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The Quiet Protest to Building Permits

April 1, 2015
Unfortunately very few HVAC contractors regularly pull permits when replacing equipment and upgrading systems. Let’s examine their reasons why.

Unfortunately very few HVAC contractors regularly pull permits when replacing equipment and upgrading systems. Let’s examine their reasons why.

Two Opposite Positions

For quite some time, in most areas of the country, the amount of building permits taken out on retrofit jobs has been steadily declining. So I conducted an informal survey. One contractor interviewed admitted he believed “The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze when it comes to pulling a building permit. I see little or no value in the requirement.”

I interviewed another contractor who pulls over 700 retrofit permits per year. She emphatically stated, “We pull permits on every single job and always will.”

Most service companies stand somewhere in between. Where do you stand on this issue?

Low Bid Process Excludes the Cost of a Permit

As I spoke with low-bid contractors, most admitted they didn’t secure permits because they needed a way to keep the price down to win the bid.

These contractors were honest with me and I wish them luck in the race they have chosen to run. Most of us are not interested in the reward that awaits at the end of that race.

Too Much Time

Others admitted that the extended time it takes to include a permit and inspection in a change-out isn’t worth it. It’s not just the time at the counter in the building department for these contractors that’s an issue. It’s the amount of time it takes to complete the mountains of paperwork for the permit application, provide a floor plan, do load calculations, travel to and from the city, and make an additional trip to the job to post the permit. Then there’s waiting around for the inspector, and requiring the customer to wait around to have the house open.

To quote one salesperson, “In the time it takes to get a permit, I can go sell another job. The process is antiquated and I’m not interested.”

Customer Perceived Benefit

I was referred to several customers about their decision to not have permits pulled by their contractors. These were the most interesting discussions I had. Bottom line: These customers saw zero benefit in paying for a permit. “Ouch,” I said.

To quote one customer who refused to allow his contractor to get a permit on his home, “What’s in it for me? I’m asked to add $650 to the price of new equipment, when all I get out of it is an inspection by someone who isn’t even a heating guy, who then hands me a document that makes no sense to me?”

Another customer explained; “I spoke with four contractors. I chose the one who I wanted to do business with. I selected my contractor based on the virtues I saw in him. I have no choice who I will end up inspecting my home. I believe I made the right choice.”

Efficiency, Not Safety

The overwhelming opinion I heard was that the value of building inspections and permits has been lost over the years. At one time consumers found value and peace of mind in having an official involved in their job. Many contractors told me that customers once believed a building inspector assured them their system was SAFE. Today consumer perception is that building inspectors are only interested in the fees they collect for the city or county, and the mandate to enforce EFFICIENCY.

As wrong as this is, customers are sold efficiency by many contractors as a rating on the yellow tag that hangs on the equipment. There is little or no indication that efficiency is obtained in any other way. In other words, efficiency is purchased from the equipment manufacturer. So what does a customer need an inspector for?

Many contractors say they have little confidence in the current methods used to determine efficiency and whether those methods actually determine efficiency at all. Nearly all contractors who do not pull permits also gave the currently enforced HVAC test methods a vote of no confidence.

Who Actually Delivers Efficiency?

Interesting perception isn’t it? What position does that leave you in your next sales appointment with a customer?  Is your role simply to pitch the highest rated piece of equipment they can afford?

Or could it be true that perhaps your company’s design, skill, and expertise may have something to do with efficiency as well as the manufacture’s efficiency rating?

Are building inspectors affecting the efficiency of an installation? How about energy raters who are default inspectors -- are they good stewards of efficiency? If so, when did our industry choose to surrender the control of efficiency and when exactly did we hand it off to someone else? 

On the other hand, is our quiet protest to building permits not really so quiet at all. When it comes to influencing public policy, Gandhi said, “They are not in control, we are.” That is the strength of quiet and peaceful civil resistance.”

Does this indicate we are silent with our voices, but screaming with the greatest voice we have -- non-compliance? If so, what are we willing to do to take efficiency back into our hands?

I’m not sure I liked what I learned from this informal survey. If this subject is of interest to you, and I can hear from enough of you, perhaps we’ll expand this reporting to include more ideas about current code compliance and building permitting process.

If you’d like, please share your views in an email. I need some help getting to the bottom of this issue.

Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute an HVAC based training company and membership organization. If you have an opinion to share on this subject, 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.

About the Author

Rob 'Doc' Falke | President

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 building pressure measurement procedure, 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.