This article was originally published in the July/August 1994 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.



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Home Energy Magazine Online July/August 1994



Looking for a Few Good Contractors

When it comes to heating and cooling systems, consumers are concerned with comfort, as well as price, according to an independent study. Contracting Business magazine wanted to determine what consumers want from their heating and cooling systems. The survey indicates that comfort is very much an issue in the residential marketplace, in relation to both existing systems and plans for new systems. While energy efficiency remains the number one factor in determining homeowners' purchases of new equipment, comfort concerns rank a close second, and price is last on the list of factors consumers consider when purchasing a new central heating or air-conditioning unit.

The project surveyed 22,000 homes, and received 10,240 responses. Of those responding, 46% indicated that energy costs were the most important factor in purchasing a new home comfort system; 37% said that comfort was the most important factor; 16% replied that first cost was most important.

Eight of ten respondents said they would add more comfort features to their present systems. Air purification was the top pick for additional features, while winter humidification and individual temperature control also ranked high. Air conditioning and winter humidification were selected by 72% of respondents as features to be added to a wish list if they were building a new home.

The second phase of the study involved querying consumers about maintenance of and service on their existing systems. One-third of the households reported that their systems had been serviced within the previous six months, 25% said their systems had been checked more than two years ago or never. More than 80% said they did not have a service contract for their home comfort systems.

Dominick Guarino, editor-in-chief of Contracting Business, outlined the results and steps necessary for the contracting industry, utilities and weatherization programs to make use of the study at the Affordable Comfort conference in Philadelphia (see Affordable Comfort Does it Again, p.8). He said he sees a need for cooperation and partnering among the various sectors in the mechanical contracting industry.

Sharing the podium with Guarino at Affordable Comfort was Gary Klein, supervisor of residential and commercial sector marketing for the California Energy Commission. Klein and Guarino believe a lack of knowledge on the part of consumers and most contractors contributes to the lack of implementation of comfortable, energy-efficient installation and design.

According to Klein, 30%-50% of HVAC energy is lost due to poor quality installation. Contractors often fail to look at the house as a system, Klein said. So the solution is to teach the contractors how to do the job correctly, then help them sell it well. There's a perception that low bids win, he said, which isn't necessarily so. We need some way for good contractors to differentiate themselves from the schlock in the marketplace, to give them marketing tools that will educate customers who are ready to buy, the information needed to make a good decision.

People have been focused on fixing the heating/air conditioning equipment or fixing the envelope of the house, not recognizing the interactions of both systems, said Klein. One of the most important criteria to pay attention to is the mean radiant surface temperature (MRT) of the environment. The cold feeling around a window or the warm feeling next to a heat source often governs perception of comfort. These perceptions, rather than the overall properties of a house as a system, cause many consumers to make erroneous assumptions about efficiency and comfort, according to Klein.

Many times, contractors do not know the impact of a specific installation or repair decision on the comfort and efficiency in customers' homes. Consumers don't know how to ask for what they ought to be asking for in terms of efficiency and comfort. Klein said. The basic discussion in the HVAC and insulation trades is `how much is it going to cost?' Consumers obtain bids based on the bottom line, not on quality or the comfort level that they are trying to achieve.

To this end, the CEC is producing a brochure and video to begin that educational effort, which Klein says will start small. You only need one or two people in the marketplace selling quality, and they'll knock the competition down so fast they won't know what hit them, he asserts. Klein sees it as a win-win program--customers get the quality they deserve, and contractors get lower insurance rates and fewer call-backs.

-- Jim Clark

Jim Clark is technical advisor for Energy Matters, produced by WRVO-FM 90 in Oswego, New York.


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