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How to Sell Comfort in a Green World

June 1, 2009
Is it possible to sell comfort in an era of rising energy prices and environmental awareness? The answer is a resounding YES — in large part because ‘green’ and comfort are not mutually exclusive things.

High efficiency equipment is green from the standpoint that it saves energy. That's an excellent reason for homeowners to be interested in it, and an excellent selling point for you to present to them.

However, don't forget that when it comes to high efficiency equipment, you're typically talking about two-stage capability and ECM drives. These features mean improved airflow and humidity removal, and therefore better comfort, than what your customers were getting with their old single-speed, PSC-motor systems.

At Parrish Services, we perform pre- and post-installation airflow tests to prove this point to our customers. We use a flowhood to show customers what airflow their old system is delivering, then we perform the same test after changing the equipment and the transitional fittings. On average, in what the customers have always seen as “problem rooms,” we see an average airflow increase of 20% to 38% between the pre-test and the post-test.

This difference is mainly caused by moving from a PSC motor to an ECM motor. Not only is the ECM motor more energy efficient, it also does a much better job than the PSC motor of overcoming resistance to static pressure. So this is a case of energy efficiency and improved comfort coming in the same package.

The same holds true for two-stage equipment. With the second stage running on low speed, a two-stage system is able to provide better humidity removal than an old single-speed system. Here in Virginia, where it can be quite humid, we're finding that our customers can, on average, keep their thermostats set 3F to 4F higher with two-stage equipment, and be just as comfortable as they were with their old single-stage systems thanks to the better humidity control. Once again, the energy saving and green aspects of the system also serve to enhance homeowner comfort.

Another “green” technology, geothermal systems, offer both comfort and energy efficiency, and they do it without an outdoor unit. That means homeowners don't have a noise source right next to their backyard deck, or underneath their bedroom window.

So while I have many homeowner customers who are interested in being green and energy efficient from an economic standpoint, I can also give them a number of reasons why their green purchase is also buying them increased comfort, including better airflow, better humidity control, and quieter operation.

New Refrigerants and New Windows

Another big plus when it comes to selling energy efficiency and comfort is the upcoming 2010 refrigerant protocol. It's easier to sell homeowners a high efficiency system with a refrigerant such as R-410A when you explain to them that R-22 is being phased out.

We sold, and continue to sell systems based on the switch from 10 SEER to 13 SEER. When homeowners are aware that their old system is truly outdated, and a new one is going to be rated at at least 30% higher efficiency, they're all ears. The same is true for systems that use the new refrigerants. When homeowners learn they can do something that's good for the environment, will save them money, and offers comfort benefits, they're in a good place when it comes to making a buying decision.

Here's another tip: when you visit a potential customer's home, look for new windows. We're finding that many homeowners who are concerned with both energy efficiency and comfort are replacing the windows on their older homes. But, of course, their HVAC systems are still sized for the old windows.

Based on Manual J calculations, the glazing load in the average structure with single-pane glass is about 30% to 45% of the total load. So when you go in and do an updated Manual J calculation to take into account the fact that the homeowner has now installed triple-pane, argon-filled, low e-rating glass, you're likely to find that you're able to significantly downsize a new system for that home.

Not only will a smaller system save homeowners money to purchase and operate compared to a larger system, it will also make them more comfortable. Their system will no longer be oversized, so the occupants won't get that clammy feeling that's caused by rapid cooling without sufficient moisture removal.

You'll find that many of these homeowners have replaced their windows, and are now trying new insulation, reflectants, and so on, because they're clammy and uncomfortable. The real solution is to adjust their HVAC system for the increased efficiency of their new windows.

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New Opportunities

The melding of comfort and green thinking presents many new opportunities for HVAC contractors.

We work with an energy auditor in our area and charge our customers a flat fee to perform a Manual J calculation, an infiltration test, examine their insulation needs, and so on. Customers who are interested in both energy efficiency and comfort will see the value in this. Plus, it makes you stand out from the ranks of contractors who never mention the words “load calculation” during their sales pitch.

Look for opportunities beyond the “traditional” HVAC scope, too. For example, tankless water heaters have become an absolutely huge business for us. At a home show we did in February, our people on the tankless water heater side of our booth had no voices left at the end of the day. For the next show, we're actually doing a video to answer basic questions and putting it up on a flat screen to run on a loop.

Tankless water heaters show how comfort and energy efficiency play off each other: they're much more efficient than standard water heaters, yet a customer could take a shower 24 hours a day, seven days a week without running out of hot water.

Interest in geothermal systems is also skyrocketing. We used to have conversations with customers about geothermal systems once every couple of months; now we have two or three of those conversations every day. Why? One simple word: payback. Even in a down economy, people can realize that if they're paying almost $5 per gallon for fuel oil, that the payback on a geothermal system investment is in the range of seven to nine years.

It's very interesting to us that 95% of our geothermal replacement jobs are for customers whose homes are less than seven years old, and their current systems are working fine. They're buying geothermal just because they're looking at the return on investment and the payback, but they still care about the additional comfort they'll get with their new system. To really seal the deal, be aware of the tax credits and incentives that are available in your state for installing new, energy efficient equipment.

It's true that green and energy efficiency are at the forefront of many homeowners' minds right now, in these days of spiraling energy costs. That's fine, but when you're making the sale, don't let your customers forget another very important reason they should seek you out: you care about their comfort. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they're often two sides of the same coin.

Alan Givens is president of Parrish Services, Manassas, VA. He can be reached at 703/330-5748, e-mail [email protected].