Trish Holder Interviews Joe Gorman, Contractor and Author of From Contractor to Consumer
Not long ago I ran across a book on the internet entitled, “From Contractor to Consumer: The Truth about Heating, Air Conditioning, and Home Comfort Systems”. HVAC nerd that I am, I had to investigate. After all, this was pretty out of the ordinary for a HVAC contractor to write a book – much less one that is actually geared toward educating consumers. Frankly, I think a lot of them would like to keep us stupid. So, I asked Joe to send me a copy of his book and he did. I was so impressed with this easy-to-read little book (and Joe’s initiative to write it) that I decided to interview this rare contractor who happens to agree with me that what a homeowner doesn’t know about their HVAC system really can hurt.
Trish: Joe, what drove you to write this book?
Joe: Plain and simple, I was sick and tired of watching customers go blank in the face because they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, which put me in the same bowl as everyone else. Because of this lack of understanding, the only decision for them to make was one based on price. So I wrote the book to educate clients before–and after–I spoke with them regarding a new system.
Trish: Tell the truth – just how easy is it for a consumer to be “taken in” by bad a HVAC contractor or be led down the wrong path?
Joe: It’s extremely easy, but preventable. A lot of contractors have the mindset that they have to be cheap to get the job. So they talk a big game, give a low price, and then cannot deliver. One of the keys to getting what you pay for is to get everything in writing, and then make sure you get what was promised when the job is done.
Trish: In your opinion, what is more important, the equipment or the installer?
Joe: THE INSTALLER! The equipment only works well when properly installed. The unfortunate thing in today’s market is that somehow consumers think that air conditioning and heating systems have become commoditized. They think you drop it in, plug it in, and everything will work just fine. The equipment is just a part of the home comfort system. If it is not sized or installed properly for the home or for the duct system, your asking for big problems.
Trish: Do you think consumers have become to hung up on brand?
Joe: Not necessarily. I think that contractors are hung up on brand. Most people have no idea what kind of air conditioner they have, or what to buy. And a lot of them have no idea what brand they bought when the salesman left the house! In reality it really doesn’t matter as long as what you bought, including accessories, is going to do what you want it to do. Air conditioners cool the house, furnaces warm the home, and manufacturers pretty much buy all of the components from the same companies to put their systems together. There are some parts on each different brand that the manufacturer makes in-house, and tweaks on other parts which they purchase, but for the most part a furnace is a furnace, and an air conditioner is an air conditioner. I would recommend that a consumer buy a system from someone they trust, and buy a brand that has readily available parts.
Trish: From your book, it sounds like you and I agree that correct sizing is the major issue that homeowners need to be aware of when it comes to installing a new HVAC unit. Just in case my readers don’t believe me, would you please tell them why this is so important?
Joe: Sizing is one of the biggest issues we have always faced. Systems that are too small will run all day and never get the home to a comfortable temperature. And systems that are too big cause a whole host of problems. The only way to properly size a system is to do a Manual J load calculation on the home.
Trish: You’re inside the industry – so you tell me, just how big a problem is oversized HVAC systems in the residential market?
Joe: HUGE. How huge, I do not know off of the top of my head, but I will say that out of the last five systems I have installed this summer, I downsized four of the air conditioners, and all of the furnaces.
Trish: What are the downsides to having oversized HVAC?
Joe: HVAC Systems that are too big, our most common sizing issue, will run in short spurts, causing uncomfortable temperature fluctuations, higher utility bills, and extraordinary wear and tear equipment.
Trish: I know in my own home, I originally had an oversized geothermal system. Overly high humidity during the cooling season clued me in that something was wrong. What are some other signs that a system is oversized?
Joe: The most common issue is that the homeowner has to keep going over to the thermostat to turn the system on and off because they are getting too cold or too hot really fast. They might also notice that the system turns on for very short periods of time and then turns right off again.
Trish: When building a new home, most homeowners would expect their builder to know all this. Do they?
Joe: NO WAY!! Most builders don’t have a clue, nor do they care. Remember the movie Armageddon? “We are riding on a spaceship put together with a million pieces all built by the cheapest bidder…,” or however that line goes? That’s been my experience with general contractors.
The home comfort system is not only the most expensive system in the home, it’s what determines if you are comfortable or just plain miserable. The best thing someone can do if they are building a custom home is hire the HVAC contractor on their own. The builder should still be given his 10% due to the fact that no matter what, he is still going to have to work with the HVAC contractor.
Trish: I love the way you use analogies like the human body to explain some fundamental things about home heating and cooling. How important is it for a contractor to be able to translate concepts to the homeowner level?
Joe: It is extremely important. That’s why homeowners do not understand what they are buying, and base decisions on price. They really have no idea what they are getting. One of the reasons I wrote the book, and compare things to scenarios that most people can understand, is so the homeowner can see the difference between good and bad contractors. They should be able to tell which contractor is on the up and up, and which ones are trying to take them for a ride.
Trish: You make a point of discussing zoned systems and how homeowners need to be careful about whom they choose to install these. What should they look for in a contractor who will be installing a zoned system?
Joe: A zoned duct system needs to be balanced, the static pressures need to be within range, and the BTU’s need to be delivered to the rooms efficiently and safely. Very few zoned systems I have come across meet this criteria and it is very hard to do. A zoned system will never be as efficient as a stand-alone system so if you can afford it, the ultimate zoning system, is a separate stand-alone comfort system for each zone.
Trish: You talk a lot about the importance of good duct design. How can a homeowner make sure they have a good duct system?
Joe: Well, it would be tough for them. Beyond visually making sure the ducts aren’t leaking and are straight without kinks, they really can’t. I would recommend looking for a local contractor who is certified by the National Comfort Institute in air balancing, and have a balance report prepared.
Trish: What are some indications that the duct system in an existing home may be of poor design?
Joe: Noisy, uneven temperatures throughout the house, high utility bills.
Trish: I’ve spoken at length about what a Manual J is, but why don’t you explain to my readers what a Manual D is and why it is also important?
Joe: Manual D is used to properly size the duct system or air distribution system in a home. You can size a system for the whole house using a Manual J, and have the right size system sitting in the garage ready to go, but if you do not have a properly sized air distribution system, who cares if the equipment is the right size? A system is only going to work as good as its weakest link.
Trish: Speaking of Manual Ds and Manual Js, it’s one thing for a homeowner to demand that these calculations be done – but how does a homeowner know they’ve been done correctly? I know for a fact there are contractors who will fudge the numbers just to get in the size unit they are convinced you need based on the square footage of your house.
Joe: Like I said before, you need to trust your contractor. Search out the local contractors who have invested in themselves, been trained to size and install systems properly, and know how to test these systems to see if they are working properly and efficiently. A good place to start would be http://www.certaincomfort.org, where you can type in your zip code and it will give you a list of local NCI certified companies.
Trish: Should the homeowner get involved in the selection of HVAC subcontractors when building a new home?
Joe: As I mentioned before, DO NOT let your builder choose the HVAC contractor. If the builder does not want to work with a company that you choose for your comfort, find a new builder.
Joe Gorman has been operating JP Gorman, Inc. – High Performance Energy Solutions in the Sacramento, California area for 18 years. He is a licensed California contractor with the following class designations: General Contractor, Electrical Contractor, and Heating and Air Conditioning Contractor. He is also an NBI Certified Residential Air Balancer. His book can be purchased at http://www.jpgorman.com.