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Ahr2023 Succession

A NEW HVAC INDUSTRY HOME PERFORMANCE PERSPECTIVE: Modify the Building as Part of the Duct System

Nov. 20, 2012
Home performance is on everyone’s lips these days, as it should, be because it holds so many new opportunities for forward—thinking contractors. Home performance and HVAC performance are the perfect marriage, and provide a complete picture to real ...

Home performance is on everyone’s lips these days, as it should, be because it holds so many new opportunities for forward—thinking contractors. Home performance and HVAC performance are the perfect marriage, and provide a complete picture to real comfort and efficiency. When you provide properly sized HVAC systems that truly deliver 90% or better of their rated capacity, our next step may be a real opportunity in home performance.

Have you ever considered that you’re sitting inside of a duct system right now? Actually, you are. An HVAC system, is essentially a closed loop system. The building envelope is the connection point between the supply and return ducts of the HVAC system making it a part of the duct system. Presenting this concept to your customers is the perfect transition from your role as an HVAC contractor into home performance.

Doors Become Dampers?

Doors aren’t really doors when you look at the building envelope as an extension of the duct system. They are conditioned space manual dampers; they control airflow through the building envelope, which is an extension of the duct system, and directly affects how air makes it from the supply side of the system back to the return side of the system.

If the building envelope, an extension of the duct system, leaks air or has improper insulation levels, then the duct system will not function as designed. One of the things we’ve done at National Comfort Institute is to develop a quick method that allows contractors to determine which portion of the duct system needs the most attention. Is it the building envelope portion of the duct system or is it the traditional HVAC system including the ducts, equipment, grilles, combustion and refrigerant charge?

HVAC System Load Control

Since the building is a part of the duct system, controlling the load of the building now becomes the job of the HVAC professional. By being able to identify which defective portion of the duct system is the bigger problem, you can develop a game plan for how to approach each unique situation. Instead of simply throwing everything you can at the HVAC system, include the envelope improvements and let your customer decide.

At NCI we’ve coined this concept as HVAC System Load Control™. As soon as HVAC contractors learn the principles of HVAC System Load Control they immediately begin to understand the impact of the building side of the duct system, on system design and on the installed system.

Before home performance and HVAC system performance solutions can be identified and corrected, an HVAC contractor should first understand how the home truly functions in the real world. You have to understand the environment you’re trying to condition.

This understanding is one of the main ways many successful HVAC contractors are connecting home performance from an HVAC perspective. By understanding that the environment you’ll be conditioning is in fact part of your HVAC system, you’re able to open doors which previously were reserved only for home performance professionals. Understand it’s your load; you need to be the one to control it.

Home Performance Testing and Diagnostics

Many of the contractors having success with home performance are involving their customers in the diagnostics to educate them about the issues surrounding and inside their homes. With their involvement they better understand what the customer wants and match a budget they decide on once they understand the needs of their customer and their home.

By testing and diagnosing a home’s systems a contractor can pinpoint the real issues that are causing discomfort and creating excessive energy costs and safety risks. The amazing part is that the majority of these improvements directly affect the HVAC system in some way. Are you beginning to see how closely the HVAC system and building envelope are tied together?

HVAC and Home Performance Repairs

Once you’ve performed testing and diagnostics, more than likely there’ll be repairs that are essential to provide the solutions your customer now wants.

Repairs and testing outside of the normal HVAC scope of work should be requested by your customer after introducing the concept of HVAC System Load Control. Avoid addressing building envelope defects when the request from the customer was only for HVAC related work. Be certain to ask permission to perform additional non-HVAC testing as you educate your customer, and be certain to introduce non-HVAC testing and repairs in context to their relationship to building load reduction. Unless you have a direct tie in back to the HVAC side of your business your chances of success will be limited and you’ll appear intrusive.

If you’re first trusted as the HVAC professional, remember your role and your customers’ expectations. Introduce other energy efficiency work carefully, but with conviction. Your marketing should reflect the same approach to avoid a “me too” appearance in the Home Performance arena. You can lead this movement if you approach the issues from the perspective of who you are, not what a utility program dictates you should be. This can be your rightful position if you approach it remembering who you are, not what others want you to become. Do this on your own terms with your customer’s best interest as the main goal.

Rule Number One

A real risk of entering the Home Performance contracting market is that at the onset many HVAC contractors become so immersed in this new type of business, they fail to keep the focus on their existing business’s profitability. Consider how to carefully add home performance to your HVAC contracting business as to not upset the careful balance of your current business. Maintain all aspects of your current business — protecting that volume of income, overhead and profitability is your first responsibility.

There is a pitfall you need to be aware of. Say you begin picking up home performance testing and repairs and each job is extremely profitable. But, three months down the road your company profit and loss statement has lots of red on it. What happened?

While you were focusing on your new home performance business, the number of HVAC jobs decreased! You took your eye off the engine that’s your main producer of income and that covers your overhead and provides ongoing profit. You realize you’ve also diverted some of your employees from doing what they enjoy doing every day. Could they be wondering why you’ve put a caulking gun in their hands instead of sheet metal shears? Make sure you have the proper people in place to perform these tasks.

The Value of Your Existing Customers

A typical HVAC company has over 1,000 service agreements in place with ongoing long-term relationships. You are their go-to guys already when it comes to comfort, safety, and efficiency. You already have the customers, so you have the advantage every time if you decide to embrace the home performance opportunity. Your customers all have hidden home performance issues right now that you can solve. With the economy in its current state your existing customers will continue to be your lifeblood over the next 10 years. Do everything you possibly can to keep them in love with you so they have no desire to look elsewhere.

Opportunities to Grow

Only a small percentage of HVAC contractors are offering every home performance service available under the sun. Understand that these companies are a rarity and don’t represent the typical model that’s successful at this. Some services are a natural fit such as air sealing and insulation upgrades, as they tie directly to your core HVAC business.

HVAC work and improving the building envelope are the low hanging fruit that make the biggest impact. When your HVAC systems deliver their rated capacity into your customer’s homes, you’ve delivered an important piece of home performance that has been missing for decades.

Progressive HVAC contractors are finding that by performing better installations they establish a firm role within the home performance industry. Actually, many HVAC system loads and defects are invisible to most home performance contractors, utility companies and government programs. For most HVAC contractors, replacing windows, adding insulation and light bulb upgrades doesn’t seem very appealing. What’s appealing is the ability to reduce the heating and cooling load of the building up to 50% by improving the duct system and proving it to homeowners. This is only accomplished with proper design and verification that the design is actually doing what was promised.

You don’t have to jump in with both feet at once. Start on the path at a rate that is comfortable to you. Some companies will take the plunge and never look back, while others will move into home performance step-by-step as they’re able.

Remember, first, without the entire HVAC system delivering maximum operating efficiency, there will be limited home performance. Second, you already have the customers. And third, air sealing and insulation upgrades are the low hanging fruit that are tied directly to controlling the load of the HVAC System.

Remember who you are and where you come from. It’s OK to continue to be an HVAC contractor and add home performance to your offerings. You determine how to play the game on your own terms.

Rob “Doc” Falke, David Richardson and Scott Johnson serve the industry through National Comfort Institute, an HVAC-based training company and membership organization. If you’re an HVAC contractor or technician interested in a free procedure and table used to measure a wall’s R-Value with an infrared thermometer, contact NCI through [email protected] or call them at 800/633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at nationalcomfortinstitute.com for free information, articles and downloads.