Beware of Voodoo Equipment Sizing

By Tom Quatroni Consider this scenario. Its the coldest day of the year and the telephone is ringing off the hook. That might be considered a good start to most days; however, cold weather isnt the only reason the phone is ringing. On one of todays installation jobsites, you learn concealed damages were revealed when the last piece of wood came off the crate. On another job, the salesman neglected

By Tom Quatroni

Consider this scenario. It’s the coldest day of the year and the telephone is ringing off the hook. That might be considered a good start to most days; however, cold weather isn’t the only reason the phone is ringing.

  • On one of today’s installation jobsites, you learn concealed damages were revealed when the last piece of wood came off the crate.
  • On another job, the salesman neglected to measure the boiler room door.
  • Another telephone line is ringing. It’s for you — what a surprise. Mrs. Jones just had a new hydro-air system installed in her $5 million dollar home by another company. Guess what? She’s cold in all the north rooms and needs help. You make an appointment to see her the next day because the company who installed it has been back 10 times and can’t seem to get it right.

New day, new customer

I wish it had been you walking through the house to get a first-hand look at these problems. But, it was me. Another day over and, somehow, I managed to keep up with all the new business opportunities and take care of a few fires. The cobwebs began to clear as I made my way out to Mrs. Jones’ home the next morning.

At the home (and what a home it is), you shake your head while making a room-by-room inspection. You find the same size ceiling diffusers on the second floor as the floor grilles on the first floor. There are 10 builder-grade air handlers, and 10 condensers — all the same size.

The one-size-fits-all approach may suffice for panchos or Sans-a-Belt trousers, but grilles, registers and other important parts of a heating system are a different story.

Mrs. Jones proceeds to tell me that during the summer the south side of the house was hot. By the way, did I mention the house is well insulated, has low E glass, and vapor barriers?

Contractors casting bad spells

What went wrong? Very simple. The system was sized by voodoo. You know the story — X sq. ft. per ton. Or, stand across the street with hands outstretched; the number of fingers it takes to cover the house equates to how many tons will be required. This appears to be indicative of the real-world more often than we’d like to think.

However, it does turn up some great opportunities for skilled contractors who aren’t afraid to tackle tough jobs.

How does one begin to take advantage of these opportunities? By doing a room-by-room heat loss/heat gain analysis.

I uncovered several problems.The boiler was oversized but the ductwork and blowers were undersized. The registers were mysteriously all the same size. Isn’t it amazing how each room must have had identical requirements? These concerns, coupled with inadequate returns, made the home terribly uncomfortable.

When told my findings, Mr. and Mrs. Jones weren’t happy. We discussed their reasons for choosing the original contractor for the job.

“We got three bids and took the middle one,” they replied.

I had to laugh, then asked if they called any references. “No.”

I asked how long any of the contractors were in the house. Ten to 20 minutes was the longest anyone had stayed. It had taken me one hour to do my survey using Wrightsoft software.

I explained to my new-found customer how variable-speed air handlers would increase their comfort and lower their electric bills. Fortunately, the ductwork and equipment were accessible in the attic and basement. The customers had the money to do the job again, using better equipment, including HEPA filters and ultra-violet lights.

Why put up with this service?

My company came out as the hero in this situation. But why does this happen to customers in the first place? Some contractors (I’m using the term loosely) don’t even know about doing a heat loss/gain calculation. They have the “I’ve been installing these for years” attitude, which might have passed in the 1940s and ’50s. Maybe even in the ’60s, but certainly not now.

Efficiency considerations and, in some cases, building codes dictate that heat loss/heat gains be done. Not only will your client have lower fuel bills but will also receive greater comfort.

For those who don’t deal with the mansions of the world, proper sizing can be even more important. A 1,500- sq.-ft. home could be using twice as much energy as it should if it’s not sized properly. I’ve seen homes with heating systems oversized by as much as 100%. On a 0° day, it runs for 15 minutes at a time if you’re lucky. Such short cycling problems are all too common.

On the air conditioning side of the business, proper sizing is just as important. An over-sized unit in a humid climate won’t dehumidify properly, thus leaving the home uncomfortable at best, and moldy at worst.

At one time, it wasn’t uncommon to see hot water systems with the old column style radiator that were twice the needed size. (That was back in the day when homeowners heated the room while the windows were open and used low temperature, coal-fired gravity systems to heat the water.) You can save the homeowner a tremendous amount of money by re-sizing the system properly and using lower water temperatures to heat the house.

The best part about following up behind contractors who don’t know what they’re doing is that it separates you from the rest of the crowd. However, it isn’t a very good commentary on our industry as a whole.

Homeowners are usually very fearful of buying from contractors. You can make it easier for them to part with their hard-earned money if you do things the other company didn’t. The finer points of customer service are certainly important, and can differentiate you from your competitors. However, first we need to encourage all contractors to perform the basics well.

Accurate heat loss/heat gains calculations are a sure way to gain the loyalty of your customers. And, if you operate your business near my part of New York, it just might keep me from getting them on the rebound.

Tom Quatroni is an owner of Expert Services and Ben Franklin Plumbing. His companies provide plumbing, heating and air conditioning in Westchester County, N.Y. He’s a founding member of The Service Roundtable www.servicenation.com. He can be reached at [email protected].