Where HVAC contractors fall short
You can find great heating and air conditioning contractors of all sizes. What makes a great HVAC contractor? Experience, caring about the quality of the work and good customer service are the magic ingredients that are easier said than done. Even if a AC contractor has all these ingredients that make up a great technician or contractor they probably do not have the experience or know how to solve home performance issues like the comfort problems or high energy bills. Many AC contractors default to adding a return in a hot room or blow and go (just blowing more insulation in the attic on top of whatever is existing) and it can leave homeowners short... not solving their comfort or efficiency issues.
Lack of Home Performance Know-How
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. Someone 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.
Wrong Airflow Recommendations
Installing a new high efficiency air conditioner is only as good as the old ductwork that is in the attic. In older homes, air conditioning systems were designed to match the old HVAC system and have the opportunity to be upgrades with the new unit. Too many air conditioning contractors just consider the unit, and ignore the ductwork. If the ductwork is only sized for a 4 ton system, but you are putting a 5 ton AC system on, your home will home get 4 tons of air! In Phoenix, this happens way too often and it leads to comfort, air quality and high energy bill complaints.
We've seen that air conditioning contractors typically love to add a return in a room when homeowners have a hot room in the summer time. We rarely see this work out as a good solution though, more often we are the ones getting calls from homeowners still having issues that are not fixed and AC contractors know just enough to make the problem worse but not enough to actually fix it. Proper airflow recommendations can fix a hot room, but it takes a whole home approach and the experience to know which recommendations to install.
For HVAC contractors
This section is for air conditioning and heating contractors to help understand and practice home performance more proficiently. Just like it would be silly for homeowner to buy a set of gauges and interpret temperature/pressure charts without knowing what they are doing, without an understand of how a home works as a system, specific upgrades like insulation or ductwork sealing can be meaningless or worse, even harmful to a homeowner. To take it a step further, even if the owner of the company becomes BPI certified to do energy audits, an install crew that is used to doing new AC installs day in and day out, may be clueless as to how to create a proper thermal barrier in the attic, or how to run a room pressure test to measure the effects of air sealing a home. Without careful planning and oversight of a crew, their energy efficiency installation work can be a waste of a homeowners money.
What commonly happens is that the AC contractor performs an energy audit with an agenda but their recommendations come out narrow and cookie cutter... they are the same for each house. Then the installation crew that does the work doesn't know how to do it properly or has too little oversight to correct mistakes as they occur and the work is done wrong. In the home performance, energy efficiency industry we have a saying that "99% right is 100% wrong" and it's critical that energy efficiency work gets done right the first time. Why? Well when you blow a bunch of insulation over bad work, it becomes hard to find the mistakes and we may never get a second chance to fix the contractors problems.
Unless you are doing the work yourself, or can check it was done right before and after the insulation goes in, it's best not to get into home performance because you are likely hurting more customers than helping them. While there is no denying that home performance and heating and air conditioning are complimentary and should be done as pairs, home performance is a different animal entirely and requires staff dedicated to its success. That means if you decide to offer home performance upgrades, you'll need at least one dedicated staff to perform home energy audits, lead a crew to ensure the job is done correctly and set up systems and checks to ensure that it gets done right the first time. What systems and checks should you use? That answer is found from actually doing the field work and learning where the pitfalls are and where guys most often make mistakes or take shortcuts, find hiring a manager who has that experience.
There is nothing wrong with offering to add another return to a hot room, or dabble in airflow recommendations but just realize that no one solution is likely going to solve your customers true issues like a whole home performance solution can.
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