A Different Kind of HVAC Contractor – And the Book He Wrote

Trish Holder Interviews Joe Gorman, Contractor and Author of From Contractor to Consumer

Joe Gorman From Contractor to Consumer

The book you’ve got to read (or at least skim) before choosing an HVAC contractor!

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.

9 Responses »

  1. Trish,

    We have hired in our opinion a horrible HVAC Contractor who misled us as to equipment and thermostats. We were out of town when the last part was installed and it was not the proper equipment. So to shorten the story we ended up hiring another contractor who changed out the incorrect air conditioners to variable speed heat pumps that were sized by the factory tech to match the variable speed air handlers that we had previously had installed. To make matters worse the bad contractor had not installed the right thermostats that would allow the air handler to operate at variable speeds.

    Our utility bills for electricitty, water and sewer used to exceed $1,000.00 a month and are now at $300.00 per month. Our home is all electric so the next step is a grid tie PV system and perhaps solar hot water heating.

    Thanks Roger

  2. What a great idea, kudos to Joe Gorman for taking the time to write this book, and for educating consumers about these issues as well. There are too many times contractors have gotten away with installations that have been inadequate at best. In my opinion, this is due to a lack of understanding of HVAC fundamentals, on the contractor’s part, as to what is involved with an energy efficient installation, namely a heating/cooling load calculation, (as stated), which is absolutely necessary for any proposed HVAC project.

    Recently, however, I noticed that there have been educational programs initiated by a leader in the HVAC industry, (Taco), and by Emerson-Swan, a manufacturer representative’s company serving New England, Upstate NY, and PA, which are trying to combat this problem. Their online courses and on-site seminars provide the necessary education for today’s HVAC/Hydronic contractor and/or technician, so that the end customer will have the most efficient installation possible.

    Education is necessary in today’s work environment, and with these services available to all, there are no excuses for members within the industry not to keep up with these advances. This is vital for the ever evolving hydonic/HVAC technologies, and for reducing our carbon footprint. A win-win for all involved.

    Trish thanks for bringing this book to our attention, and for providing a great interview as well.

  3. Great interview Trish,

    Joe Gorman is a terrific contractor and a good writer. His book is written in consumer English and is extremely informative. It’s great reading for consumers and contractors alike. I can wholeheartedly recommend buying it.

    Should this book be required reading for consumers searching for a new heating or cooling system the industry would clean up overnight.Consumers would begin to get the efficiency have been promised, energy bills would plummet and indoor comfort would be redefined.

    Get and read Joe’s book.

    Rob Falke
    President
    national Comfort Institute

  4. We live in a timber frame home enclosed with SIPs (structural insulated panels). These types of homes if the SIPs are properly installed are extremly energy efficient. Our HVAC contractor did the inital Manual J and Manual D calculations and did install a heating and air conditioning system that fits our house well and is neither over sized or under sized. Our unit is an electric heat pump with an emergency LP gas backup. The emergency gas backup except for testing purposed has never been employed. Our electric bills average $85 a month year round for our 2,700 sq ft home. Our duct work is also great we have no hot or cold ‘spots’ in our home.

    I very much agree that your HVAC contractor should be well versed in his product and neither over sell or undersell his product and sell a product that readily has parts available. Fortunatley the two HVAC systems we have purchased for our own personal homes over the years have only had to have one part replacement. It is Murphy’s law that these problems are only dicovered in the worst of the weather.

    I believe another aspect to consider when you are looking for a HVAC contractor is —- Does he service what he sells and how difficult is it to get them to actujally come out and do routine maintanence or repair a problem. Don’t be afraid to ask for references – you are the consumer after all.

    We sell timber frame homes and the SIP systems that enclose them. It is not unusuall for our clients to research ALL aspects of their homes for 2-3+ years before contacting timber frame companies. I beleive this book would be a great addition to our customer research towards building their dresam home, regardless of size.

    Norma Jo Bell

  5. Great job of educating the consumer. I have installed properly sized systems for years when I owned an HVAC firm in California. I now consult for comfort issues in Missouri. The ducting is overlooked 90% of the time. Kudos to Joe.

    Rick Stein
    R&L Envirocare

  6. Thanks Trish for the interview of Joe Gorman!

    Contractors like him are definitely in the minority. His book should be read by all consumers before hiring a contractor.

    Andrew
    ARS Comfort Solutions, Inc

  7. As publisher and head blogger of a consumer oriented, brand neutral HVAC site for 5 years, it seems to me that the choices in equipment get more complex by the day. Fortunately, the first step step for homeowners — choosing the right contractor — has not changed nearly as much. After reading your review of Joe’s book and the comments to it, I just went to his website and ordered a copy. Based on his messages in the Q&A, we’ll be following up with a book eview in our blog. On this same topic, in our September 5th post http://www.airconditioning-and-heating.com/blog/?p=213, the first point of the “top ten” was that same advice.

  8. Trish,
    Great article, Mr. Gorman’s book was informative and easy to read. Your article hits on excellent points that all home owners should be aware of.
    Keep up the great work.

    Sincereley,

    Ed Honesto

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