System Performance vs. Home Performance: Become a Lifestyle Contractor

June 3, 2013
HVAC system performance and whole-home performance are different yet intertwined. System performance is important, but the magic happens with home performance. Improving the performance of clients’ whole home is how to really "wow" them

Over the past decade, our industry has seen equipment and system efficiencies skyrocket to previously unattainable levels. Even more recently, those higher efficiencies have been joined by a massive push for improving the performance of our homes.

Government agencies and programs have sprouted. Utility companies have jumped in with both feet. Certification organizations are thriving in this era of explosive growth of a brand-new industry. Equipment manufacturers are racing to build more efficient mousetraps, and manufacturers of testing equipment can’t keep up with demand for their tools.

All of this can be confusing to contractors and downright bewildering to our clients, who are being constantly bombarded by “save energy” messages. At every turn, there are claims that promise savings, savings, savings: insulate your attic and save 10 to 20%, upgrade your HVAC and save 40%, install a tankless water heater and save 15%, replace those leaky windows and save thousands. If you add up what homeowners could potentially save based on all these claims, they’d actually be making money by living in their homes.

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True . . .

I’m not saying energy-saving steps are not potentially great things for homeowners. But as far as achieving the savings being advertised, let’s just say, “It depends.”

Virtually all the big energy-saving marketing claims relate to system or equipment efficiency. They’re all cloaked in official sounding, government-sanctioned terms such as AFUE, SEER, HSPF, R-Value, U-Factor, CFM-50, and so on. But do our customers really want to buy an “AFUE” or a “SEER”? Frankly, most homeowners couldn’t care less about all the technical mumbo-jumbo, including all the efficiency buzzwords. They invest for their own reasons, the same as you or I do.  

We need to step back and ask ourselves if having high-efficiency equipment is really the goal or objective of our clients. Do lower operating costs trump being comfortable, breathing clean air, and living in a safe, durable home? What’s the return on investment of comfort and a good night’s rest? What’s the payback on allergy relief? Is carbon monoxide safety really optional? 

If we focus on system or equipment performance only, we don’t just miss the boat, we miss the whole dock. The magic happens with home performance. Improving the performance of our clients’ whole home is how we can really wow them.

To fully understand what home performance is, let’s start by examining what it is not.

What Home Performance Is NOT

Home performance is not:

• Energy audits. Audits in and of themselves do not save money or improve home performance. Only making improvements helps homes perform better.

• Government programs. Boots on the ground, work in the trenches improves performance. Rebate programs, tax credits, and so on can be a good stimulus, but any truly viable industry must be able to stand on its own two feet without subsidy. 

• High efficiency equipment. Over-sized, air-starved, and improperly installed boxes can never deliver good home performance by themselves; in fact, if incorrectly applied, they could actually increase energy usage.

• Insulation. By itself, it’s usually significantly less effective than promised.

• Low-E windows. These have great marketing programs  . . .  and lots and lots of fine print.

• Certifications, associations, franchises, dealerships. Knowledge is not power unless you use it properly, and buying into one specific program could potentially get in the way of doing the right thing for every individual client. 

• Software or other cool tools. Blower doors, infrared cameras, duct blasters, and such do not improve home performance, particularly in the hands of a less than qualified user. Only fixing things improves home performance. 

• Renewables. Solar panels and geothermal are the “cherry on top” when properly applied, but should not be home performance priorities. It’s critical to reduce before you produce. 

There’s no leading edge, instant solution to home performance. It’s not just one thing. Home performance is everything working together as a whole-house system. Improving home performance is really about proven, practical, common sense solutions and approaches to satisfy our clients’ goals and objectives.  

What Home Performance IS

Home performance is:

• User defined. Finding out what’s important to your clients. What are their goals and objectives? What do they want to accomplish by having work done? 

• Unbiased analysis. Evaluating and diagnosing each home and determining how the client’s goals and objectives are connected with what’s going on in the home.

• Professional integrity. Prescribing solutions only after diagnosis, and doing the right things in the right order. Prescription without proper diagnosis is malpractice.

• Economically viable solutions. Understanding and customizing solutions to fit clients’ budgets, and educating them on paybacks and alternatives so they can make the best decision for their family. 

• Comfort. Providing even temperatures, draft-free rooms, acceptable noise levels, proper humidity levels, and whatever else the client defines as being important. 

• Health and safety. Providing clean air, ensuring properly working combustion appliances, solving moisture issues, and identifying the types, location, and performance of combustion vents, asbestos-like materials, organic substances, lead paint, and other hazards in the home.

• Energy. Determining how the home is using, losing, and wasting energy, and connecting this knowledge with the client’s goals and objectives.

Become a Lifestyle Contractor

Home performance is about integrated comfort and energy solutions that encompass a client’s entire home. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as HVAC contractors, or even home performance contractors. We are lifestyle contractors, who provide a full suite of integrated comfort and energy solutions, customized for every homeowner and budget. As lifestyle contractors, we actually make our clients’ lives better. They feel better, they sleep better, they’re healthier, they save money.

Every day homeowners across the country invest in kitchens, bathrooms, landscaping, and so on. They don’t make these large investments because the new kitchen will make their food taste better, or the new bathroom will get them cleaner, or the landscaping will save them money. They do it because in some way it improves their lifestyle. Similarly, they’re not interested in system or equipment performance measured in AFUE or SEER; they really want home performance, measured in their own terms, based on their individual lifestyles.

“Box” contractors are set to be the next dinosaurs of the contracting industry. You must ask yourself, as a professional lifestyle contractor, “What’s the value to any homeowner of a high-efficiency box if it doesn’t address their core concerns or objectives?” What good is a 97% AFUE, modulating, variable-speed furnace that doesn’t address their drafty kitchen? How useful is a 20-SEER, two-stage, communicating air conditioner if it actually compounds allergy symptoms with its high-static, variable-speed blower? How much energy savings from complicated, expensive systems or equipment will even be realized in the real world? And, how much of that savings will be given back in the form of higher costs of ownership for service when it malfunctions?

In its most basic concept, system/equipment performance is like a snapshot, whereas home performance is like an entire movie. The bottom line is home performance trumps system performance every time.

You Decide: Real-World Examples

Case 1: High SEER vs Basic SEER 

Of course a high-SEER cooling system is always better. Unless:

• It’s connected to a leaky duct system in the attic, either sucking in hot, stinky attic air, or losing precious cool, dehumidified air before it gets delivered to the conditioned space.

• It’s connected to a marginally sized duct system, with minimal duct insulation, so that airflow levels are reduced and the crisp, cool air inside the ducts is in contact with the inferno-like environment of the attic so by the time it’s delivered it’s 4F to 5F hotter than when it left the evaporator coil.

• It’s installed in an under-ventilated, untreated attic that heats up like a blast furnace, so that all the conditioned air is being warmed throughout the entire system, including ducts and equipment.

In these cases, the client’s goals and objectives might be better satisfied with an integrated home performance solution, such as a basic SEER system, with ductwork modifications to ensure proper airflow within the design static pressure range, duct sealing to eliminate those comfort and energy-wasting duct  leaks, duct insulation repairs or clean-up, a radiant barrier to reduce the attic  temperature, and a properly sized air conditioning system.

A basic system efficiency solution would result in a similar investment for this client, but it would translate into a much higher level of overall home performance. Yes, our system’s SEER rating is lower, but so is the size/capacity of our system. We’re no longer conditioning the hot attic, or cross-contaminating the “bad air” from the attic with the “good air” inside the home. The proper amount of cool, crisp air is being delivered to home with minimal waste or loss. Our client’s system cools and dehumidifies better, there are fewer hot spots, allergy symptoms are relieved, and their system will last longer because it’s not operating under hostile conditions constantly. Home performance beats system performance.

Case 2: High AFUE vs. Basic AFUE

Of course a high-AFUE modulating heating system is always better. Unless:

• It’s connected to a leaky house, with tons of can lights, a pull-down attic stair, an open sump pump pit or vented crawlspace.

• It’s connected to a marginally sized duct system, with only one central return in the hallway.

• It’s installed in mechanical room with a natural-draft, fossil fuel water heater, and has a “convenient” filter slot so the client can change his or her own filter.

Again, in these situations the client’s goals and objectives might be better satisfied with an integrated home performance solution, such as a basic AFUE system with air-sealing treatment including light covers and an attic stair cover, a sump pump liner and airtight cover, crawlspace encapsulation and/or thermal and pressure boundary relocation, additional returns to isolated rooms, and a smaller, right-sized furnace.

A basic system efficiency solution would result in a relatively similar investment for this client, but it would translate into a much higher level of overall home performance. Sure, our system doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the super furnace, but it is a lower size/capacity. We’re no longer losing excessive amounts of air from inside the home leaking up into the attic by stack effect; ice dam problems are also solved. The proper balance of warm air is being supplied and returned from all areas of the home without duct pressure imbalance induced infiltration or exfiltration. Our client’s home is cozier, their system heats better, there are less drafts, allergy symptoms are relieved, health risks are resolved or eliminated, and their home will last longer because it’s not operating with nasty air constantly being drawn from “bad areas” up into the conditioned space. Home performance beats system performance.

Case 3: Solar PV vs. Energy Conservation

Of course solar PV to generate your own electricity is a great idea. Unless:

• It’s installed on an leaky, under-insulated house.

• It’s connected to an older, lower efficiency HVAC system, with marginal airflow.

In these cases, the client’s goals and objectives might be better satisfied with basic energy conservation improvements such as an air-sealing treatment, upgraded attic insulation, retiring the old, inefficient HVAC system and replacing it with a smaller, right-sized furnace and AC, or possibly installing a hybrid system to take advantage of PV-generated electricity.

An energy conservation solution would result in a substantially smaller investment for this client, plus it would translate into a much higher level of overall home performance. Sure, our system doesn’t have all the flash of roof full of solar panels, but it has made the home substantially more efficient and comfortable. We’re no longer losing energy from unnecessary air lost due to stack effect, and our transmission heat gains/losses have also been reduced. The proper amount of conditioned air is being delivered. Our client’s home is more comfortable year-round, their system heats and cools better, and their investment in solar PV may actually be reduced, because a smaller system might be able to meet their reduced consumption, and it will actually have a better return on investment, too, because less of the generated energy will be used, lost, or wasted. Home performance beats system performance. 

These are just some basic examples of how to consider system/equipment performance versus home performance.

Tom Casey Jr. is the chief quality officer of Climate Partners, Milford, CT. He can be reached at [email protected].