you back in the long run. This was just as true 30 to 40 years ago as it is today: always conserve your energy.”

    For other discussions involving the hvacr contracting business, log on to www.hvactv.com on the last Tuesday of each month at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, when John R. Hall and consultants Tom DiPietro and Jeff Somers host a “hvacr contractor roundtable” feature.

    Publication date: 06/25/2001