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This article was originally published in the November/December 1999 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.

 

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Home Energy Magazine Online November/December 1999


field notes

Taking the Leap from HVAC to Home Performance


by Tom Lynch

Tom Lynch is director of energy and environmental services at Parker & Sons. He can be reached at thomaslynch@mindspring.com.


How learning about house leakage transformed my business and changed my life.

Service technician Jon Royer seals off a supply register in preparation for a duct blaster test.
Royer does a pressure pan reading on a supply register to check for duct leakage.
Using a blower door in a mock-up doorway, the author explains the benefits of home diagnostics to a customer during an open house meeting at a company facility.
Parker & Sons contractor Diane McFarland installs blown-in cellulose insulation in a house's attic to improve the home's heating and cooling efficiency.
The author uses a smoke pencil to check for infiltration around a recessed can light fixture in a house's attic.
In the fall of 1998, our company took a dramatic turn. After 25 years in business we suddenly discovered how important duct and house leakage was to the health, safety, comfort, and efficiency of our customers' homes. We also learned that our customers really wanted to fix these problems. That's when Parker & Sons--a full-service, family-owned, residential HVAC company in Phoenix, Arizona--became a home performance contracting company.

This move to expand our services had several benefits: It helped our company to identify and solve comfort, energy, and health problems in our customers' homes; it opened up a new source of business that complemented the services we already offer our customers; and it provided a way for us to stay busy and profitable throughout the mild winter months in Phoenix, when heating and air conditioning installations slow down.

As the saying goes, timing is everything. I had been aware of home performance contracting for several years, but I could not make the connection between blower doors and installing air conditioning. Arizona Public Service (APS), one of the local electric utilities, provided the connection. It was instituting a partnering program with HVAC contractors. Tom Hines, the local contact for APS, began to talk to us about duct leakage and diagnostic testing of homes, and about how this testing could translate to real value for our customers. In fact, he said, APS was bringing a man named John Tooley to Phoenix in November 1998 for a solid week of training in home performance contracting techniques. We signed up, and I took the week of training.

A New, Whole-House Approach As a result of the training, my outlook on the installation of cooling and heating systems radically changed. I saw the importance of viewing the whole house as a system, not just as a space in which to install our company's air conditioning equipment. I learned that problems like infiltration, duct leakage, and uneven pressures in the house drastically affect the performance of the heating and cooling systems that we install. I also became aware of how different appliances in a home can compete for the combustion air that the fuel-burning appliances are supposed to get. I learned that many of the comfort and energy complaints that HVAC contractors get blamed for are caused, not by the equipment installed, but by the way the house behaves when we close it up to heat it or cool it.

My first reaction was one of horror, thinking of all the installations that we had done without considering any of these principles. I realized quickly, though, that our company now had the tools to prevent these problems in new homes, and to diagnose, find, and fix them in existing homes. I also realized that we could probably make money doing this.

Our company began to incorporate the principles of home performance contracting into our daily routine. Before we made the necessary investment in diagnostic equipment, I decided to do a pilot program to see if our customers would pay for these services. We rented a blower door for one month and ventured out. The response was so overwhelming that, at the end of the month, we decided to buy all the diagnostic toys.

After doing some research on the Internet and talking with some performance contractors (both locally and outside of Arizona), we settled on equipment from the Energy Conservatory in Minneapolis. I found this group to be competitive in its pricing.

We purchased a Minneapolis Blower Door with a digital magnehelic gauge; a Minneapolis Duct Blaster; a pressure pan to use with the blower door; a fog machine to indicate leaks in duct systems; smoke pencils; software to produce professional reports; and all the training videos. We made an investment of approximately $4,500 to get these goodies.

There was certainly a learning curve before I became proficient in the use of the equipment. Staff at the Energy Conservatory were very helpful in the first few weeks after we received the diagnostic equipment. My biggest struggle in those days was making sure that all the readings I got were accurate, and that they truly reflected what was taking place in the homes we tested. I remember one time forgetting to tape off a return air grille and wondering why my second test reading was worse than before we made the duct repairs. With each house and each test came confidence in the equipment--and more importantly, understanding as to what the data indicated with respect to the problems the homeowners were experiencing.

Where Will Our Customers Come From? After the initial euphoria died down, we were faced with the question, Where will our customers come from? We felt that we might have one of the best-kept secrets in town. How were we going to market this service to people that might not know they had these types of problems? It occurred to us that many people might not know they had duct leakage or house leakage, but they did know that their houses were uncomfortable, dusty, and expensive to cool and heat. But where should we look to find those folks?

The answer: Our customer base. We have spent the last 25 years building up a loyal customer base, and we knew the value of that resource. The next step was to educate and motivate the technicians so they could spread the word to our customers. We knew that if we were going to experience any degree of success, we needed to have our service technicians convinced of the importance of the testing and what it could do for our customers.

Early one morning in January, we met at the home of our general manager. I had some of the 12 technicians (including our plumbers) help to set up the blower door and the Duct Blaster. Others masked off the supply registers. Using magnehelic gauges and smoke, they observed how duct leakage can increase the infiltration of dust and dirt into a home. They also began to understand how easy it is to backdraft a furnace, a gas water heater, or a fireplace simply by turning on the heating system and closing some bedroom doors. This meeting galvanized our technicians.

Further spurred on by some sales incentives, our service technicians quickly began to bring in dust and comfort leads. On every service call, they began to ask, Do you seem to have a lot of dust and dirt in your home since you started using your heating system? or Do you have any hot or cold spots in your home? We also discovered the Home Performance Contracting brochure from Home Energy, which helps customers to understand the causes of many comfort problems in their homes. We had 10,000 brochures printed up and mailed them out via a newspaper insert to a targeted audience, which brought in some new customers. If we had mailed the brochures out in June or July, when people are really feeling the effects of leakage problems, we probably would not be able to keep up with the response. It was amazing how many customers wanted to find solutions to these problems. Our initial conversations with these folks became our home performance leads, and appointments were scheduled for diagnostic testing.

We decided to charge for the testing, because it is a big commitment of time to just give away. Our feeling was that if customers would not pay the charge for testing, they probably would not pay for the repairs that we would suggest. The fee is credited back to the client toward the repair work that is done, or in some cases to replacement equipment. This turned out to be a good strategy on our part. Out of the first 20 blower door tests, only two people decided not to make repairs after the diagnostics were done.

Success Stories Since we began home performance contracting about a year ago, we've improved the performance of dozens of homes, and in the upcoming winter months, we expect to do three or four homes per week. A few examples illustrate how much we have been able to improve our customers' quality of life--while building our business, too.

The Money Drain House

I received a call one day from a man who saw our ad in the Yellow Pages, which reads, We fix hot and cold rooms. When I visited this man, he was very skeptical. He told me that his living room was freezing in the winter and was unbearably hot in summer. On top of all this, his electrical bills were extremely high.

He said he had purchased a new heat pump, attic insulation, and ceiling fans, and had even installed a window air conditioning unit in his living room. All this just to stay comfortable. He had given up any hope of lowering his electric bill. He agreed to let me do some diagnostic testing on his home and duct system.

We discovered that well over 500 CFM (about 1.25 tons) of conditioned air was leaking out of the living space, due to missing dampers in the duct system and holes to the outside. The blower door and Duct Blaster not only told us how bad the leakage was, but also led us to the problem sites so we could make repairs. We did the repairs and retested the duct system, confirming that we had reduced the leakage to less than 100 CFM.

The change was immediately noticeable to the homeowner. The best news: We made a customer happy, and we made a profit on the work.

The Burning-Dust House

Not long afterward, I took a call from a couple who were longtime customers. Their complaint was that they had hired us to solve a burning-dust smell in their home, but the problem had not been fixed.

The couple had a gas furnace mounted on a plywood platform in the garage area of their home. We had sent a service technician out to the home to clean and service the furnace. This worked for two weeks, but then the smell came back. The woman had extreme allergies and was hypersensitive to any outside irritants in the home.

I convinced the pair to let me come out to talk with them and do a preliminary evaluation of the home. When we met, both of them were present, and we talked at length about the problems they were experiencing. During this conversation, the woman made a comment that dialed me in to the home performance mode. She told me that she could tell when her husband arrived home long before he opened the door, because she could smell car fumes at the back of the house.

These customers had huge health and safety issues in their home. They agreed to diagnostic testing. Our tests showed that there was massive leakage throughout the entire return air path. The HVAC installer had used a plywood building chase as a return air duct. The furnace was acting like a vacuum cleaner, sucking dust out of the garage and the attic and cooking it in the furnace, and their home was acting as the canister.

We outlined a mitigation strategy to seal the ducts and the return chase. We also installed a fresh air ventilation system that was integrated into the return air side of the central system, as well as an electronic air cleaner. This created a slightly positive pressure on the home so that no dirt, dust, fumes, or contaminates could get into the home from the attic, the garage, or outside.

The results? No more dirt and dust are being pumped into the house via the HVAC system. No more fumes come in from the garage. There are no more burnt-dust smells. These customers subsequently hired us to do more work at their home, and they recommended us to friends who had similar problems.

Is Home Performance Contracting for Everyone? Is home performance contracting for everyone? I don't know. Is it for Parker & Sons? Definitely, yes! Home performance contracting was a natural extension of our do-it-right ideology. Add to this a housing stock full of opportunities, and you get a recipe for a successful business. If Parker & Sons has experienced any degree of success in our foray into home performance contracting, it is because we made a commitment to learn and understand the technology and to integrate this tech-
nology into our day-to-day dealings with our customers. In turn, this business has kept us busy during the winter and early spring months here in Phoenix, a time when most HVAC contractors are laying off their staff.

We are now putting together a marketing plan to see if the home performance aspect of our business can sprout a life of its own. One of our long-term goals is to spin off Parker Environmental and Energy Services with its own staff, trucks, and employees. Our short-term goals include making sure that everyone in our present customer base knows that we offer these services. These are ambitious plans, I know, but every day on my morning commute, I look at all those houses I'm driving past and think of all the problems they have--and the tremendous business opportunities they represent.
 
 

 


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