I know I promised to leave the controversial, newsworthy stuff to the experts - and I still plan to do so. There is, however, a very important change coming up in our industry that is going to have a major effect on us as contractors, and I think we all had better be preparing to deal with it.

This change is the increase in minimum SEER rating to 13 SEER, which goes into effect in January 2006.

I was putting together a presentation for some of our homebuilder customers' sales personnel regarding potential upgrades that they might offer to their homebuyers. This type of opportunity does not come along very often, so I wanted to use the time to make as many points as possible.

I wanted to explain the status of the industry today as far as energy efficiency and refrigerants are concerned. Then I wanted to let them know what was coming up.

That's when it hit me; January 2006 is less than a year and a half away. Since from the sales talk phase to the completion of a new home averages at least six months, that means I really needed to give these people an idea as to what is coming after Jan. 23, 2006.

Think about trying to come up with an answer to that today.

In our industry, our salespeople have found that a high percentage (at least around 50 percent) of the people they talk to like to purchase something other than the lowest-priced or highest-priced systems.

More Than Good, Better, Best

That is, they like to be able to offer a "good-better-best" scenario to the customer. Our salespeople are good at selling the top-of-the-line equipment, but still that represents less than 25 percent of our unit sales. And, we are typically not really competitive in the extreme low end of the market. Therefore, we need to have available three levels of equipment.

My concern is when 13 SEER is the minimum, we are going to have trouble coming up with two levels of efficiency greater than 13 SEER.

In reviewing the current Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) directory (which, incidentally, is available free on its Web site, www.ari.org), I find very few matching condensing unit/evaporator coil combinations which are greater than 13 SEER.

Now I realize there are other things to sell besides efficiency - noise level and comfort level being among the most obvious. But remember, we are going to be telling the buyer that this new unit has a SEER of 13 - 30 percent better than the previous minimum of 10.

What are we then going to offer as an upgrade? Will we have a 14, 15, 16, or higher SEER available, and will we be able to provide it honestly?

We as a company are very concerned about our reputation and want to make sure that a system we sell provides the advertised SEER. If that higher SEER can only be accomplished using a variable-speed furnace or air handler, then that's the way we will offer it to our customers.

But if to upgrade from 13 SEER to 15 SEER requires not only a new condensing unit and evaporator coil, but a new furnace or air handler as well, it is obvious that the price for the upgrade is going to be very significant.

Two Things Must Happen

I believe it is important for two things to occur. First, we as contractors must be committed to being very sure that when we sell a system with a given SEER that we are sure that we use everything necessary to make sure the customer receives the SEER we are selling. This includes using the proper coil, expansion valve (if necessary), and variable-speed units (if necessary), etc.

Secondly, we must impress on our manufacturers the importance to our future of having units available with efficiencies and features so that we do in fact have a "good-better-best" to sell.

While in the middle of 2004, 2006 sounds a long time away, the fact is that January 2006 will be here before we know it, and we need to be looking ahead and taking the steps necessary so that we are prepared for this very major change in our industry.

Guest columnist Butch Welsch operates Welsch Heating & Cooling in St. Louis. He can be reached by e-mail at Welsch1@primary.net.

Publication date: 09/13/2004