In the name of improved efficiency and consumer protection, a race is afoot to determine who will control an army of inspectors to assure HVAC systems will meet developing quality standards. This is not a new race, nor did contractors ask for it. Let’s look at some hard questions and consider some different options to help us understand and formulate what we may be facing in the future.
As this race heats up, it’s clear to some contractors that these new ventures are banking heavily on legislation to provide the needed drive to finance these armies of verifiers and force HVAC contractor compliance to assure their success.
With mounting verification pressure in mind, savvy contractors are asking some direct questions as they begin to realize how this verification race may directly impact their businesses in the future.
As you’ll often see in “Doc” articles, this is a place where the voice of the contractor can be heard. Some relevant verification questions contractors are asking include:
1. What will be different this time around that may entice HVAC contractors to buy into these new verification programs?
2. In a free market, can the benefits of third party verification ever be worth its total price tag to our customers?
3. How will the newly proposed design, inspection and testing methods of verification assure the delivery of safety, comfort and efficiency to our customers?
4. When will we be trusted to verify our own work?
What is different this time?
The reason HVAC contractors are asking this question first is because in their opinion, the need for an outside verifier to check their work is an idea that they’ve already rejected. The idea of calling on a group outside industry that lacks the experience and expertise to verify the acceptability of this industry’s work has been tried already with less than stellar results.
That’s a little like requiring a baby doctor to check the work of a dentist. Sure, the building science industry and the HVAC industry are related, but to require the building science industry to be our watchdogs is clearly the idea of those who have lost confidence in the air conditioning and heating industry. Why as an industry have we put ourselves in a position to allow this to happen?
The HVAC industry used what was available to them and has spoken on this issue. In areas of the country where building permits trigger verification, non-compliance is the choice contractors are making on more than 95% of retrofit installations. So they ask, what’s different this time around?
Several years ago, verification took on the appearance of a lengthy quality installation checklists. Since these emerging and undeveloped standards were seemingly created by the HVAC industry, this type of verification was immediately adapted by regulators since they appeared the moment regulators realized the HVAC industry was rejecting verification by outside verifiers. To date, this quality installation has been successful for an estimated 1500 systems a year over the last 5 years across the U.S. Compare this to the reported 8,000,000 pieces of equipment shipped in 2012 and you’ll find the program successful at the rate of about 1 in every 5000 installed systems.
With this poor record in place, contractors feel justified in asking “What will entice us to participate in these new programs.” What’s new? Where’s the leap forward? What’s in it for us? Where are the new benefits to our customers? What testing and measurements will provide the assurance that quality really is being delivered?
Can the benefits of verification be worth the cost?
In our free market consumers are individually deciding one job at a time if verification is a good value. If they don’t, they won’t buy it. In a real equipment replacement sale there may be three to six options for the replacement on the kitchen table. Legislated or not, verification has a price tag on it and as each customer weighs the benefits of verification against other options, they’re deciding yes or no on a daily basis.
In states requiring HVAC system verification, the total added cost of third party verification is often reported to exceed $800.00 or more. This includes not only paying for the verifier, but the real cost of selling the verification, arranging and providing for the verification, return calls to the job for both the verifier and the contractor and processing of required documentation.
The real issue to consumers is that the required verification is perceived as more energy efficiency red tape and provides little or no value to them. How will the newly proposed quality assurance change that perception? What’s in it for the consumer?
Regulators have been threatening enforcement as the solution. One reality of enforcement is that it has to be paid for by someone. Government can focus their budgets on enforcement, but that will only increase the cost of verification. Or they can encourage improvement in efficiency and comfort in ways that contractors will be attracted to and consumers will choose to pay for.
The race to have the cheapest price has created this need for verification. When contractors have the courage to sell the type of job that’s needed and stop competing on low price, many of these issues disappear and the need for third party verification won’t be necessary.
Does Verification Deliver What it Promises?
Call it what you may, but Quality Assurance is a promise made to consumers that the powers that be are placing their stamp of approval on their HVAC system. Contractors are questioning if past and proposed verification from inside or outside our industry will actually accomplish what it claims. When the current methods of inspection, testing, and checklists are completed, is the HVAC system actually more efficient or is it a placebo effect?
Although quality is implied, is efficiency as good as it could be? Are the existing testing protocols focused on actual performance or deemed savings? While deemed savings is a plausible end solution for regulators, will it stand up to homeowners who pay for verification and do not see the implied energy savings in their utility bill?
Why Can’t Contractors Verify Their Own Work?
In the field day-by-day, contractors are asking why their states are requiring a third party to regulate the quality and effectiveness of their work. If building inspectors are unable to determine what dictates a good installation, wouldn’t the contractor with proper training be most qualified and capable of verifying the quality of their own work?
Although not every contractor possesses the capabilities or the desire to verify the performance of their own systems, a growing number of contractors are capable of effectively verifying the performance of the systems they install and commission.
Thousands of contractors are already trained and certified and voluntarily measure the capacity and functions of the systems they install. They capture test data on field reports and in software that compares measured and calculated values to manufacturer’s published engineering specifications.
These contractors are so confident their testing and documentation exceeds the level of verification currently being regulated, that they are able to sell their testing and reporting to consumers who are happy to pay a premium for work that’s self-verified.
True verification and documentation is a value-added service already being provided by contractors who are willing to deliver levels of quality far above those being dictated by minimum standards that have been used to regulate our industry with questionable results.
So when will contractors and regulators begin to seek out a higher level of verification? The time is now for a self-imposed level of verification that far exceeds existing and proposed standards, and makes third party verification unnecessary.
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 free procedure to measure fan airflow and compare it to the equipment manufacturer’s specifications, contact Doc at [email protected] or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at nationalcomfortinstitute.com for free information, articles and downloads.