Defining a 'Quality' HVAC Installation

Defining a 'Quality' HVAC Installation

"Quality" Installation without a high level of verified performance isn’t really quality installation at all. Several programs are now including performance measurement, and are documenting significant new energy savings and higher levels of consumer satisfaction than ever before.

What is your definition of a quality HVAC system installation? To some, it means that it meets code. To others, the system looks really good. Still others may believe if the system doesn’t perform well, it can’t be considered a quality at all. Let’s take a look at an emerging definition of what real quality is and you can compare it to your definition.

What is Quality Installation?
Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) published a Quality Installation Standard — or QI as it has become known, (ACCA/ANSI Standard 5). The standard provided an initial effort to launch the movement toward improving quality in HVAC installations. Unfortunately after adaptation by a few regulators and the false start in a several utility programs around the country, far less than .01% of installations ever earned the QI designation.

Somewhere during the standard’s development, someone had the idea of tying energy efficiency to it. But time has proven that, as written, the checklist of tasks included in QI contains few valid energy saving features.

Also, the standard has little to do with commercial systems, and the standard has been downgraded to a residential only standard by those who use it

Without Performance There is No Quality
As the industry advances past the checklist  approach to quality, the question consumers are asking is, “How well is my system performing?”

Sufficient data is now being gathered documenting that the typical code-compliant system only delivers about 63% of the equipment-rated heating or cooling capacity into the building it serves. This includes systems in most government-  and utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs as well.

This 63% figure means that most systems are actually operating nearly 37% below what is being promised by contractors, government groups, and utility program administrators. What if consumers were aware of this deficiency in their new systems? This is the very reason why quality installation without performance measurement is being considered a bit of a hoax by informed American consumers.

In other words, "quality" Installation without a high level of verified performance isn’t really quality installation at all.

However, several programs are now including performance measurement and are documenting significant new energy savings and higher levels of consumer satisfaction than ever before.

What’s Missing?
On the surface, the elements of design, equipment and distribution installation and system documentation are nice-to-have checklist items that make for a tidy standard. However, all these elements  by themselves can be out of sync with each other.

A commissioning process that measures and documents the actual operating efficiency of the system and verifies measured and calculated performance with supporting measurements is the only way to assure the intent of the designed was ever reached.

Answer this Question
One challenging question that can be asked of each service company, technician, and installer, can provide amazing insight into the level of quality being delivered to your customers. What percent of the manufacturer rated BTUs did the last system you worked on actually deliver into the building envelope?”

If your answer is, “I’m sure it’s, well, maybe 95%,”  and if you haven’t measured it, you’re just guessing and don’t really have a clue. If you say 92% and have measured and rated the performance of your system, you are a real industry stud or studette and your customers are fortunate to be associated with you.

If you answered 78%, and that’s all the system improvements your customer could afford because the system was at 43% before you installed the new equipment and renovated the system, good for you! You know what you have accomplished — you measured and verified the improvement in performance for your customer.

More Than Equipment Installation
While we’re at it, in the retrofit market, the idea that simply replacing the equipment can be a quality installation is a wrong idea. A quality installation requires a survey and some testing and diagnostics of the performance of the entire system.

This is followed by a proposal to your customer that reaches beyond the equipment — it may include necessary system upgrades such as:

  • Adding additional return and supply duct capacity to the system
  • Replacing or modifying restrictive filters in the system
  • Manufacturing and installing new duct transitions
  • Installing balancing dampers
  • Adding more duct support
  • Adjusting fan speeds and balancing the system as well as each supply and return grille
  • Adjusting and verifying combustion rates and refrigerant charge
  • You may need to exceed code requirements for duct insulation where needed.

While these improvements may significantly increase the cost of equipment replacement only, testing and diagnostics educate your customers and often offer much more energy savings to them than higher efficiency equipment only. That’s why they are so willing to pay for these improvements.

Efficiency Ratings are No Guarantee in the Field
High efficiency equipment ratings are impossible to deliver in the field without renovating and commissioning nearly the entire system at startup. Ask your manufacture’s rep if this is true. Equipment efficiency ratings are the absolute highest efficiency possible in a lab and do not magically appear in the field. The little yellow tag is only a representation of the highest potential of that equipment and doesn’t guarantee how it will operate in the field.

Quality Installation and higher efficiency, what we all promise our customers, is assured only when a commissioned system matches the equipment specifications.

Design intent is only assured when it is verified at the completion of the installation through measurement and calculations. Engineering on paper is a good start, but is incomplete. An informed customer will take actual verified performance measurement over a rule of thumb design any day of the week. 

Our industry is ripe with checklist standards promising quality and efficiency. However, real quality, as verified by measuring and rating the operating efficiency of the system, is practiced by only the best quality installation service companies or contractors. If you were your customer, would you prefect a checklist or a measured and rated performance to verify the quality of your newly installed system?

Rob “Doc” Falke  is president of National Comfort Institute, an HVAC-based training company and membership organization. If you're an HVAC contractor or technician wanting to share your definition of quality installation with the industry, contact Doc at [email protected] or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at nationalcomfortinstitute.com for free information, articles, and downloads.

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