Call it the Achilles heel of the HVAC industry, but AC contractors have all but ignored home performance even though it has huge impacts on the effectiveness of new and existing AC units. Air conditioning contractors are getting pushed out of their comfort zone with home performance. Now, not all AC contractors ignore the elephant in the room, but many small and large AC companies do. How do we know this? When you perform over 2000 home energy audits, you get to see all sorts of situations and get to fix all kinds of messes left over by HVAC contractors. Some homeowners have trusted AC contractors who are highly recommended and put on a well deserved pedestal but talk to them about home performance, the HVAC poster child can turn into the jealous step sister Drazella and can end up making themselves look like fools. We have seen countless homes that have had "energy audits" done by HVAC contractors and who were supposed to have done home performance work including duct sealing, air barrier sealing, air sealing and insulation realignment. I was shocked to discover duct board put in the wrong location to create a thermal boundary in the attic and the AC contractor charged the customer for this! Their home performance work was done all wrong.
What Practices Does Your Company Follow During My Installation?
Experienced air conditioning contractors are good because they know where the hiccups occur during an air conditioner install and how to avoid them, and they know what the most common call backs are and how to avoid them. Most of the time, doing the right thing requires a little extra effort on their part during the AC install. For most AC contractors, this is not the standard way of doing their installs, and just like learning how to swing a golf club the correct way verses the easy way, it takes them out of their comfort zone and most would rather just skip doing the extra effort verses spending a little more time, effort and materials to do it right.
You definitely want to hear an air conditioning contractor tell you they do the following:
1. Charge the system with the correct amount of refrigerant after installation. This is not factory settings as every system comes with refrigerant already charged it. Many contractors just leave the factory charge and do not bother adding any more or measuring to find out how much more is needed and this is a big problem. If the distance from your outside condenser to the inside air handler is more than 15 feet, your AC contractor should be adding more refrigerant as the manufacturers only add enough refrigerant for 15 feet of refrigerant line.
2. Size the unit according to what your home needs, not based on the square footage of the house alone. This requires a Manual J calculation on the house so you should see your contractor or auditor measuring your windows and actually going in your attic to measure the insulation. A Manual J calculation is only as good as its inputs so you see your contractor taking some time to measure and collect data. The last thing you want is an under or over sized AC system.
3. For package roof units, you want a side by side elbow, not a down draft and not an over-under aka twist elbow. This is a major no-no that most AC contractors are guilty of committing. Down draft and over-under elbows are cheaper and easier to install and require less labor and materials but are NOT best for your energy bills, comfort and the life of your system. If your AC contractor is really stuck in their ways or really lazy, they will make up excuses on why down draft and over-under elbows are OK to install, they may even believe what they are saying is true, but hold firm in your affirmation that you want a side by side elbow. Be careful because even if you are getting a new elbow, your air conditioning contractor could just be tying into your existing roof jack and not enlarging the return. Ask for a side-by-side elbow, new roof jack and two plenums. It will cost more upfront and it is more labor intensive, but you’re energy bills will decrease and save you money over the long run.
4. Supply and return plenums
A plenum is a transition between the ductwork and the unit. If your furnace or air handler is in the attic, like most are in Phoenix, the plenum is likely a sheet metal box that has flex duct connecting into it and the other side is attached to the furnace. If your furnace or air handler is in the garage or closet, the return plenum is the framed box that it sits on and the supply plenum is the sheet metal on top. Plenums are important for proper airflow, allowing the unit to breathe and mix air in the box before it hits the evaporator coils. They are not always included in the cost of an AC but should be. It is extra work to install them but every home should have them.
5. A proper duct design
If your air conditioner is your heart, then your ductwork are the veins used for delivering conditioned air to all your rooms. When our arteries get clogged or too little blood is delivered our body tells us something is wrong. This is the same for our ductwork and your comfort. If your ductwork is full of leaks, kinks and improper sizing your home won’t stay comfortable even with the most energy efficient air conditioner on the market. Today flex ductwork is installed in Phoenix homes built after 1960 and flex ductwork is good because it’s easy to install, in fact, anyone can install it and so the best practices for ductwork design go out the window. Sure, it may pass inspection, but once the unit gets turned on you may experience one room that can never cool down to the temperature of the rest of the house. A bad duct design is to blame in many cases, not the air conditioner itself. AC contractors in Phoenix need to recognize that the ductwork needs to be checked for leaks and properly sized for each install.
There are several other must-haves when requesting specifics during air conditioner bids, but the list above are the basics to start you on the right foot. I would make sure all these things were done on my own home and Green ID technicians are trained to do a proper installation from Day 1 without cutting corners.
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