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Expanding into Large Commercial Service

April 1, 2009
If you're a commercial HVAC contractor who currently services and installs light commercial equipment, now might be the right time to expand into servicing large tonnage equipment.

Advancements in equipment configurations and service techniques have made it easier for contractors to take the step to greater service capabilities. Today, the trend in commercial equipment is toward packaged HVAC systems, with more buildings being fitted with large tonnage rooftop units or self-contained units equipped with multiple scroll, rotary screw, or centrifugal compressors.

Similar Skill Set for Large Systems

With the exception of compressor repairs or overhauls, modern microprocessor controls have made the service and repair requirements for large applied systems similar to those required to service smaller, applied, unitary systems. Modern turbo-machinery and predictive maintenance tools — such as oil wear, metal analysis, and vibration analysis — have greatly reduced the need for compressor teardown and reassembly. You still need to know how to tear down and rebuild equipment, but through the miracle of microprocessor controls, they can diagnose a system and its performance requirements. Therefore, the skills and understanding of refrigeration theory necessary to service smaller equipment are similar to those required to service larger equipment.

There are still many commercial service applications which light commercial contractors aren't ready to tackle. For instance, large centrifugal chillers require some special abilities and tools in order to teardown and reassemble the compressors.

Even 400- to 500-ton chillers may have multiple screw or centrifugal compressors, which, except for minor repairs, may not be field serviceable. A large percentage of the repairs on this type of equipment involve troubleshooting and repairing electronic circuits, and diagnosing system performance issues.

Meeting Market Demands

There are other reasons to consider expanding your service to include large tonnage units. They're related to competition, and can influence your very survival.

Today, a commercial HVAC contractor must compete with an ever-expanding field of players. Equipment manufacturers themselves are venturing into more areas of our business, as they seek to expand their service operations. Those with a national presence are trying to make national or regional arrangements, and new players are entering the market virtually every day.

Expanding to large equipment service is a logical way to expand your business. And, if you're not expanding, you're contracting; there's no standing still. The increasing cost of doing business, in any economy, requires a business to grow. You can't remain passive — and expect to meet expenses — while everyone around you is actively seeking ways expand.

More Training Required to Improve Technician Skillls

Technicians are naturally drawn to opportunities that help them learn and grow. The additional opportunity provided by large system service will motivate your technicians to improve, and help your company attract new ones. A company that invests in training quickly gains a reputation among the technician blogosphere as a good company to work for. As technicians gain more training and more systems experience, their profile and image will be enhanced.

Customers also appreciate service contractors who can service their entire range HVAC equipment. You can't say no to good clients and expect to succeed in the long term.

Be Patient

Trying to move too fast into a new venture can be risky. Start slow, and don't give up with the first setback. Be prepared for the financial impacts of lower margins, collection issues (this isn't a C.O.D.business), and competition. You're going to be servicing more sophisticated and demanding customers. It could be compared to going from servicing a small business to a building of 1 million sq. ft. However,the most sophisticated customers are generally the best ones to have.

Pat Rucker is president of Entech Sales & Service, Dallas, TX. He can be reached by email at [email protected]. Brad Bolino is president of the mechanical services division of John J. Kirlin Co., Rockville, MD. He can be reached by email at bbolino@jjkllc. This article is based on the presentation, Servicing Large Tonnage Equipment — by Pat Rucker, Brad Bolino, John Bevington of Oklahoma Chiller, and John Claybourn of ChillCo — which was made during the ContractingBusiness.com/ACCA Commercial Contracting Roundtable & Design/Build Seminar, held in Atlanta, GA, Nov. 12-13, 2008.