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Maintenance Contracts: Selling System Efficiency

April 1, 2009
A well-defined maintenance program is the first step in extending the life of a commercial HVAC system. It will keep even the most critical customers happy.

Financial uncertainty is forcing building owners to reduce costs. As they prioritize expenses, their building’s HVAC systems usually represent the highest percentage of capital costs and operating expenses in repairs, replacements, energy, as well as opportunity costs. These latter costs are revenue sources directly affected by failed systems, such as a restaurant with no cooling that loses customers.

The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), and other organizations have documented that scheduled maintenance reaps tangible financial returns, and intangible returns such as improved comfort, employee productivity, indoor air quality (IAQ) and peace of mind. Selling, Performance Barriers

Selling, Performance Barriers

Maintenance programs can be a tough sell. Unlike installations or service calls in which a new product is installed, maintenance is usually invisible. The improved airflow, reduced motor amperage draw, clean coils, or other improvements are not readily perceptible to the customer, therefore customers often question their value.

Some customers compare maintenance contracts to appliance insurance programs, where a fee is paid in advance, and repairs are performed at no charge. In these insurance programs, maintenance is never performed as part of the contract. Systems that have deteriorated from lack of maintenance are hidden by the original oversizing of the original equipment. An illusion of proper performance is created because comfort is achieved most of the time.

But in reality, the system runs 80% of the time, fighting dirt when it should be operating at 30% during mild weather. The escalating energy use of the dirty system is invisible because energy bill increases occur very slowly over time.

Usually, the first major symptom of lack of maintenance is premature equipment failure, such as a compressor, heat exchanger, coil, or blower fan motor. The customer then views maintenance as a waste of money — they still have to pay for the repair, though it may never have been needed if the maintenance had been performed.

Some contractors view maintenance as a task installers and technicians perform when things are slow, rather than staffing a maintenance division with highly-trained, full-time technicians. Other performance barriers include:

  1. Maintenance technicians who are relatively low paid.
  2. A lack of field supervision.
  3. Lack of documented maintenance standards.

A maintenance contract is a “prescription for peace.” When you can predict component failures and other normally unexpected events, the chaos, disruption, noise, and reduced productivity normally associated with HVAC repairs can be dramatically reduced.

The Need for Maintenance
Newer, 13 SEER+ plus cooling and heat pump systems, and 80%+ AFUE furnaces are more adversely affected by a poor installation or lack of maintenance. The coils trap dirt more readily because their fins are closer together, the lighter gauge of heat exchangers are more easily damaged by hot spots, and the thinner metal used in coils is more easily prone to leaks by the higher refrigerant pressures. Customers and even contractors usually blame the manufacturers for poor quality control when premature equipment failures occur. In actuality, the systems failed because they had reached the end of their rated useful life, having to run so hard, fighting against years of accumulated dirt and lack of tuning.

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To Sell Maintenance, Show Customers the Plan
To win the go-ahead on maintenance, the sales consultant must appeal to the customer’s behavioral needs. Some customers respond better to visual cues and others to written. In response to our more visually-oriented customer, Busby’s has developed a commercial maintenance brochure with captioned pictures of the typical maintenance tasks performed Figure 1). Less than five minutes is needed to convey the company’s commitment to spending the time, thoroughness, documentation, and a written maintenance plan. Emphasized during the presentation are ways for the customer to check their contractor’s performance, the time spent in comparison to the tasks stated and a method for checking the cleanliness of the condenser coil.

The Commercial Maintenance Work Order (Figure 1) illustrates the specific tasks, with blocks to sign off on temperature, pressure, electrical measurements and task completion. When in a competitive situation both with another contractor or the ubiquitous “Do Nothing Corporation,” both pieces successfully differentiate the company from the competition by demonstrating the commitment to professionally performed maintenance.

Documentation Establishes Accountability
Some customers with a little Internet knowledge are quick to criticize, particularly if system failures occur that they believe — based on their online research — should have been caught during maintenance. The completed maintenance work order creates a paper trail, and may even have predicted a component failure. In addition to creating customer confidence that a value is received for the money invested, the work order creates internal accountability that tasks are not being overlooked. Maintenance tends to be repetitive and if systems are considered clean, human nature sometimes causes technicians to cut corners. When customers observe this behavior a maintenance agreement can be lost or other contractor behaviors questioned (such as service department diagnostic results or repair charges).

Documented accountability is a requirement in some businesses, industries with International Standard for Organizations (ISO) standards and healthcare with The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO).

More Predictable Equipment Failures
When the temperature, pressure and electrical measurements are compared between maintenance visits, component failures can be predicted. Other technological advancements, such as vibration measurements, infrared imaging, oil analysis, and remote monitoring can predict impending system failures. Planned component replacement can be scheduled during off-hours, thus avoiding the disruption and reduced productivity associated with repairs during normal work hours.

Prescription for Peace
A well-defined maintenance program is the first step in extending the life of a commercial customer’s HVAC system. The work must be properly performed and administered through adequate and complete documentation. By predicting component failures and other normally unexpected events, the chaos, disruption, noise, and reduced productivity normally associated with HVAC repairs can be dramatically reduced. Even with the most critical customers, following these steps can retain a customer for life.

Bob Blanchard is a commercial services sales consultant at Busby’s Inc. Heating and Air Conditioning Company, a commercial HVAC contractor based in Augusta GA. Busby’s services include energy performance benchmarking and improvement, planned preventive maintenance programs, and Design/Build contracting. Bob can be reached at 706/722-8855 or by email at [email protected].