New HVAC Equipment, Same Old Problems

February 29, 2016
March/April 2016
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2016 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Pity homeowners who are seeking to replace their existing heating or cooling equipment. As an industry, we’ve done a good job promoting high-efficiency equipment, but we haven’t done enough to ensure that the new system actually performs as advertised! Yeah—it likely blows warm or cool air, and it most likely will perform better than the one it has just replaced. The homeowner may even have engaged a utility program that offered a rebate for buying an Energy Star-qualified system.

Our homeowners will hope that the $8,000+ they spent on an HVAC system will reduce their energy bill. But—to be honest—HVAC technicians are often too busy to check the performance of the system, even if they know how. And the homeowner will be stuck with poor comfort, ongoing maintenance, and high utility bills. It’s just not fair, and it’s not necessary.

The Industry Reality

Sadly, when we do follow-up evaluations of HVAC systems, we find that they seldom perform at their rated capacity, with bad consequences for energy consumption, comfort, safety, and maintenance. These systematic shortcomings are caused by many factors—one of the biggest being the homeowner who does not understand or demand proof that the new system is performing as well as the slick brochures claim. Ignorance is bliss—until things such as oversizing, short-cycling, duct leakage, and high static pressures undermine the system’s proper operation. I hate to simplify this as It’s the installation, stupid, so let me be more clear. It’s the design, the ducts, the commissioning, and the maintenance. All of these must be verified to ensure that the system performs as the manufacturer intended, the contractor hoped, and the homeowner expected.

Schrader-1
The ESVI certificate is not just something that’s delivered at the end of a job—it’s also an effective sales tool. (EPA)

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Figure 1. Energy Star is one of the most recognized trademarks in the world. (Fairfield Research, Summer 2007)

Home Energy Use

Home Energy Use
Figure 2. You cannot ignore the HVAC system in well-crafted, whole-house retrofits—it can account for much of the energy consumption in most climates. (EPA)

The situation is often not much better on jobs that are implemented by home performance contractors who are focused primarily on the building envelope. Many of these firms do not have the expertise, tools, or licensing that would enable them to address problems with the HVAC system effectively. So the HVAC work is subbed out—and the HP contractor cannot ensure that the homeowner got a high-quality HVAC installation.

Why This Happens

Unfortunately, many HVAC installations are implemented as rush jobs. Part of the problem is that price pressure and competition are severe in today’s market, whether the HVAC contractor is working as a subcontractor to a general contractor, or directly with the homeowner. Homeowners seldom maintain their equipment, and when a minor problem crops up, they often choose to fix and forget until the system fails catastrophically. Then comes panic time, and another rush job. Most homeowners consider HVAC equipment to be a simple piece of plug-and-play machinery, and they have no idea how complex it is to design and commission a new system. Nor do most HVAC contractors have time to educate them. Adding to this crisis planning is the fact that HVAC systems do not usually fail in good weather, so the working conditions around HVAC replacement are often trying: It’s either 95oF in summer or 20oF in winter. At times like these, many systems are often failing within the same community, and the good contractors are overbooked. If a homeowner is lucky enough to get a reputable and quality-minded firm to bid on the job, that firm’s higher price—which is justified by its better workmanship—will likely push the homeowner to get multiple bids.

Given this situation, it seems like an easy choice for most homeowners to find a contractor who can install a new box tomorrow for thousands of dollars less than the competition. But will this low-bid Chuck-in-a-Truck follow the manufacturer’s installation guidelines—or industry specs such as the ACCA Quality Installation Standard—on sizing, equipment selection, duct design, and airflow and charge? Not likely. And so the cycle repeats itself: little if any design, little oversight of commissioning, little regard for maintenance, and little attention paid to ducts. For the next eight to ten years, at best, the homeowner is stuck with an underperforming HVAC system.

ESVI Kickoff Event and Industry Soapbox

You’re invited to join the author to learn more about ESVI at the 2016 ACI National Home Performance Conference on Monday, April 4, from 5 pm to 7 pm at the Hilton Austin, in downtown Austin, Texas.

Find out more about the conference and register to attend.

The ESVI Solution

My colleagues and others working with us at the U.S. EPA hope the Energy Star Verified HVAC Installation (ESVI) program will solve this problem. (See ESVI Kickoff Event and Industry Soapbox.) Set for launch in 2016, ESVI will help bridge the gap between the designed performance and the installed performance of HVAC systems. By verifying the quality of installations, contractors will ensure that homeowners receive the value for which they’ve paid, competent contractors will gain market advantage for the good work they already perform, and sponsoring utilities will have verification that energy savings are realized.

The ESVI program, with its emphasis on remote reporting of system performance, will benefit from the advent of “Smart Systems” that offer real-time guidance for system installation, commissioning, and operation. These systems allow all parties to verify that the original equipment manufacturer's (OEM’s) key performance metrics are achieved, and reduce the need for expensive third-party verification visits. See "Smart Verification Comes to HVAC" on page 13.

The ESVI program will allow EPA to extend the respected name of Energy Star to HVAC systems that have been verified to perform as advertised (see Figure 1). With the help of progressive utilities and HVAC contractors, we’ll bring the message It’s all in the installation to the consumer market. Verified HVAC installation is the last substantial low-hanging fruit on the savings-and-comfort tree, and we’re bringing it within reach of industry (see Figure 2).

The ESVI program will be implemented in cooperation with existing utility-sponsored demand-side management programs, in a similar way to the Home Performance with Energy Star program for existing homes, and the Energy Star Certified Homes program for new homes. And while the technical specifications of verified ESVI installations will remain consistent and supportive of ACCA standards, local program implementers will be allowed the leeway to apply the standards in ways that are compatible with their existing programs and policies, and which give them Energy Star marketplace advantage.

Why ESVI Is a Good Idea

Who derives benefits from Energy Star Verified Installation?

  1. Homeowners. They gain peace of mind, comfort, and safety when their system fits the house and performs properly. Their home gains value.
  2. Utilities. With ESVI in place, utilities will have verification that the performance and savings of HVAC systems are real.
  3. Quality-Minded Contractors. They can now participate in a program that rewards high-quality installations and provides strong market differentiation for their superior work.
  4. Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). With verified installations, the OEMs can offer premium warranties, reducing the enormous cost of warranty replacements for good equipment that has failed due to poor installation.
  5. Society and the Environment. Any improvement in energy efficiency results in a whole slew of external benefits. Verifying the quality of your work in a transparent process is a good idea for everyone.

The Future of Verified Installation

Homeowners who have comfort problems often call an HVAC contractor. The HVAC industry holds the keys to a large number of households—HVAC technicians are ringing over 100,000 doorbells a day across America, far more than our home performance contractors. We see a logical partnership between these industries. Home performance remediation is the comfort key that the HVAC industry struggles to capture, and high-quality HVAC work is often missing from home performance jobs that focus on the building envelope.

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Find out more about the Energy Star Verified HVAC Installation program.

There is a lot of opportunity here, though the road to success is crowded with barriers. But having a way to truly verify the operation of HVAC installations will overcome many of those barriers. Imagine installing an HVAC system that you know will deliver what was promised. Imagine the value added to high-quality jobs performed by contractors who do the best work. Imagine if homeowners could have ongoing confidence that their system’s performance will be monitored and tuned up over the years. It all starts with a verified quality installation, with baseline performance measurements that can be used over the lifetime of the equipment, and an agreed-upon set of industry standards to guide the process.

I encourage you to learn more and to reach out a hand to Energy Star Verified Installation.

Chandler von Schrader has worked in the energy efficiency industry since 1981, selling and installing solar DHW systems, performing residential energy audits, delivering demand-side management services, and providing sales and marketing support for the HVAC industry. He has worked for EPA since 2001, promoting best practices for energy efficiency in the HVAC, home performance, and remodeling industries. Chandler was the national manager of the Home Performance with Energy Star program and now leads the Energy Star Verified HVAC Installation program.

Smart Verification Comes to HVAC: With Benefits for Program Managers, Contractors, and Manufacturers

Since their inception, home performance and HVAC quality installation programs have had so many technical and programmatic requirements, and each program process has entailed so many steps, that the effort to deliver, measure, and verify quality has had unintended consequences. These include checklist craziness, piles of paperwork, scheduling snafus, and arguments among contractors and program administrators over arcane technical matters. All this can make it difficult for successful companies to scale up their work. We simply haven’t had the tools to balance the programmatic need for quality assurance with the need for contractors (and homeowners) to get the job done in an efficient manner.

Emergent Technologies

That situation is rapidly changing. Emergent technologies that measure, document, and communicate the performance of an HVAC system—or of the contractor who installed it—are transforming the marketplace. These technologies go by many names: Smart Systems, Expert Systems, Smart Devices, Automated Validation Systems, M&V Tools and Devices, Performance Testing Systems, and more. No matter what you call them, these emergent technologies promise some important benefits.

First, they enable contractors to do their job better, faster, and with less training. This is true both for companies that are participating in energy efficiency programs, and for companies that are not. We cannot do high-quality work, for example, when HVAC installers resort to “beer can cold” rules of thumb because they don’t know how to measure the correct subcooling values for a piece of equipment. Smart Systems can now walk a technician through the installation process, pulling equipment-specific performance data from the cloud. In the same way, they can show the technician how to troubleshoot system performance.

Second, Smart Systems reduce or eliminate program paperwork. In the most promising applications, the same tool a contractor uses to simplify installation and maintenance can communicate data directly to program administrators. When the contractor completes the job, the program documentation will already have been reported. Alternatively, or in conjunction with a contractor’s tool, integral self-commissioning systems installed by the equipment manufacturer can measure data and report the results back to the contractor and program staff. This will ensure that the system is operating within program performance parameters and will reduce warranty calls and replacements on the part of the manufacturer.

Finally, Smart Systems decrease the burdens associated with quality assurance and quality control. Whether a technician is entering data on a tablet, taking a photo of a system, or using a specific smart device to measure performance, contractors and program managers can now verify the time, location, and value of that measurement. Smart Systems can also show whether data were manually entered by a technician (which entails the possibility of error), or were measured directly and reported by the tool itself. The quality of these metadata can meet or exceed the quality of data collected by a third-party verifier. This is especially true if the verifier is inspecting the job weeks after completion, or is not as well trained and technically competent as the contractor.

The ultimate goal of these emergent technologies is to create a frictionless programmatic experience for the homeowner and contractor. Smart Systems enable contractors to do their job better and faster, they protect homeowners from faulty work, and they significantly reduce the administrative costs and transactional burdens often imposed by programs.

Many challenges remain. What are the actual capabilities of these Smart Systems? Do they look only at the equipment, or are do they also assess the distribution system and equipment sizing? And when we compare two Smart Systems that ostensibly measure the same thing, how do we know whether either of them is accurate? Do we need a set of industrywide testing protocols so specific tools and systems can be evaluated for compliance with industry standards? Last but not least, what is a widely acceptable term for these tools and systems?

Casey Murphy

The Future of Smart Verification

We may not know the answers to these questions today. But we do know that emergent technologies are starting to flood the market and are transforming the way we work. Program managers can speed their development by supporting their implementation. Some of these emergent technologies will not live up to their promise. But it’s certain that in time some of these technologies will finally enable us to deliver cost-effective and contractor-friendly programs that take a whole-house and building science approach to HVAC verification. It’s about time.

—Casey Murphy <

Casey Murphy is a senior technical specialist with ICF International. He has served on the Single-Family and Multi-Family Standards and Technical committees for BPI.

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