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How to talk to customers about high-performance HVAC

Homeowners rely on their builder to help them make smart choices about their heating and cooling systems. Here's how you can develop a solution they'll be thrilled with year-round.

By Cheryl Weber

For clients, choosing an HVAC system may pale in comparison to the excitement of choosing, say, the right masonry or rain screen for their new home's exterior.

Yet the method of heating and cooling a house is a decision that affects them profoundly, and they expect their builder to suggest smart solutions. The subject also raises issues of indoor comfort that clients understand intuitively, even if they don't have the words to articulate them. What's the best way to talk to clients about super-efficient heating and cooling, and what elements of efficiency are important for them to understand?

Tim Heitz, sales manager at JK Mechanical, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which specializes in environmentally sustainable HVAC solutions, says that operational cost is the first thing clients ask about, followed by comfort, which includes temperature, humidity, and air quality. The third issue is the noise the system will make. Finally, they want to know about a unit's warranty and track record of repairs. Near the end of the discussion, of course, JK Mechanical makes the environmental argument.

"We talk about our responsibility to our environment and the fact that anything we can do to reduce both our fuel need and carbon footprint is a good thing as well," Heitz says. "Folks typically have some level of interest in that."

  Bosch Greenstar
  Buderus GB142 
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Hard numbers help clients do the math. Heitz shows customers a chart comparing initial cost and operational cost over a 10-year period. "Most folks can't picture much past 10 years in a household," he says. "We show customers what it costs to produce 1 million BTUs of heat. The average home will use 40 to 50 million BTUs per season. What does it cost in propane, geothermal, oil, natural gas?"

Right now, propane is inexpensive, so in the Northeast it is vying with geothermal heating, he says. But geothermal is much more expensive to install. "It's costing $9 to create 1 million BTUs of geothermal heat," he says. "A 98 percent efficient propane furnace can create the same heat for $9.15, but you can put a propane system in for $8,000 or $9,000, compared to $20,000 to $22,000 for geothermal."

Building in northeastern Pennsylvania, where winter temperatures can range from 40 degrees to well below freezing, Studio 26 Homes in Orefield often installs a heat pump with a backup propane or natural gas furnace. "The nice thing about propane is that you can use it on the outskirts of development," says Brian Baker, director of marketing and design.

In addition to presenting a comparative cost/performance analysis, the builder explains the synergies that affect a unit's efficiency, such as the importance of shortening and centralizing duct runs, and sealing ducts so you're not heating the inside of walls and plenums. These measures also increase indoor comfort because the air coming out of the register is about the same temperature and velocity as the air leaving the unit.

"Without a doubt, the benefit of selling high-efficiency equipment is the happier customer."

"They all understand comfort, even if they don't bring it up right away," Baker says. "When you start talking about it, they can almost finish your sentence for you."

Higher-grade equipment offers better indoor comfort because of advanced blower motors that can operate at different speeds, Heitz says. One example is Carrier's Infinity 98 Gas Furnace, which pairs variable-speed technology with intelligence that allows it to adapt its output in tiny increments. "With 1 percent adjustments between 40 percent and 100 percent capacity, it can operate longer at steadier, lower capacities, which ensures incredible energy efficiency, quiet operation, and tighter temperature control than standard furnaces," says Jared Wintergrass, Carrier territory manager at Peirce-Phelps, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.

High-efficiency furnaces pay off for builders, too, in happy owners, if not higher profits. "We'll make more money because it costs more, but the percentage will be the same as a lower-efficiency unit," Baker says. "We just make sure we take care of our customer."

Heitz agrees. "Without a doubt, the benefit of selling high-efficiency equipment is the happier customer," he says.



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