Beware the “Singular Specialty Expert”

My business partner and I attend a lot of events with other professionals in our industry. Recently, I was at a meeting where a very high-end HVAC contractor was boasting to our group about the $150K geothermal heating and cooling system his company recently installed in a NJ home. The system was top shelf, top price, and his client had no problems paying for it.

Shortly after the new HVAC system was installed, however, his client called to say that one room in his house was still feeling very cold and uncomfortable. The HVAC contractor explained to his client how the system was properly sized and was delivering as designed. The problem, said the HVAC contractor, was that the house was old and not properly weathersealed. So the HVAC contractor then sold his client another $50K in weathersealing to make sure each and every room was finally comfortable.

This story made me wonder why the HVAC contractor didn’t start with an energy audit. This might have cost the client a couple of thousand dollars for a larger home — which I assume it was — but that audit would have suggested weathersealing first, and then HVAC system upgrades, as needed. The new HVAC systems would have then been smaller and less expensive for the newly efficient weathersealed home.

The obvious answer is that this HVAC pro wanted to make the largest sale possible. In fact, he made two large sales: the oversized HVAC system, plus the energy efficiency upgrades to the house.

Make no mistake we are in business to make money, but, at our company, we pride ourselves on helping our clients spend wisely.

A really good residential general contractor is a lot like your family doctor. Just like your family’s GP, it is our job to know the personality of your home, its special flaws and its unique features. We work with you to correct problems in a holistic fashion you can live with. Sure, sometimes, you do have to spend a lot of money on your home. But at other times, the simple, less-expensive solution is the right one. A great GC will pride himself or herself on helping you make the best choice.

Passive Protection

Here are a few snaps of the small house we stayed in on our recent Florida trip to Amelia Island.

You can see these are very efficient, small houses with very large ventilation chimneys at the tops of their roofs.

These houses sported many very large glass windows and doors that looked out onto the sunny, lush golf course. Their interior plans were logical and spacious. Total interior space was around 1,100 square feet with a 2-bed, 2-bath layout. The small, enclosed patio had a small shed perfect for storing garbage and recycling, yard tools or bicycles.

While this small house had been maintained over the years, it was ready for a modern makeover. Both bathrooms and the kitchen were old and builder grade. A more efficient HVAC system, modern double-paned insulated windows and doors were needed to make the house more energy efficient. Solar panels running electric heat to the tile floors would be a great item to add, as well. Insulation was nowhere in the attic and would be an easy big-bang-for-the-buck improvement.

We were told that the temps in this area of Florida were typically in the 90s from May to November. So you can appreciate how a large, vented roof area would help to cool this house. The live oak canopy would also help keep the house shaded in summer.

This development had nice, preserved natural marsh areas, woodlands, golf courses, tennis and pool areas and a club house for members. There were also miles of paved and unpaved pathways for bicycles and walkers. It occurred to me that a planned gated community like this one has great opportunities for developing sustainable energy systems to serve itself. Geo thermal, solar and wind power are all great options for this community to consider investing in as a group on their own property.

I thought these houses were nice examples of well built, well designed efficient living. We enjoyed staying in our house very much.

Investing in Energy Upgrades? Spend Your $$ Wisely

We recently caught up with one of our HVAC pros. He’s a very nice and knowledgeable guy who works for a large HVAC company, whose name I won’t mention here. He let us know they have been installing a lot of geothermal HVAC systems and had just completed one for a house in Mt. Airy, a town on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Let me provide a little backstory on this. Typically, geothermal is done for houses with yards since the geothermal heat/cool collectors are placed in drilled holes in the ground, or under a lot of soil, or in ponds. In other words, you need access to soil or groundwater to make use of the system. That’s because these systems use the constant heat/cold differential of the earth, or a pool of water, to condition the air in your home.

This particular home is about 1,500 sf — not a big house, by any means — located in an area that typically offers minimal yard space. In the case of this project, we were told they drilled three 250-foot-deep holes for the system installation, and the project cost $30,000. We didn’t get the background on the house or why the homeowners wanted to replace their existing system. It could be they had an original hot-water heat system and no A/C at all. We see that a lot in Philly. Because these old heaters had few moving parts, they can still be in use after 60 to 80 years. Typically, these old heaters are very inefficient, and the houses are uninsulated with old wooden windows.

Make no mistake: we think geothermal is a great system to use, and we consider this option for some of the homes that we work on. But $30,000 is a lot of money, even with the 30 percent tax break currently offered by the government. Did this homeowner make the best decision when it came to spending his renovation dollars? Sounds like he was happy enough.

But maybe a general contractor who looked at the whole-house system with the homeowner might have suggested conducting an efficiency audit for $500, followed by super-insulating the house for $2,000 to $3,000, and then installing a simple gas-fired hot water heat and domestic hot-water system. For this size house, that HVAC system would run about $10,000 – $13,000 installed, A/C included. In this scenario, the homeowner would have paid about half the price of the geothermal system and would still be eligible for tax breaks for all of these efficiency measures.

Keep in mind that energy efficiency means using less energy, and the most expensive solution is not always the most appropriate one. Typically, installing proper insulation after an efficiency audit will yield impressive results. Once that is done, heating and cooling appliances can be chosen to suit the homeowner’s needs and complete the efficiency upgrade.