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What Ten Minutes of Interviewing, Inspection and Testing Can Tell You

Jan. 16, 2013
As the HVAC industry continues its migration into the rest of home performance contracting, it’s clear what services we prefer to add to our offerings and what work we’ll leave for others to do.

I arrived at the office extra early this morning and opened an email from Drew Cameron, an advocate for HVAC system and home performance, requesting “A quick method to determine what needs the most attention: the building envelope or HVAC system; without having to get into the time or expense of testing.” That’s a fine request of the president of a company whose motto is “If you Don’t Measure, You’re Just Guessing.” Let’s see what you can learn from a few questions, a quick inspection and ten minutes of minimal testing.

As the HVAC industry continues its migration into the rest of home performance contracting, it’s clear what services we prefer to add to our offerings and what work we’ll leave for others to do.

 Although there are a number of HVAC contractors who offer a complete menu of home performance services, most of us are reasonably limiting our services to controlling the load and reducing of the building. This is the real reason why your customers call you and this is also how you can serve them best.

In addition to real performance testing and renovation of the HVAC system, home performance service offers include: Building envelope testing, air sealing to reduce thermal bypasses, installing additional insulation and carbon monoxide safety. These home performance repairs resolve the lion’s share of building defects and have realistic paybacks for your customers.

Services that many believe should be offered, but generally aren’t included are: low flow shower heads, CFL and LED light bulbs, solar panels, wind power, windows and new appliances.

We’re not going to tell folks to save five bucks a year by unplugging their phone chargers or that they need to get rid of two of their big screen TVs. Basically, if there’s no payback or the savings efforts annoy your customers, most of you have decided not to incorporate these services into your business.

We are stepping up to the home performance repairs that represent real energy savings, offer real return on investment and recommend improvements that meet the preferences and lifestyles of your customers. The real growth movement forward in home performance that’s being embraced by the industry relates to controlling and reducing the load of the building.

Ask Your Customers
Your customers usually live in the homes and buildings that you are improving. While they might not know exactly what they need, they do know what they feel as far as comfort goes and know where they would like improvements to be made. They also know what they spend on utility bills. If it’s too much, they are likely to be motivated to invest money to reduce energy costs.

While they may not understand building science or how their HVAC system works, you can gather many clues to identify what they think their problems are by using a well crafted comfort and efficiency survey. Their ideas can play an important role in your diagnostics.

It is through the interview process that you will discover what they intend to spend their hard earned money on. Most customers have made this decision before they call you, and there is a reason for it. So pay careful attention and be certain to capture these important points and record them.

Use Your Eyes and Your Nose – 10 minutes
A visual inspection with a trained eye can reveal many apparent defects in an HVAC system and in the building envelope. Be sure to share these observations with your customer by inviting them to accompany you during the initial inspection.

Equipment and duct system condition – While some ugly systems may still deliver good performance some visual conditions tell a story of their own:
•    Disconnected ductwork confirms duct leakage
•    Darkened insulation is evidence of duct leakage
•    Poorly maintained and dirty equipment cannot operate per original specifications
•    Missing duct insulation in unconditioned areas assures excessive duct BTU loss
•    Missing filters, closed dampers and damaged registers.

Dust - May be evidence of Indoor Air Quality problems such as:
•    Infiltration due to negative building pressure
•    Building cavities open to the outside
•    Ventilation issues and pressure imbalances.

Humidity issues – Certain telltale signs observed during inspection can indicate high humidity conditions. These may include:
•    Sweating windows or ductwork
•    Evidence of mold or mildew
•    Moisture stains on ceilings.

Smells – Take notice and notes if you detect:
•    Smokey smells from the fireplace; an indication of negative building pressure.
•    Garage smells in the house: evidence of pressure imbalances and possible infiltration of carbon monoxide into the home.
•    Attic smells also indicate negative pressure or an open pathway between the attic and indoors.
•    Flue gas spillage; another carbon monoxide hazard indicator.

So just by using your eyes and nose you can find system and building defects your customer can identify with. They will easily understand a need to have repairs made if you educate them during a brief visual inspection.

You’ve Got to Test Something – 10 more minutes
Heat, airflow, pressure, and BTUs are all invisible. So before making any recommendations there are some fast and preliminary HVAC and home performance testing that can prequalify your customers and ignite their desire to improve their comfort, efficiency and safety.

Infrared thermometers – These handy, inexpensive and useful tools delight your customers and make invisible issues visible. They can confirm your customers discomfort and explain high utility costs. By using an infrared thermometer you can:

•    Identify uninsulated walls - Uninsulated sections of walls or attics are hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Infrared thermometers can help you compare the temperature of an insulated space to an uninsulated one.
•    Room temperatures – Take wall temperatures on interior walls at five feet above the floor after running the HVAC system. Compare the room temperatures as a quick check on the system’s air balance.

Manometers –Measure the system’s total external static pressures. In just a few minutes you can interpret equipment airflow.

•    You can also identify overly restrictive coils or filters
•    And you can diagnose if the duct system is undersized or if the duct installation conditions are restrictive with pressure measurements taken in less than a minute with good pressure diagnostics skills.

Low Level CO Monitor – This test takes no time at all. While using your infrared thermometer and manometer, carry a low-level CO monitor in your tool bag or carry one of the new personal CO Monitors on your belt.

•    This will monitor ambient CO levels wherever you go.
•    Alert you to any Carbon Monoxide levels present in the building. This will definitely get your customers’ attention and provide a teaching and sales opportunity.  

Practicing and mastering these three short and simple steps will enable you to quickly and at a very low cost conduct a preliminary assessment of any home and will in most cases identify some, if not several HVAC or home performance defects. If you can’t afford 30 minutes of preliminary diagnostics on a project, your chance of earning the sale over someone that uses these basic steps are slim.

Thanks for the challenge Drew! Remember, these steps are only preliminary, but as always, the challenge was enjoyable.

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 test procedure to enable you to measure total external static pressure, contact Doc at [email protected] or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at for free information, articles and downloads.