Commercial Retro Balancing Opportunities

April 3, 2013
Take a look at the commercial air balancing business opportunity. Although most commercial buildings were balanced when new, 80% of professional people grin when you utter the phrase “Thermostat wars.” This rule often applies: The bigger the building the more problems in the mechanical systems. The need is there, so let’s take a look at how we can fill it.

The demand is high for a new breed of air balancers that are able to go beyond traditional test and balancing and step into the retro balancing arena. While competition is increasing for “match the numbers” balancing projects, new opportunity abounds for those with testing skills coupled with diagnostic and problem solving abilities. Let’s take a closer look at what it takes to enter the retro-balancing market.

About 3% of commercial buildings are new construction each year requiring plan and spec balancing. The other 97% hold a market for retro commissioning of systems that are inefficient and leave the occupants uncomfortable and often unproductive. Basic economics teaches us to go after the big numbers.

The Opportunity
Take a look at the commercial air balancing business opportunity. Although most commercial buildings were balanced when new, 80% of professional people grin when you utter the phrase “Thermostat wars.” This rule often applies: The bigger the building the more problems in the mechanical systems. The need is there, so let’s take a look at how we can fill it.

One source of new air balancers are those graduating from the residential balancing market and are moving into light commercial testing and diagnostics. Most are surprised at how easy it was to make the transition from residential balancing. Commercial retro-balancing requires the same instruments and forms, and most of the same procedures. The systems are just bigger and there are more of them. The main change is that commercial balancing becomes a project, not just a short test at the end of an installation.

Commercial balancing requires a working knowledge of the different components you may be working with in commercial systems. These include more complex controls, VAV (Variable Air Volume) boxes, return air fans, fresh air systems and building pressurization. Use caution when bidding commercial work that has components that you may not have experience with. Your first VAV system will inflict a long day of pain upon you if you’re not familiar with their functions or controls.

Sources of Commercial Balancing Work
If you are tied to an HVAC contracting company, your commercial balancing customers may come from your existing service or installation customers. Perhaps they will be mechanical engineers or architects who know you and your contracting company and already have confidence in your abilities. Existing customers are usually eager to accept new services you offer and will be pleased to have you balance their projects.

Your primary source for new commercial balancing customers may be your local competitors. It sounds odd, but they are aware of your company and many are comfortable working with you on the balancing portion of a job. When it comes down to it, you may be their best choice because if the project has a problem, you are more qualified to solve it than a balancing contractor that has no contracting experience.

Plan and Spec vs. Diagnostic Balancing Differences
Typically when contracting for a plan and spec balancing job, you’ll work through a mechanical contractor or you’ll be a subcontractor to a general contractor. When engaging in retro-balancing work, normally you’ll be negotiating and contracting directly with the building owner.

When balancing a plan and spec job, you are given a set of plans and simply adjust the system to match the numbers. Retro balancing is far more forensic and diagnostic in nature. You’ll look and test beyond numbers on a plan and include rating the performance of the system and finding problems detected by the occupants that don’t show up on a plan.

In plan and spec balancing, you issue a factual report stating the system matches the plans and specs. In retro balancing, your report also includes defects discovered and solutions to those defects. Solutions are created through system redesign and problem solving as well.

With a plan and spec job, since the report is filed, you’re through. In a retro-balancing job, if you are an HVAC or mechanical contractor, you’re often the one that will price, sell and make the repairs. If you only balance, you’ll return after the system renovation is complete and rebalance the system.

Most important is the relationship you build with the building owner. Most commercial property owners own multiple buildings. Fix one building and their next property will also need you. This is especially true with franchise operators.

Preparation and Organization
Preparing forms and procedures before starting a commercial retro-balancing job is critical. Get full copies of plans, specifications, engineering data and copies of any major change orders. Make a photocopy of each zone and number the outlets. Complete the HVAC system diagnostic forms with all the design information from the plans before testing begins at the job site. Get copies of the equipment and control manufacturer’s installation and operating instructions and become familiar with them.

Let the building owner know you will need full access to the building and let him or her know to notify the occupants for you.

When arriving on the job, spend extra time inspecting the system to identify any variations from the original plans that may affect performance. Operate the system by manipulating the controls and notice and sequence issues.

Be sure to interview occupants as you inspect the systems to learn of issues they may be aware of. Occupants will often be eager to support you in improving their comfort. Look for any tell-tale signs of system modifications meant to solve comfort issues.

Additional Testing
In addition to airflows and pressures, measure temperatures and calculate delivered BTU for each system. Once you have shot all the grilles and registers, do the final testing and finish gathering the field data. Check fresh air settings and economizers with detail. Measure airflows and manipulate the control sequences. It’s reported that over 50% of economizers are inoperable. Also test building pressures that may help identify the causes of inefficiencies or discomfort.

Retro-Balancing Reports
In addition to a standard balancing report, retro-balancing reports include more calculations and diagnostic commentary. List each defect individually and make specific repair recommendations. Include photographs of defects found and a detailed scope of work a contractor can work from.

Of course if you are also a mechanical contractor, you have just moved beyond a service agreement with your customer and into a new type of work, normally without competition.

Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute an HVAC based training company and membership organization. If you're an HVAC contractor or technician interested in a commercial retro -balancing procedure, contact Doc at [email protected] or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at for free information, articles and downloads.