Contractors striving to provide total comfort to customers without including testing and balancing are missing a big piece of the comfort equation.
"All the equipment efficiency ratings are irrelevant if the system's infrastructure and delivery systems aren't put together properly," says Benjamin DiMarco, LEED AP, president and owner, DiMarco & Associates L.L.C., Chagrin Falls, OH.
"To reach the comfort and efficiency levels that the equipment is designed to deliver, the ducting — or the piping, in the case of hydronic systems — needs to be set up correctly and balanced. The delivery mechanisms are the key to the whole picture. That's the bottom line," DiMarco says.
DiMarco believes that contractors who don't properly commission systems by testing and balancing are only doing half the job.
"Testing and balancing is 50% of the comfort equation," he says. "If you have a system that's running and pumping conditioned air into a house, congratulations, you’ve done 50% of the job. The other 50% — which is the 50% related to actual comfort, is from commissioning."
DiMarco & Associates is certified by the National Comfort Institute (NCI) for air balancing and combustion testing and analysis, and is also a founding member of NCI's National Balancing Council, which specializes in commercial buildings. DiMarco says his company's expertise in testing and balancing has positioned it well in the marketplace, as awareness of "green" grows among homeowners and building owners. His business mix is about 70% commercial and 30% residential, and the majority of the work is tied to diagnostics and commissioning.
DiMarco has found that when testing and balancing are established as the basis of an HVAC business, everything falls into place. He can present more options to clients; options that will optimize comfort and help them save money.
"We're at a point where nearly all our business is referrals, and it stems from people looking for the types of solutions we can offer. They're tired of dealing with discomfort," he says. "We take a holistic approach to our clients' buildings. We don't believe in applying band-aids. We prefer to go down the path of investigation and analysis to find out where the problems really lie."
DiMarco has two pieces of advice for contractors who wish to provide the entire total comfort picture to their clients. The first is to go through the proper training channels and become certified. "I don't mind competition, as long as it's good, well-trained competition," he says. "Knowledgeable competitors will communicate in similar terms to customers the value of testing and commissioning, which validates the message."
His second piece of advice: be prepared to feel good. "Testing and balancing is a profitable part of our business, and it also creates clients who are truly grateful. They come up to us and say, 'I don't know what I would have done without you guys.' It's the most rewarding part of our business."
40-year Contractor Thrives on New Ideas
Vince Del Vacchio, owner, Keystone TAB Consulting, Broomall, PA, says the opportunities to provide total comfort and optimal energy efficiency led him 13 years ago to form a company specifically based on testing and balancing. Recently, the company has applied its testing and balancing expertise in converting fume hoods into high-performance, low-flow hoods in accordance with Pennsylvania Act 129, which was passed in 2008 with the goal of reducing energy consumption and demand.
"I had been in the HVAC trade for 40 years, doing testing and balancing for 30," he says. "I saw a need for competent people to do testing and balancing work, and decided that I could serve building owners' needs and make a good living by specializing in it."
Today, Keystone TAB Consulting has a number of clients in the pharmaceutical and health care industries, where the company's expertise is appreciated, and vital for patients' health care needs. "We test and balance hospital operating rooms, sterile suites, and other rooms and buildings where pressurization becomes not only important, but critical," Del Vacchio says. "It's not always just about comfort or energy savings. Everything builds upon itself, and it's a complex discipline. That's where certification and experience comes in."
Del Vacchio is certified by the National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB) and the Testing, Adjusting, Balancing Bureau (TABB). He advises any contractor with testing and balancing aspirations to put in the necessary time and study to understand the process. "It takes education and practical skills to become proficient at testing and balancing. There's a lot to learn, and it takes a great deal of effort to become truly skilled in this line of work."
The reward is a devoted and appreciative client base. "Testing and balancing is part of the contract for virtually any new facility, and we also do work for existing facilities, direct to the owner," Del Vacchio says. "There's definitely a need for it."
True Comfort Based on Total Building Performance
As an example of the opportunities available to contractors in the burgeoning world of testing and balancing, one need look no further than Bob Brice, president of Cenergy, Des Moines, IA. Brice, a home energy rater (HERS), and his company, an energy consulting firm, are examples of the kinds of people and organizations that didn’t even exist a generation ago. He's been a presenter at some of the industry's leading events, including HVAC Comfortech.
"The reason contractors need to get involved in testing and balancing now, is that people want comfort, and they want savings," Brice says. "The only way they're going to get all that is if their contractors lose the blinders and really start focusing on the entire building."
Brice is certified as a home energy rater by the Residential Energy Services network (RESNET) and by NCI in Air Balancing and CO/combustion. He says it's unfortunate that an unnecessary divide has long existed between HVAC contractors and building scientists. "You can't do total home or building performance by excluding each other," he says. "There's much more that the two sides agree on than they disagree on."
Commissioning based on testing and balancing is based on the realization that there's not a single solution to every home or building's comfort needs.
"Some incentive or rebate programs say, 'If you just size your equipment properly, everything will be all right.' Other make the case that if you only seal the ducts, that's going to solve all your problems, or if you only get the refrigerant charge right, it will make everything A-OK," Brice says. "The reality is that every system is different and there are going to be different solutions for every system. That's where the knowledge and skill of a testing and balancing contractor come into play. We have to be able to test accurately and recommend real solutions."
Ten years down the road, Brice envisions a world in which homes are rated for BTUs used per sq.ft of conditioned space, much the way cars are rated by miles per gallon. "Everything will become almost exclusively performance-based," he says. "Testing, balancing, and verification will actually be taken seriously instead of as an afterthought, and incentive programs of the future will be based on an analysis of a building's overall consumption."
In the meantime, skilled testing and balancing contractors can do a world of good for their current customers by providing a properly and evenly distributed HVAC system that maximizes comfort and reduces energy usage.
"Customers shouldn't have to choose between comfort and energy efficiency," Brice says.
"When things are done properly and the whole house is considered, we can all be more comfortable and energy efficient than ever before."
Testing and Balancing Training and Resources
Building Performance Institute (BPI): www.bpi.org
National Comfort Institute (NCI): www.nationalcomfortinstitute.com
National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB): www.nebb.org
Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET): www.resnet.us
Testing, Adjusting, Balancing Bureau (TABB): www.tabbcertified.org