I Have Seen the Enemy...

Sept. 1, 2003
by Matt Michel The letter was stuffed in our mailbox without postage or an envelope. A headline across the top read, "From A Concerned Neighbor." The

by Matt Michel

The letter was stuffed in our mailbox without postage or an envelope. A headline across the top read, "From A Concerned Neighbor." The "concerned neighbor" was an air conditioning contractor who lived in the neighborhood.

If you think he was about to make a pitch for new business, you couldn't be more wrong. It was just the opposite. He was warning people not to succumb to telemarketing calls from air conditioning companies promoting tune-ups.

The letter said, "Do you get your refrigerator checked every year? The answer is no. Your A/C system is the same as your refrigerator. The system is sealed and meant to run efficiently for many years. My advice is to run it and not worry."

To make this statement, he either ignores or is ignorant of every piece of empirical research that's ever been performed in the HVAC industry on the need for maintenance, not to mention common sense. What evidence? Here's a sampling:

  • A research study by Gulf States Power and the Louisiana Engineering Extension Center found that an air conditioning tune-up saved an average of $32.76/month on air conditioning costs. Furthermore, system capacity increased by 9,520 Btuh or 0.79 tons (1 ton = 12,000 Btuh). The study was repeated a year later on the same homes to find out if tune-ups were needed every year and savings of over $24/month were found. In other words, tune-ups are needed every year.
  • The EPA says that 0.042 in. of dirt on an air conditioning coil can reduce its efficiency by 21%.
  • According to Honeywell, the pressure drop across an indoor coil doubles in four to seven years without proper maintenance, resulting in an 82% degradation of performance.
  • The Applied Building Science Center in North Carolina found that the average heat pump operates 30% to 40% less efficiently than rated. Not all of this is from poor maintenance, though that's the primary culprit. When technicians were properly trained on maintenance and equipped with the right diagnostic tools, they increased the efficiency of heat pumps an average of 20%. In the summer, a heat pump operates as an air conditioner.

The refrigerator comparison used by the contractor is inappropriate. While unitary air conditioning and household refrigerators are both sealed systems, the refrigerator is factory sealed, shipped, and encased in sheet metal. A home comfort system is connected in the field with 20 to 30 ft. of tubing connecting the high side and low side, resulting in potential leaks from installation or damage after the fact. What is the consequence of leaks?

Texas A&M found that an air conditioner's performance decreased 17% with a 10% undercharge. Texas Power & Light found that a 32% cooling undercharge could go unnoticed and result in a 52% performance penalty.

The empirical evidence is consistent and clear. Air conditioners should be checked and tuned by professionals annually. Due to the energy savings, the cost of a tune-up is virtually free for the homeowner. Add in the potential for restoring lost capacity, preventing breakdowns during the peak season, extending equipment life, and it's clear that my neighborhood contractor was offering the equivalent of recommending his neighbors wait until there's a breakdown before they check or change the oil in their cars.

The scariest part of the letter was the contractor's sincerity. He actually believed it's appropriate to run systems until they die. Clearly, he is misguided. Unfortunately, he's not alone. Too many air conditioning contractors are ill-informed.

Persuading contractors on the need for maintenance is more fundamental than persuading them on the need for blocking and tackling. It's the equivalent of a coach holding up the pigskin and stating, "This, gentlemen, is a football."

According to an ongoing tracking study that Contracting Business commissions, the number of homes with even/uniform/consistent comfort levels is at an all time low of 40%, down from 51% in 1994 when the study began. This shouldn't be a surprise. If contractors can’t grasp the most basic fundamentals of this business, what hope do we have that they’ll ever master the ideas behind comfort diagnostics and treating the house as a system?

The cartoon character Pogo said, "I have seen the enemy and he is us."

Pogo must have been an air conditioning contractor.

Matt Michel is the president and CEO of the Service Roundtable, a new contractor organization. Let him know what you think of his comments here at matt.michel@serviceround table.com. If you found this article helpful, you might consider subscribing to Comanche Marketing, a FREE email newsletter containing marketing tips for service companies. You can subscribe to Comanche Marketing at http://www.serviceroundtable.com/cm.