Do you ever get the feeling that the HVAC industry just isn't giving enough money to the powers that be in Washington? Why else would government mandate the efficiency of unitary air conditioning equipment up to 13 SEER and leave other, more energy-intensive industries alone?

Do you get the feeling that lawmakers are more interested in just saying they passed something to help the environment, instead of passing something that will really help? Why else would they pass a ruling that only affects the rated efficiency of the box instead of looking at the installed efficiency of the entire system, ductwork, refrigerant, and all?

Many in this industry look at the 13-SEER efficiency ruling as an opportunity for increased sales of peripheral products (air cleaners, humidifiers, fresh air exchangers, and the like) now that the efficiency playing field has been "leveled." (This contention is debatable, since efficiencies do go higher than 13.) Others view it as an exercise in bureaucracy - with the HVAC industry on the mat again.

We have nothing against higher system efficiency. It offers many benefits for everyone from consumers to contractors, suppliers, and manufacturers. Done right, it even offers benefits to utilities.

Done wrong, it has the potential to be another big black eye for the industry. And there are a lot of ways to do this wrong.

Vanishing Efficiency

There is no doubt that the 13-SEER unitary air conditioners and heat pumps certified by the Air-Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) will actually meet the requirements for their certification. They will meet their performance claims under lab conditions or risk being derated by the institute.

Come 2006, contractors, their salespeople, installers, and techs will need to explain to homeowners that new systems must meet a minimum standard of 13 SEER in keeping with new standards. They will also explain that the homeowner will recoup his costs, as the higher-efficiency system will result in lower utility bills. Or will it?

The installed efficiency of a system depends on a lot more than the rated efficiency of the unit. The wrong refrigerant charge, mismatched coils, poor sizing, and ductwork leaks can drag the efficiency down and take the homeowners' comfort along with it. And that's not the worst of it.

If return air ducts leak and draw in humid, unconditioned air, systems might not be able to handle the latent load. Moisture can become re-entrained in the airstream. This is made worse if the system is oversized because the contractor wanted to make sure the customer would be comfortable. It's a laudable sentiment, but comfortable does not mean cold and clammy.

Don't Waste Your Time

Contractors and their employees do not like wasting their time. They shouldn't waste their time installing high-efficiency systems in homes and businesses with leaky ductwork, unbalanced airflow, and without measuring superheat and subcooling.

So you go to the customer's house and tell him that the new system will save him money. If the home has leaky ducts, poor airflow, and a longer refrigerant line than the factory anticipated, how much will the utility bills go down? If the customer tells you he was comfortable with the old system and you don't perform a load calculation, or if you perform a load calc but add half a ton to be "safe," how comfortable will the customer be?

This is a warning. When customers don't save money with their new systems, when they are uncomfortably cold and the house is too humid, are they going to blame the government for passing an ineffectual law? Not likely! The only name they know is yours.

Customers will focus on the quality of the installation when they don't get what they were led to expect. Sadly, they will be right.

More contractors are becoming aware of the HVAC system, not just the box. They are offering system diagnostics and repairs, taking more time with each customer. Running as many calls as you can in a day is a hard habit to break, it is so deeply engrained. However, spending more time on fewer customers is the way to many important benefits, like improved customer satisfaction and higher profits.

Government waste is bad enough. Just because a law was passed that may have had shortsighted goals doesn't mean you have to waste your time and your customers' money by only following the letter of the law. Go beyond it. Fix the system.

Barb Checket-Hanks is service/maintenance and troubleshooting editor. She can be reached at 248-244-6467; 248-362-0317 (fax);

Publication date: 01/17/2005