Forced air retrofit

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When installing a high efficiency furnace, if there is a gas water heater some consideration must be given on how to vent it. (Photos courtesy of ClimateCare)

When installing a high efficiency furnace, if there is a gas water heater some consideration must be given on how to vent it. (Photos courtesy of ClimateCare)

Listening to the customer’s needs is often the most critical step

By Leah Den Hartogh

Snow is already falling in many provinces across Canada and some Canadian homeowners may be starting to think about whether their current heating system is really the best option for them. This means that contractors may be finding themselves conducting more retrofits as the weather starts to get colder. Busy season is upon us.

For example, customers may decide to change out their old system – and it may be forced air, or it could be something completely different like electric baseboard heating – for a more modern, comfortable and efficient forced air system. But what key points should a contractor take into consideration and remember when retrofitting one of these systems?

“First and foremost, they should listen to the customer,” said Gary Georgette, manager, quality assurance, residential field support at Carrier Corp., Indianapolis, Indiana. “Determine exactly what they want, what features they are looking for and what problems they are having with their current system.” Contractors must also make sure that code requirements are still met during retrofit updates.

The first step that a contractor needs to ask themselves is does the new equipment fit in the existing location? Does the equipment meet the required equipment clearances? Will the existing duct system handle the air flow?

High efficiency equipment

Higher efficiency heating equipment can have higher air flow requirements, noted Georgette. “In some cases, the heating airflow may be higher than the required cooling airflow.”

When dealing with gas appliances, it is also important for contractors to determine if a chimney liner is required. Georgette reports that if the existing furnace is mid-efficiency, it is likely required. If there is an existing metal vent, the contractor will need to assess if it can handle the combined input of the new furnace and the water heater.

When installing a sidewall-vented condensing furnace, the contractor will need to verify that the existing B-vent is sized correctly for just the water heater. If the water heater is the only appliance remaining that is vented to a chimney they may need to supply a chimney liner for it.

If the B-vent passes through the attic, the contractor should also check for evidence of water leaking through roof flashing or at the joins of the vent pipe.

With ductwork, it is also important the contractor makes sure there is no sagging or bunched up flex ducts. Contractors should note when conducting a forced air system retrofit if there are any accessories or lack of accessories installed. “Some accessories are necessary for the operation of the equipment,” reports Georgette.

Careful preparation

During these retrofits, Georgette also notes that contractors should calculate both the heat loss and gain levels. “Many systems are over-sized and tend to short cycle. Equipment performs best when operating at a steady state. Also, many homes have had upgrades to doors, windows and insulation to save energy and lower the heat loss of the structure. A house with an old 100,000 Btu/h input/80,000 Btu/h output furnace that replaces the original 100,000 Btu/h input/75,000 Btu/h output furnace will have an even more over-sized furnace when an 100,000 Btu/h input/ 95,000 Btu/h output furnace is installed.”

Rheem also recommends that contractors conduct heat loss/gain calculations to determine the precise needs of that specific house, said Adam Wills, general sales manager of HVAC and customer support for Rheem Canada, Brampton, Ont.

“Oversizing causes short cycling that can lead to premature failures and significant temperature difference throughout the home. Under sizing will leave you with a system continuously trying to keep up.”

Most of the time, homeowners will only purchase one or two new systems in their lifetime – “so use this opportunity to educate consumers on upgraded equipment and what they can do for their comfort level as well as the efficiencies they bring. Don’t wait for the customer to ask you,” said Wills.

The contractor is basically on the front line to make sure the customer is getting the highest level of comfort they can get. It is important for contractors to talk to the homeowners about the different products available.

Comfort with controls

Communicating controls can go a long way in terms of comfort, said Wills. “They provide greater convenience and ease of use, unlock sizable benefits and, should something go wrong, provide service techs with a roadmap to make repairs. There are lots of other additional pieces to the system than could have tremendous benefits – if only we mentioned them every time! IAQ, duct cleaning and sealing, and zoning are just a few examples,” he added.

Carrier recommends that contractors listen to customers and provide options for controls that match their lifestyle. “Certainly, advanced controls provide the most advanced and smartest methods for controlling a system. Take the time to explain the options and show customers how they operate.” This step can easily be overlooked when the job is done. Explaining the controls is critical.

Wills noted that the more complex controls on today’s forced air systems require a different understanding from contractors. He suggests they partner with a specific distributor and manufacturer that provides regular training on their products to ensure the contractor has a thorough understanding of what is being installed and that the customer is getting the best product.

When things don’t go right

A contractor can do everything right when going into an installation, but still run into trouble. “You always have horror stories,” said Rod Mysko, president of Custom Comfort ClimateCare, a Barrie, Ont. HVAC contractor. “As an example, let’s say that you have a century old home that you need to conduct a retrofit on, and then you get into a wall and say “oops, we thought we could do this there, but we can’t.”

The best approach to these types of situations is to sit back down and analyze what the end goal is and what you need to do to accomplish it. In the end, every job gets completed but sometimes it just takes longer to finish, he added.

“One of the scenarios that comes up quite often, when people have finished ceilings and then you have to tell them you have to cut down all of this ceiling to do this and coming up the walls. A lot of times they don’t realize the magnitude of what they are going to get into.” When situations like this come up, Mysko stresses that the most important thing for a contractor to do is communicate with the homeowner. “To avoid the horror stories, you just have to talk to your customers before doing anything.”

Mysko says that forced air retrofitting can be more intrusive compared to other options, but that shouldn’t scare away customers. He says that “if this was my home, this is what I would be doing here. Yes, it’s going to be more money. But you are going to have a home that is going to have the heating that you require and the air conditioning that you want.” His last piece of advice for contractors is that they should be proactive with customers “It is their home.”

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