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You Can Still Sell High-Efficiency Furnaces in Today's Economy

Feb. 1, 2011
The reduction of the federal tax credit on high-efficiency doesn't mean you can't sell your top-of-the-line furnace any more. There are many reasons to own a great furnace beyond tax cuts and energy efficiency

The reduction of the federal tax credit on high-efficiency doesn't mean you can't sell your top-of-the-line furnace any more. There are many reasons to own a great furnace beyond tax cuts and energy efficiency.

Everyone thinks they have to prove a payback within the time frame a customer will own the home to sell equipment these days. You're doing yourself a tremendous disservice by putting yourself in that frame of mind, because:

  • The average family moves every seven years. Unless you're installing the new equipment within the first year or two they live in the home, you might not be able to show a payback during the amount of time they will own the home
  • The homeowner may not even have been considering the purchase contingent upon your being able to prove a complete payback, but your raising the issue can stand in the way of closing the sale.

Rather than stating a specific time frame for a return on investment, I've gotten into the habit of stating, "It will pay for itself at least over the life of the equipment."

A 90+ furnace will pay for itself in utility savings over a reasonable period of time, but, due to its lower initial investment, so will an 80+ furnace. Basing your entire presentation on a 90+’s ability to offset the price difference between it and an 80+ furnace with utility savings alone can cause a homeowner to ignore all the other real benefits of 90+ furnaces. When you consider all the benefits 90+ furnaces provide in comfort, noise level and warranty, their additional efficiency is the least important reason to invest in one.

Your best furnace fits the particular needs and desires for certain types of customers, so your first step is to determine who is a candidate for a super high-efficiency furnace. Candidates for your best furnace are:

  • Homeowners with a furnace located within their conditioned living area, such as a closet
  • Homeowners with a noise problem
  • Homeowners who want the quietest furnace possible
  • Homeowners experiencing "temperature stratification" (it's cold near the floor and hot near the ceiling)
  • Homeowners experiencing gross "temperature swings" (instead of having consistently comfortable temperatures before, during and after cycles, the house gets cold, the furnace kicks on, then it gets hot)
  • Homeowners with a failed heat exchanger who are planning to keep their home
  • Homeowners who are going to keep their home and want the lowest possible heating cost
  • Homeowners with a furnace located within the heated space that are experiencing a "drafty" home
  • Homeowners who are sensitive to the drying effects of forced air furnaces
  • Homes where installing a double-walled venting system is not practical
  • Homes where the only access to the furnace is via a bathroom or bedroom; both of which are code violations
  • Homeowners concerned about the heat from the flue vent or where it poses a safety hazard.

When we started selling the new "80+" furnaces, one of the first things we learned was, don't tell the homeowner that their new furnace will be quieter than the old one. Furnaces with "in-shot," or venturi burners, and an inducer fan, are far noise than old furnaces with "ribbon" burners. The sealed combustion chamber in the super-high efficiency furnaces (using a "two-pipe" vent system) solves noise complaints. Make it a furnace with a variable-speed fan motor, and you've got one of the quietest forced-air home heating systems you can have.

Temperature Stratification and Swing
The variable-speed blowers of some super high-efficiency furnaces — especially those with variable capacity burners — greatly reduce, if not completely eliminate stratification because:

  • The blower runs almost continuously, keeping the air circulating for more even temperatures
  • The variable capacity burners prevent temperature swings by running at "low flame" almost continuously.

Additionally, in most furnaces, the variable-speed indoor blowers will also make the make home more comfortable during the air conditioning season.

Failed Heat Exchangers
Heat exchangers that have failed or are showing signs of wear are the primary reason homeowners invest in new furnaces.

Since most super high-efficiency furnaces come with a lifetime warranty on the heat exchanger, everyone who wants the lowest possible cost, and is planning to stay in their home, should choose one.

A statement I've made to homeowners experiencing heat exchanger problems on a builder model that had a 10-year heat exchanger warranty, has been, "If you already owned the furnace I'm going to install for you, we wouldn't be having this conversation now, because the component you're having trouble with would be replaced free of charge. The only thing you'd be paying for is the labor to install it."

This same comment works equally well, if not better, on homeowners with furnaces 30 years old or more. Replacement furnaces are expensive now, but can you imagine what they'll cost in 25 or 30 years? Imagine having a heat exchanger fail after 30 years of service and getting a new one free of charge! Investing in a new furnace with a lifetime heat exchanger warranty is the lowest cost alternative for the homeowners who are keeping their home.

What makes a home seem "drafty" in the winter? Most people will say it's the cracks in the home, but how do they make a home drafty? Does the wind blow right through them? It's possible in some homes, but not likely in most. In many cases, the culprit is their forced-air, fossil-fuel furnace.

Furnaces require approximately fifteen cubic feet of air to produce approximately 1,000 Btus of heat. That calculates to approximately 1,500 cubic feet of combustion air needed to run a 100,000 Btu furnace for one hour. When that 100,000 Btu furnace runs half the time over a 24-hour day, it draws approximately 18,000 cubic feet of frigid, dry, dirty air into the home for combustion. It also expels the same amount of air the customer has already paid to heat, filter, and humidify into the atmosphere. That's what causes drafty homes and a lot of comfort complaints. It's also why people always think they need a bigger furnace because the one they've got won't heat their home on the coldest days of the year. In a loose home with a lot of infiltration, a larger furnace would only make the problem worse, because it would draw even more cold, dry air into the home.

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Try this simple experiment: With the furnace "off," hold a lighted match in front of an electrical outlet, then have someone else turn up the temperature on the thermostat to make the furnace burners light. In a matter of seconds, even before the blower kicks on, the flame will begin to flicker like a candle in the wind. That's due to combustion air for the furnace rushing through the cracks in the walls.

I've often gotten a laugh when, after explaining this to the homeowner, I've said, "One way to cool down your home during the winter is to turn on your furnace!"

The combination of the closed combustion chamber and venting system of the super high-efficiency furnaces eliminates draftiness caused by infiltration to provide combustion air by bringing all of the combustion air to the furnace through a sealed pipe. The larger the furnace and the looser the home, the more it's needed and the greater the improvement.

Humidity Control
This brings us to another major benefit of the "two-pipe" sealed combustion system of super high-efficiency furnaces: better humidity control. The recommended indoor relative humidity (RH) level is approximately 35%. A high quality, correctly sized humidifier can provide that, protecting the home and furnishings from drying out during the winter, as well as providing the human health benefits of proper humidity levels.

A standard furnace, when located within the conditioned space, is using air customers have already humidified for combustion air, then blowing it out the flue, while bringing cold, dry outside air into the living area through infiltration. Outside air that is 10F with a 70% RH drops to 6% RH when brought indoors and heated to 72F. The sealed, "two-pipe" combustion system of the super high-efficiency furnaces eliminates the drying effects of infiltration by using outside air for the combustion process.

Your customers will use less water and fossil fuel by retaining the humidity in the structure instead of blowing it out the flue pipe.

Venting Issues
Occasionally you'll run into an installation calling for a new double-wall vent system where it is not practical or downright impossible to install. Typical examples are older homes with old furnaces and unacceptable venting, hydronic or baseboard heating or even no central heat (there may be floor furnaces or wall heaters), where the furnace must be located in the basement and there is no chimney to use for venting. Often, the price of a super high-efficiency furnace with a horizontal venting system is comparable to the cost of installing a lower cost furnace (that provides the homeowner with fewer benefits) requiring a double-wall venting system.

Additionally, from the contractors (and salesperson's) point of view, the horizontal venting option of super high-efficiency furnaces often eliminates the problems associated with chimney liners and, in the case of new installations in existing homes, roof penetrations (potential for roof leakage, finding an acceptable roofer, aesthetics).

Customers who've been burned by the vent pipes of their old furnaces often find the lower temperatures of the vent pipes of the super high-efficiency furnaces desirable.

Stop referring to the equipment in terms of its efficiency rating. Doing so causes consumers to see all 90+ furnaces as being equal, which they're not, and to ignore all their other features and benefits. Throughout this article, I've referred to the super high-efficiency furnaces and the 90+ furnaces in the same manner that most of us do in order to keep the communications simple.

Let's work as an industry to change our terminology and start using more descriptive terms when presenting them to the buying public. The next time a prospective customer asks about your 90+ furnace, ask one of these questions:

  • You mean our quietest furnace?
  • You mean the furnace that cuts down on draftiness?
  • You mean our lifetime warranty model?
  • You mean the one that provides the most even temperatures?
  • You mean the one that helps keep your humidity at the right level?
  • You mean our longest lasting furnace?
  • You mean our safest furnace?

Most salespeople in our industry are overly concerned about their competition. In order to keep the price as low as possible, many don't even mention our best equipment and some even steer customers away from it. Most salespeople, when caught in multiple bid situations, bid equipment of comparable features and efficiency, then try to sell the customer on service.

Yes, you need to sell customers on service, but your best bet is always to quote them on equipment that is entirely different from the competition in order to avoid a direct comparison. For the reason mentioned in the first two sentences of this paragraph, this usually means quoting them on the better system. Try it.

Sometimes, a customer who has had several bids and only been quoted on standard grade equipment will actually become perturbed at your competitors for not recommending the better equipment. It's as if they thought the homeowner didn't have the money or wasn't interested in quality. Regardless, you nearly always make a favorable impression when showing them the best, and it's far easier to "downgrade" a sale to the lower end equipment than it is to "upgrade" a sale to the higher end equipment.

The key to making it in any industry is to find out what the public wants, and let them have it. Whether you’re proposing installing the best our industry has to offer or a builder-grade model for someone changing the equipment to make their home more marketable, your best bet is to look at your customers' needs and fill them. Solve their problems. Take an interest in your potential equipment customers. Find out what problems they've been having with their existing equipment. When you look at the features and benefits of your best furnace, you'll see it will do the best job of eliminating them and make the occupants more comfortable, and that's what it's all about, isn't it?

Charlie Greer teaches HVAC salespeople and service techs how to sell HVAC equipment while driving between calls with "Slacker's Guide to HVAC Sales on Audio CD." Learn how to BEAT LOW-BIDDERS with "Quantifying Quality on Audio CD," and how to sell more IAQ and duct renovations with "Over The TOP HVAC Sales on Audio CD." For more info on Charlie's products that help you sell more HVAC equipment and service, call 800/963-HVAC (4822) or visit Email Charlie at [email protected].