Do you want good Indoor Air Quality?

I recently had an interesting conversation with a contractor in Houston. I had recommended that he add a new service offering to his very successful business. That new service would be selling a preventative maintenance service with all the systems that his company installed. This service would consist of a semiannual inspection of the system, cleaning, antimicrobial treatment, and measurement and adjustment of air flow. His response shocked me. He replied that he could not possibly suggest such a service to his customers. To do would be to suggest that there was something wrong with the HVAC system that his company had designed and installed. He went on to say that, in his belief, a well designed and constructed system should work trouble free for years.

After I got over my initial surprise, I reflected on several questions:

  • Is this a common attitude in the industry?
  • What leads to this thought process?
  • Is this thinking correct?

A Common Attitude

During the following couple of weeks, I made it a point to discuss the subject with a number of contractors. I chose both contractors who offered service contracts and those who did not. Most of the contractors who had strong service policy programs seemed very sincere about the need for regular preventative maintenance activities to keep a system operating properly. Some even cited examples where problems were caught and corrected during a routine maintenance call that could have greatly damaged the system or shortened its useful life. A couple confessed that they pushed service contracts more as a way to generate extra profits than through any conviction that customers realized any significant value. For the most part, however, this group believes in routine maintenance and feels they are providing value for their customers. Most of those I talked to emphasized the mechanical and electrical problems that they believe preventative maintenance heads off. Many were convinced that their programs resulted in lower operating costs for customers. Not one brought up occupant comfort or an improved indoor environment as possible benefits of routine maintenance.

Not surprisingly, the group of contractors who do not offer maintenance programs presented a far different view. Most seemed to feel that routine service on modern HVAC Systems is not really needed. Some claimed to have actual information that showed that customers save money by waiting until a breakdown occurs. Virtually everyone in this group expressed the opinion that service contracts are of far more value to contractors who offer them that to their customers. Many took stands that it is unethical to promote routine service. I had always assumed that contractors who did not promote service contracts just hadn’t gotten around to it yet or had so much business that they could not fit in the time to put together a program. It was a real eye opener to find out how many had given careful consideration to service contracts and come to a decision that they were not right for their business.

Clearly, my interviews did not form a scientifically valid survey. I did, however come away with a strong feeling that a substantial number of small to medium sized contractors (possibly even a majority) do not really believe that service contracts add value for customers above and beyond their cost. Many appear to share the belief that routine service of modern HVAC systems is not needed.

What Leads To This Thought Process?

Many cited the improved quality and reliability of today’s equipment. Several times I heard, ‘A good system can last 20 years without any attention’. Some pointed out the longer warranty terms that have been introduced in recent years. They offered these as evidence that manufacturers have data that confirms long useful lives for their equipment.

A number pointed with pride the care and attention they give to new system installations. There is clearly a tendency in the industry to equate quality with long life. I found a lot of additional examples of the type of thinking I had encountered in Houston. Many appear to feel that they have an agreement with their customers to provide a system that does not need service.

To better understand this thinking, I asked these contractors about the trucks in their fleets and how they maintained them. In virtually every case, the contractor outlined the importance of routine oil and filter changes. Most went on to support the need for most of the periodic checks and inspections recommended by the manufacturer. One cited an example of how he had to buy new brake rotors for a truck because he failed to check the brake pads when recommended.

In each case, I asked why they thought a truck needed more maintenance that a HVAC system. Is it more poorly built? Is it more complex? Is it used more frequently or subjected to greater extremes? We all agreed that the answers to these questions would be difficult to obtain. However, they seem to raise some interesting points. Although there are many differences between a motor vehicle and an HVAC system, there are also some possible parallels.

Is This Thinking Correct?

I don’t believe that my truck analogy caused any of the contractors to go out and immediately start offering service contracts. Hopefully, it did start some new thinking. One contractor pointed out that the truck manufacturer publishes a maintenance manual that calls for periodic service. I pointed out that, since he selects the components (air handler, condensing unit, ducts, grills, thermostat, etc.) and assembles them, he is the manufacturer and it is his responsibility to publish a ‘maintenance manual. I think that may be the first time he ever considered the full value of his services. Previously he looked at his equipment manufacturer as the really important contributor to the success of his systems. That is kind of like saying the north star engine is what makes a Cadillac a great car. It is important, but there is a lot more.

I do not know if preventative maintenance is necessary for HVAC systems form a mechanical and electrical standpoint. I am not an expert on those matters. I do know, however, that routine preventative maintenance is critical to maintaining high operating efficiency and acceptable indoor air quality.

Every investigation of IAQ problems that has been reported in the literature has found that inadequate maintenance is a major if not the sole cause of the problem. Contamination in the system that has built up and not been removed; Inadequate air-flow or ventilation; and Lack of latent capacity for moisture removal are all problems that good preventative maintenance could have headed off. The record is clear. If you want your customers to enjoy a healthy and comfortable indoor environment, sell them a preventative maintenance program.

Bob Baker is a member of ASHRAE and Chairman and CEO of BBJ Environmental Solutions, Inc., a manufacturing company specializing in providing clean air through environmentally responsible products, such as BBJ MicroBiocide, BBJ Micro Coil Clean, BioSoft Spray Disinfectant/Cleaner, and Fresh Duct, as well as The Indoor Air First Aid Kit.