Fixing Energy Star Version 3

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Fixing Energy Star Version 3

Highly qualified HVAC contractors are so hard to find that many builders just gave up on the Energy Star Homes program

Posted on Jun 9 2017 by Martin Holladay
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The Energy Star HomesA U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program to promote the construction of new homes that are at least 15% more energy-efficient than homes that minimally comply with the 2004 International Residential Code. Energy Star Home requirements vary by climate. program has been in trouble since 2012, when the Environmental Protection Agency rolled out a new version (Version 3) of the program’s requirements. Many builders found the Version 3 requirements so onerous that they dropped out of the Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. program. The number of new homes that have been certified under the Energy Star program has fallen 36% in recent years — from 130,305 in 2011 to 83,897 in 2015.

Complaints about Version 3 focused on the new requirements for the design and installation of heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. In a recent article in Home Energy magazine, Dean Gamble, the technical manager for the Energy Star Homes program, ruminated on these HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. requirements. “The new design requirements were certainly expansive,” Gamble wrote. “By and large, though, they simply mirrored what was already required by code. That is to say, they were not the ‘best practices’ known to the industry. Quite to the contrary, they represented the bare minimum required by law. So, why were so many designers encountering difficulties? The primary answer was that this was the first time that any national program had enforced HVAC design requirements in a systematic way. While these requirements were written into code, jurisdictions rarely tasked inspectors with enforcing them. On top of that, Home Energy Raters had never been asked to review designs as part of their scope.”

Reflecting on the participation drop-off, Gamble wrote, “Despite the best of intentions, Version 3 nearly ground the Energy Star New Homes program to a halt.”

Residential HVAC contractors aren’t paying attention to details

The Energy Star Homes program faced a dilemma. Program designers knew that HVAC installers are, on average, doing a terrible job — as energy experts have noted for years, most residential HVAC systems are oversized, and most residential duct systems are leaky — so the EPA established program requirements designed to ensure that HVAC systems would be properly designed and installed. Builders balked, however, because they found it almost impossible to implement these requirements.

For one thing, qualified HVAC system designers and installers are as rare as a knot-free 2x10. For another thing, it’s extremely cumbersome to provide all of the documents to prove that an HVAC system is well designed and well installed.

An industry in a perpetual state of crisis

The known scarcity of skilled HVAC contractors leads to an obvious question: What’s wrong with the residential HVAC industry? It’s hard to say. On a typical residential construction site, the framers, on average, are doing an excellent job. Framers work from good plans and execute the plans well. Framing failures are very rare.

Electricians and plumbers are also doing excellent work. Residential electrical system design and residential plumbing system design are both excellent, and these systems are installed well.

So what’s wrong with residential HVAC work? Why are contractors doing such a lousy job?

The failures can be partly blamed on equipment manufacturers, since manufacturers are doing a terrible job of training contractors.

The failures can be partly blamed on regulators, since regulators are doing a terrible job of certifying contractors.

And the failures can be partly blamed on code officials, since code officials are doing a terrible job of enforcing existing codes.

While residential HVAC contractors do a poor job with heating and cooling systems, they do an even worse job with ventilation systems. According to Gamble, “Whole-house mechanical ventilation systems were so new when Version 3 was released [in 2012] that many designers were not familiar with the details needed to ensure their proper and effective operation.”

Requirements go beyond usual practice

While Gamble notes that the Energy Star Homes requirements “simply mirror what was already required by code” and “represent the bare minimum required by law,” the Energy Star requirements greatly exceed the normal practice of residential HVAC contractors.

For example, the Energy Star Homes program requires:

  • Reporting of calculated sensible heat load due to solar heat gainIncrease in the amount of heat in a space, including heat transferred from outside (in the form of solar radiation) and heat generated within by people, lights, mechanical systems, and other sources. See heat loss. by orientation (for each of the four sides of the house).
  • Reporting of ventilation airflow design rate.
  • Reporting of measured forced-air system air flow rates for each room of the house, with certification that each air flow rate is close to the design value.
  • Measuring the pressure difference between each bedroom (with the door closed and the forced air system operating) and the common space on the other side of the bedroom door, to verify that the pressure difference doesn't exceed 3 pascals (or a maximum of 5 pascals in the case of bedrooms with a design air flow rate of 150 cfm or more).

Almost no residential HVAC contractors perform this kind of work — unless, of course, they happen to be working on an Energy Star Home.

It’s still hard to find qualified HVAC system designers and installers

GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com has published several articles on the difficulties of finding qualified professionals who can perform a Manual J load calculation or design a residential HVAC system. (See, for example, Who Can Perform My Load Calculations?)

Builders who manage to clear the design hurdle still have to locate a qualified HVAC contractor to install the equipment. At first, Energy Star required builders to use HVAC contractors who met the certification requirements established by ACCA’s Quality Assurance program. One problem quickly became apparent: few HVAC contractors signed up for the Quality Assurance program, so builders couldn’t find qualified contractors.

In a 2012 blog on the topic published by GBA, Allison Bailes wrote, “The fees for that [the ACCA Quality Assurance program] are over $1000 to get started and then about $820 per year (not including ACCA membership) to continue. Not many have done it yet.”

The Energy Star Homes program created a long title to describe the independent third-party organizations that provide training programs for HVAC contractors. This type of organization is known as an "HVAC Quality Installation Training and Oversight Organization," also know as an H-QUITO. During the early years of Version 3, ACCA was the only H-QUITO in the country. Eventually, a second organization (Advanced Energy) was authorized by Energy Star to act as an H-QUITO, so ACCA no longer has a monopoly. Competition between these two H-QUITOs is making it a little easier for contractors to get certified to work on Energy Star Homes. At this time, however, there are still only two H-QUITOs in the country.

For more information on H-QUITOs, see Become a Credentialed HVAC Contractor.

How hard is it to find a qualified HVAC contractor?

Although GBA regularly receives questions from readers who express frustration at their inability to find a qualified HVAC contractor, Dean Gamble says that most Energy Star Homes builders have this problem under control.

In an email to GBA, Gamble wrote, “We have learned that builders often have a strong long-standing relationship with one or more contractors. As a result, the most successful strategy for recruitment has been for [Energy Star Homes] builders to encourage their existing contractors to become credentialed, rather than for a builder to start from scratch with a new credentialed contractor. Over the past 5 years ... this has evolved into a credentialed contractor network that is sufficient to support certification of 90,000+ homes per year.”

Gamble continued, “Where we most often hear concerns today are in rural areas with a lower volume of certified homes. This is not unique to the [Energy Star] credential – the same concerns have been expressed about HERSIndex or scoring system for energy efficiency established by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET) that compares a given home to a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Reference Home based on the 2006 International Energy Conservation Code. A home matching the reference home has a HERS Index of 100. The lower a home’s HERS Index, the more energy efficient it is. A typical existing home has a HERS Index of 130; a net zero energy home has a HERS Index of 0. Older versions of the HERS index were based on a scale that was largely just the opposite in structure--a HERS rating of 100 represented a net zero energy home, while the reference home had a score of 80. There are issues that complicate converting old to new or new to old scores, but the basic formula is: New HERS index = (100 - Old HERS score) * 5. rating fees for years. This is driven by inherent differences, such as longer travel times per home and less opportunity to sample homes for inspection.”

Who certifies that the work was done correctly?

Builders of Energy Star homes are required to hire a home energy rater to verify that the work is done properly. That raises the question: Are energy raters qualified to verify Manual J calculations and system designs?

In a phone conversation with Skye Dunning, an energy rater and building performance contractor in New Hanover, North Carolina, Dunning told me, “Energy raters are supposed to check these load calculations, but most raters don’t have any training in doing load calculations. There is no backup from RESNET on this issue. When I’m at a national conference, I ask other raters if they do load calculations, and they tell me they don’t. But they are still required to check them.”

Skye Dunning hasn't been shy on this issue. In 2013, Dunning posted a detailed online critique of the Energy Star Homes rules regarding HVAC systems.

Dunning wrote, “Raters are supposed to check the load calculations but training was never incorporated for doing so, and the required checks were a joke. At first it was checking the design temps and house tightness. Those two items don’t factor large in HVAC loads. ... The lack of training and the false appearance of the rater actually checking the load calcs put raters in the legal cross hairs.”

Dunning continued, “The load calculation checks [by raters] were increased twice… You would think that, with all of the HVAC requirements now in place, really checking the load calcs, and raters getting trained on load calcs, [we] would be [better off], right? Wrong. There are more checks, but the most notable deficiencies that raters are supposed to check [are] the window area and window values, but not the window overhangs, and duct location is not checked. Again, any jackass that has ever done a load calc, or even knows how they work, understands that you can’t have an accurate load calc without doing the window overhangs. It’s one of the biggest drivers of heat gain. It’s even worse now because it has even more of an appearance that the load calcs are being verified when they are not.”

Dunning was clearly worried that raters might be held liable for design errors. Dunning wrote, “This, by the way, is the latest in putting raters on the spot without the proper training or support. We are now in the position of making judgments on how much framing is too much, and it’s not always clear. I was recently challenged by an engineer as to how we could do any advanced framingHouse-framing techniques in which lumber use is optimized, saving material and improving the energy performance of the building envelope. in a high wind zone. So I went looking for supporting documentation, examples, case studies, something that I was naive enough to think Energy Star would have. Surprise! I found nothing for those of us working in seismic and high wind areas. Raters all over are having builders remove framing with only the barest understanding of the implications. How long before there are problems and the finger is pointed at the raters? Whether the actual issue is related to advanced framing or not, they will be getting blamed and, once again, I don’t see any kind of support.”

When I asked Dean Gamble whether raters could flag unnecessary framing in a home's thermal envelope, he responded, “If there is an engineering explanation for these extra studs, that is acceptable. If a rater sees a stud that looks like excess framing, the rater can ask the builder to produce a document showing that the stud is necessary — a framing plan, for example. If the documentaion is produced, the rater can proceed with the certification. The rater has the authority to certify or not to certify, but they don’t have the authority to order the removal of framing.”

Simplifying the paperwork requirements

Energy Star Homes officials decided to address the drop-off in participation by simplifying the paperwork used to document HVAC compliance — without significantly lowering the bar on the program’s requirements.

Under the simplified approach (in effect for over a year), Energy Star builders have been required to complete a revised version of the HVAC compliance document. The new four-page document, Revision 8, has a long title: HVAC Design Report, Energy Star Certified Homes, Version 3 / 3.1 (Rev. 08). According to Dean Gamble, the new report “completely eliminated the need for designers to supply pages of supplemental documentation to Home Energy Raters.”

The Energy Star Homes programs also implemented two other changes:

  • Responding to reports that HVAC designers weren’t always using the right outdoor design temperatures for Manual J calculations, Energy Star Homes published a list of outdoor design temperatures for every county in the U.S., and
  • Responding to confusion on equipment sizing, the Energy Star Homes program adjusted its “next nominal size” requirement so that energy raters wouldn’t have to consult manufacturers’ product catalogs.

According to Gamble, “In concept, selecting the next nominal size of equipment was easy to explain … [but] in practice, it was quite difficult to enforce. … Without manufacturer-specific product catalogs, there was no way to determine what the next nominal size actually was. That put both designers and Home Energy Raters in a bad spot. With Revision 08, the phrase next nominal size was struck from the record. In its place, the program defined clear numeric [percentage] limits.” (See Image #2, below.)

Will the paperwork changes make enough of a difference?

Energy Star’s tweaks to the HVAC requirements in Version 3 have been relatively minor. Will these tweaks be enough to lure builders back to the program? Gamble clearly hopes so.

According to Gamble, the program is already seeing signs of a turnaround. Gable wrote, “The number of homes certified [in the Energy Star Homes program] in 2016 increased for the first time since the release of Version 3.”

Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “How to Design an Off-Grid House.”

Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.


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Image Credits:

  1. Environmental Protection Agency
  2. Dean Gamble - Environmental Protection Agency

1.
Jun 9, 2017 8:29 AM ET

Thinking out loud...
by Armando Cobo

The biggest reason must houses have substandard HVAC systems designed and installed is because Builders allow it so, and Homeowner rather trust a “Professional” than educating themselves in the biggest purchase they make their lifetime, although is changing. All Builders have the control on who works on their houses, and I hardly ever see a Builder DEMANDING of their subs to things as they should, or even code, mostly because of ignorance and/or greed.
Second, IMO it was a mistake when ICC allowed HERS Raters and Verifiers to perform the work of Building Official. I understand not all municipalities have the resources to train all their Building Officials, but that really was passing the buck to someone else, and as you point out, RESNET has been inadequate about proper training, not only on HVAC systems, but on other house systems and Building Science.
Third, most industry associations, from builders to trades, develop programs that are designed for those members interested in learning and doing things right, which are the minority; however, since the industry is accustomed to cheap bids, most Builders and trades are used to doing what they can get away with.


2.
Jun 9, 2017 12:11 PM ET

HVAC is by far the hardest task.
by Gavin Farrell

"Framers work from good plans and execute the plans well. Framing failures are very rare.

Electricians and plumbers are also doing excellent work. Residential electrical system design and residential plumbing system design are both excellent, and these systems are installed well.

So what’s wrong with residential HVAC work? Why are contractors doing such a lousy job?
The failures can be partly blamed on equipment manufacturers, since manufacturers are doing a terrible job of training contractors.

The failures can be partly blamed on regulators, since regulators are doing a terrible job of certifying contractors.

And the failures can be partly blamed on code officials, since code officials are doing a terrible job of enforcing existing codes.

While residential HVAC contractors do a poor job with heating and cooling systems, they do an even worse job with ventilation systems."

Not to criticize too much, but I think a solid paragraph in there explaining the difficulty of HVAC work would be justified. Framers, electricians, and plumbers have a far, far, far easier task to accomplish than the HVAC subcontractor. When something is framed improperly it is clear as day to see and relatively easy to correct before proceeding. An electrical load calculation is not 'easy' per se, but it involves far fewer variables than an HVAC design. Plumbers know they just need to get water in and that water flows downhill.

HVAC contractors face a problem of almost mind-boggling complexity. There are multiple different systems with all their nuances, and annoyingly complex load calculations are fraught with the dangers of plug-and-chug garbage in and garbage out. Energy modeling and utility usage predictions are dubious at best. Also, when installed, it may not be immediately obvious that the HVAC system does not work or how a failure may occur. Framers, electricians, and plumbers have immediate and obvious feedback that is visually apparent when something is incorrect. HVAC installers may perform best practices but some unknown influence caused by them or somebody else will result in mold, failure, or lack of performance down the road.

These reasons are the primary reasons why it is so hard, not because of a collective failure of manufacturers, designers, code officials, inspectors, subcontractors.


3.
Jun 9, 2017 12:30 PM ET

Edited Jun 9, 2017 12:44 PM ET.

Response to Gavin Farrell
by Martin Holladay

Gavin,
Thanks for your comments. You are partly right.

But there are lots of trades that are complicated. In most trades, the incompetents are weeded out by stricter certification requirements.

Electricians can easily burn down a house, but we make sure that electricians are licensed.

Plumbing system design can also be quite complicated. But most states don't allow incompetents to stay in business.

Have you ever noticed that plumbing pipes on new homes don't leak, but that most duct systems do? It's not because sealing duct seams is technically challenging. One trade cares -- the other doesn't.

I could marshal lots of evidence to buttress my claims. To take one of my points -- my reference to code officials: How many residential jobs get an electrical inspection? Far, far more than ever get a meaningful HVAC inspection.


4.
Jun 9, 2017 1:21 PM ET

Response Response
by Gavin Farrell

By the way Martin, I owe my respect to the difficulty of the HVAC task over the years primarily by reading your articles :)


5.
Jun 9, 2017 1:40 PM ET

Response to Gavin Farrell
by Martin Holladay

Gavin,
I'm not sure if that's a compliment or not. I usually strive to make complicated tasks seem simpler, rather than striving to make simple tasks seem more complicated.

But I'll take it as a compliment. Thanks.


6.
Jun 9, 2017 2:24 PM ET

There are relative risks behind those facts. @ Martin, # 3
by Dana Dorsett

"To take one of my points -- my reference to code officials: How many residential jobs get an electrical inspection? Far, far more than ever get a meaningful HVAC inspection."

Improperly installed electrical work can kill you pretty quickly. While that's also arguably true for HVAC systems, it's a harder to screw up the HVAC install so that it's a lethal hazard, yet quite easy to screw up wiring that badly.

Plumbing systems that leak are an immediate and obvious hazard, but drain venting errors getting by the inspectors abound. Again- if it's not fatal or immediately damaging, it doesn't get as much attention.

From an efficiency & comfort point of view, the more efficient the building envelope, the less the HVAC details matter. Amending the Energy Star standard to disallow ducts & air handlers being located outside of conditioned space would make them matter even less, and inspecting to verify compliance would be pretty easy.

Running all the design math on an HVAC system is more complicated and time consuming than running the load calculations, which is why contractors take rule-of-thumb shortcuts, and inspectors remain clueless. In CA under Title 24 duct leakage is required to be tested & documented, and refrigerant levels of central air & heat pumps checked which is reasonable. But doing a rigorous design review on the entire system would be cumbersome, even if the inspectors had the core competency. It's not too much to ask to run blower door & duct blaster testing on new houses, which would be enough to catch the most egregious faults. But flow testing each register against the design and the pressure differentials in each bedroom would be time consuming- it's no surprise if contractors aren't signing up for Energy Star in droves.

Oversizing ducted heating & cooling systems has remarkably little negative impact on energy use, and is rampant. But it does have comfort consequences. Right-sizing ducted air mechanicals are always the right thing to do, but since it barely moves the needle on energy use, it's a bit outside of the core mission of Energy Star.


7.
Jun 9, 2017 2:52 PM ET

Edited Jun 9, 2017 3:17 PM ET.

Response to Dana Dorsett
by Martin Holladay

Dana,
You wrote, "Improperly installed electrical work can kill you pretty quickly. ... Plumbing systems that leak are an immediate and obvious hazard. ... Again- if it's not fatal or immediately damaging, it doesn't get as much attention."

You're absolutely right, of course. There are historical reasons for this focus. Building codes arose from lobbying efforts by the insurance industry, and building inspectors have always focused on fire hazards and life safety concerns.

When energy codes were developed in the 1990s, building inspectors found themselves in over their heads, without the knowledge needed to enforce the new energy regulations. So many energy code requirements have never been enforced.


8.
Jun 9, 2017 9:28 PM ET

Maybe it's too complicated?
by Malcolm Taylor

Electrical work on a house may become just as fraught with problems as HVAC if we heed the call of Smart House advocates and load it up with complex electronic controls, and appliances that are part of the Internet of Things.

Itching to remove the simplicity of plumbing, manufacturers now sell faucets that work off sensors and need batteries to function.

Perhaps the problems in part stem from the designs of the HVAC systems we are installing? Maybe it would be worth a small energy penalty to avoid some of the complexity?


9.
Jun 10, 2017 4:43 AM ET

Edited Jun 10, 2017 4:58 AM ET.

Response to Malcolm Taylor and Dana Dorsett
by Martin Holladay

Dana wrote, "the more efficient the building envelope, the less the HVAC details matter."

Malcolm wrote, "Maybe it's too complicated? ... Perhaps the problems in part stem from the designs of the HVAC systems we are installing? Maybe it would be worth a small energy penalty to avoid some of the complexity?"

You are both right, which is why the GBA site has always urged readers (a) to invest in a building envelope that is more airtight and that has higher R-values than miniminum code requirements, and (b) to specify simple heating and cooling equipment (like ductless minisplits) that doesn't need a complicated distribution system that is designed by the contractor and site-built.

The Energy Star Homes program still permits contractors to install ducts in unconditioned vented attics. If the Energy Star Program insisted that all HVAC equipment and distribution systems be inside the home's thermal envelope, then some of the problems that the program needs to pay close attention to (with lots of paperwork documenting compliance) would go away.


10.
Jun 14, 2017 11:41 AM ET

Response to Malcolm Taylor and Dana Dorsett
by user-6810620

In my view, many of the negative (apologetic comments) stem from the perception that the HVAC problem is simply too complicated. I believe if the problem is broken down into its component parts and each part is tackled (engineering-wise) a separate but related problem. HVAC designs can be dramatically improved. At a minimum, we should that the HVAC contractors designing systems do so where the ducts don't leak and the air distribution is balanced. When I did this to my house on the east coast. I fundamentally changed the comfort levels throughout the house -- temperatures on each of the 3 floors now do not differ by more than one or two degrees from that set on the thermostat. Further, the flow of conditioned air into each room radically increased without any increase in the cost of operating the system, and the system is balanced. In fact, by taking these basic steps, I have been able to save about 30% on my heating and cooling bills. BTW, the cost of all of this was approximately $1,600 for a 2,800 sq ft house built in the 1950s. Frankly, from my experience, I'd love to have the time to take a crack at designing a system for a new house. Of course if I were to do so, I would demand that I oversee each and every aspect of the installation of the system. I understand the import of folks on this site spreading their design wings. But while we wait for the new modernized HVAC community to catch up to code and design us our sophisticated systems, etc., we can take care of a bunch of basic changes that will dramatically improve our comfort levels and save us money in the process..


11.
Jun 14, 2017 1:12 PM ET

Edited Jun 14, 2017 2:30 PM ET.

Response to User-6810620 (Arch Shero)
by Martin Holladay

Arch Shero (a.k.a. User-6810620),

Of course we can all agree that duct systems shouldn't leak, and air flow should be "balanced" (by which you mean, I assume, that the system should be commissioned, adjusting the air flow as needed so that the air flow to each room matches the design air flow).

If you performed this work at your own house, bravo. Doing this work should be a routine part of installing any forced-air system. It should be -- but usually isn't.

It's also no particular surprise that a tight duct system saves energy compared to a leaky duct system.

GBA has been hammering home the importance of these steps for many years. I'm glad that you agree that these steps are essential.


12.
Jun 14, 2017 1:49 PM ET

Response to Martin Holladay
by user-6810620

Martin, my name is Arch Shero and I live in Virginia. Thank you for your additional, but probably oft repeated thoughts. I have significant respect for your writings, finding them loaded with helpful technical information. I know you stress the importance of sealing ducts and balancing air flow into the rooms. I wish in the case of my old home, the original HVAC system was thoughtfully designed. Instead, I suspect, a builder in 1954 simply threw something together and called it enough. I was the eventual victim of this poor effort, as you can well imagine.

The purpose of my comment was not to try to grasp my 15 minutes in the sun, but to remind your readers -- as you do on a regular basis -- that fixes come in different sizes and that there are things each of us can do to greatly improve our HVAC system's performance without spending a ton of money. When I first started with the fixes, the changes seemed small from an engineering perspective, but the results were absolutely huge. I will always remember the HVAC system sales people and technicians telling me that I needed two splits to fix my problem, for a price of around $10,000. In the end, as I intimated above, I was able to fix my system's performance by aero sealing the ductwork (plus a some mechanical sealing with aluminized foil tape) and changing the location of a return from the first to the second floor -- all for around $1,600. BTW the aero sealing was the most expensive part -- $1,200.

I know you and several others who provide comments on this site know infinitely more than I do about designing HVC systems and all the important factors that need to be considered. I offered my comments only because I'd like to encourage people to take some intermediate steps to improving their comfort levels in their homes as a first step toward changing the way the HVAC community does things. So, let's retro-fit our old homes, as well as work with the HVAC community to design and BUILD more responsibly!


13.
Jun 15, 2017 2:41 PM ET

Edited Jun 15, 2017 2:43 PM ET.

It's the HVAC people... (at least in my area - Seattle)
by Dennis Heidner

It's not the Energy Star 3.0 requirements - from what I've seen in my area it's the HVAC bidders and installers that really don't care.

Three years ago, my 90+ efficiency NG furnace was coming up for a replacement. So I contacted SIX local HVAC installers for three of the major name furnaces... and asked for quotes to:

1 Replace furnace with 98% high efficiency furnace, fully modulating gas AND fan speed adjustable by electronics as heating needs dictated. The prior furnace was 90,000 BTU, I had done the manual S and Manual J... figured with all the changes we had done and were doing that a 30,000 BTU furnace was more appropriate - thus I wanted a modulating furnace that could drop down to below 30,000 and up to about 80,000BTU.

2. Six" high capacity filter to be installed at same time.

3. I wanted work to include - and be priced for - replacing the incoming plenum to change from using the studs in the wall as the plenum to using sheet metal. Not a major task.

4. I wanted the furnace to be mounted 2.75" above the current concrete floor - and I had a template 3/4 plywood outline and 2" (250#/sqft foam) prebuilt. That just needed to be laid in place before the started measuring the new duct work and re-installing the furnace.

5. I wanted turning vanes installed in the duct work at the point where the duct needed to make a 90 turn into the furnace (all the manufacturers install instructions say using turning vanes). In other word I wanted the furnace installed per the manufacturers recommendations.

6. I would haul away the prior HVAC equipment including furnace (I wanted to tear down the prior NG and do some forensics on it).

7. I wanted their best thermostat that allowed the full functional use of the furnace - and if possible - access to the settings by computer such that I could capture and log what it claimed it as the set points.

8. I wanted permits pulled and vendor to be contact for inspection. We would be onsite.

9. And I had cash in hand - I made it known that I would choose based on what I thought was the best fit, not the lowest cost. And I reiterated that the ducting related changes were expected to increase costs and I was willing to pay for that. Essentially I wanted to correct the poorly designed return ducting at the time this new furnace would be installed.

10. I started the process in September (after the cooling season and before the heating season was going hot and heavy).

So the results:

A) I had one contractor never return my calls or emails.

B) I had one contractor said they were too busy with new installs and existing customers. Strange in that that year and the next they had constantly been advertising on the radio about their 24hr policy (after quote they could install a new furnace in 24 hours).

C) I had two with quotes that didn't address any of the items on the list - instead they quoted 90% efficiency 120,000 BTU based on the outside dimensions and age of the house. Ugh!

D) I had one quote which said they'd do the duct work - but they insisted on quoting a non-modulating furnace... and they wanted to install a 90,000BTU replacement.

E) I had one quote that responded earlier with proposal for hardware - but then started to walk away because they figured they would the the highest bidder. I had to talk with sales person quite a while and remind him that I wanted the best fit not the lowest cost. Please finish the bid.

This process took nearly six weeks - amazing - trying to schedule people in to look at the house - see what the plans were and read my specs - something that should have been fairly quickly - but there always seemed to be a scheduling conflict and a few no shows that took multiple calls before people came out.

My selection:

I choose the last contractor with the higher price - it was a contractor that was honest about the estimates, they priced out the costs for the added work I was doing - while they didn't think I needed turning vanes - they added them in.

Scheduling then became a problem - we were now into October - and that old NG furnace condensate pan outlet had started to rot through (leaking water onto floor and into hallway). I patched the condensate outlet pipe and tried to move the new furnace install forward... but by that time we'd started to have a cold spell and everyone that had furnace failures was calling for emergency replacements. I had a working solution to my problem - so I asked them to schedule me as soon as possible normal flow... that ended up being first week in December (remember this started in late September). High demand for furnaces nation wide meant three weeks for furnace delivery since I wanted high end instead of generically stocked furnace.

Then a couple of days before the install - I got a call and the installer that was scheduled to do the work was in an accident and they had to reschedule me once again -- another week away......

The work was eventually done the fixed the return duct and set the ducting and furnace up on the insulated assembly. The turning vanes installed the new fully lighted (not just using studs) return duct was complete - and the furnace was installed and running.

It was now December - and it was a cold December/January... the furnace spent most of its time running at about 30,000 BTU's. Previously the furnace was noisy - with most of the noise coming from the return duct and the air turbulence. It's quite now... and the rooms at the far ends of the duct runs - they are comfortable - those oversized furnaces meant that the house never really had good air mixing - the temps didn't have a chance to even out before furnace would kick off because the ducts closer to the thermostat overwhelmed and drove the temps.

If we'd put in one of those UPSIZED 120,000 BTU furnaces - we'd be burning through gas, complaining about the noise and thinking the house had problems. Those were specified by HVAC sales staff that I could only describe as untrained.

The problems I saw were for existing construction that just involved fixing return duct and installing new furnace. But it was real apparent that the HVAC people simply size a house by the sqft and recommend furnace based on the stock or discounts that they get from the manufacturer.

A builder should (especially one with an architect and mechanical person on staff) should be able to provide the Manual S, J, and D for the house... my guess is that many of the HVAC installing companies simply don't want to be bothered with the extra work when there is all this other "EASY" money available to them for people who don't know better and push for better.

If we want the Energy Star 3.0 installations to go better - we should be pushing for retrofit installs to be checked for size and train the HVAC businesses that helping customers fix ducting is good business for them... not a pain to avoid. If installers become comfortable doing the right thing on existing construction - they will also find it easier to do the right thing on new construction - instead of trying to sneak minimal sub code projects through....


14.
Jun 15, 2017 2:48 PM ET

Response to Dennis Heidner
by Martin Holladay

Dennis,
Thanks for sharing your story, which echoes many reports we receive regularly here at GBA.

As I said in my article, no trade on a typical residential job site -- not framers, not plumbers, not electricians -- is as deeply troubled as the HVAC trade. I don't see a solution on the horizon, unfortunately.


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