Rules of Thumb Suck!

Rules of Thumb Suck!

Shawna HendersonJune 20, 2018

Let’s just say it: no one every complained about being too comfortable in their house. Rule-of-thumb heating system sizing – it’s rampant. A couple of years ago, clients of mine were looking to do some significant air sealing and insulation work. They had an amply-oversized oil-fired forced air furnace, and the top floor bedroom furthest away from the unit is always cold. And the room always had condensation on the windows. Even oversized, the furnace can’t push enough heat out to the furthest room.

So my clients, accomplished researchers in different fields, applied their skills to upgrading the HVAC system. And they have determined that a heat pump would serve their needs best. They hired me to listen and make recommendations based on their understanding of what they had researched, and to take a look at the quotes when they came in. 

Air sealing. Check.

Insulation upgrades. Check.

Heat pump. Check.


So the quotes start coming in and while the HVAC contractors were all quoting on Energy Star single-compressor units, they are all different sizes. Two ton, two-and-a-half ton, three ton.


Eenie, meenie…

Out of four contractors, only one took measurements. Out of the four contractors, only one made comments about the octo-ducting in the basement. While I’d like to announce that these were one and the same firm, doing a bang-up job of making my clients feel confident about whom they would be choosing to do the retrofit, I can’t. The measurer was a salesperson for a large firm. For the other three, the person who came to the house was the person who would be installing the system. 

The good news from my perspective was that the firm that included duct testing and modifications in their quote was the one that had been in business the longest, had a track record for decades working with oil-heating systems, and had now branched out into heat pumps. But no heat loss calculation. 

I have to point out that the homeowners were planning significant changes to the house envelope and a future addition. Changes that would alter the heating load by a significant amount. But how much? And where was the benchmark to start from? The oversized furnace? Not much help. Bottom line, is we don’t know. 

So quotes started coming in and while the contractors are all quoting on Energy Star single-compressor units, not a one of them points out that they could offer a much better-performing cold-climate unit for a premium that would be paid back quickly by the increased performance level. Even though two of them are regional reps for dual-compressor or variable speed cold-climate heat pumps.


Billy & the Box Swappers

There are missed opportunities for these HVAC contractors all over this scenario. These folks are just coming in and doing the job they are asked to do. Only the contractor who recommended testing and redesigning some of the ductwork, differentiated himself from the pack. My clients were much more interested in hearing what he had to say that will make their lives more comfortable, than the lower prices they got from the other three.

How do you differentiate? You add to your skillset (or your technicians’ skillsets, or add a partner business’ skill set) and you share knowledge with your client. You give them something better to think about. You level up. And in the process, you can increase your margins. There will be some clients who get lost at the higher price tag, yes. But anyone can come in and price up a box and slap it in and walk away. And if you want to be in that arena, it’s always going to be a tough sell and margins will be as thin as you can make them. Differentiating yourself can improve margins, if only because you have happier customers and fewer callbacks. Likely, your margins will improve because you’re offering more service.

I look at it this way: the world of renovations is a high anxiety place for homeowners. The more anxiety you can take off their plates, the better. You need to be able to clearly define your offering and how it is better than your competition, Billy and the Box Swappers (shout out to Mike Rogers for what should be our industry-standard blues band name).


Offer Customer Service & Anxiety-Reduction

If any of the contractors had said: “I’m going to give you a quote that looks after that rats nest of ducting and gives you a much higher-performance unit that will cost you a little more now, but will save you another X% a year, every year for the next twenty, and we’re going to size it based on a recognized standard for calculating these things.” There would have been no question as to who would be awarded the contract! And if that contractor had also said:  “And by the way, we (or the insulating firm we work with) can do your airsealing/insulation work, too…and we’ll do a blower door test before and after to make sure you get the best job possible…”

In this case, I was brought back in to do a heat loss calculation after the air sealing/insulation work so the homeowners could get revised quotes from the four contractors. I got paid to do that, by the way… because I offered it as a way out of their dilemma. I solved a problem for them – how could they decide which of the HVAC companies had given them the best deal if they couldn’t determine which was the right-sized unit? I also pointed out variable speed and/or two-compressor units that each of the contractors could get their hands on from their existing suppliers. It’s up to the homeowners to make the call on which type of unit they will go for, but now they are comparing apples to apples, and will definitely be able to sort through the revised quotes with more confidence.

 There are clients who just want the box swapped, and that’s fine (I guess). But then there are clients who want the best solution. Wearing my Bfreehomes hat, as a consultant who doesn’t do installations, I want to rely on a solid roster of good technicians who always bring their best game to the client, who can see the problems with equipment and systems that I’m not qualified to diagnose. To do that well, they also need to understand that controlling air leakage and reducing energy use are key to improving home performance, and I want them to work with me to find the best solution.

In the end, it’s all about the box of tools you bring with you to the client meeting, and the toolkit you use when building your quote as well as the tools you use for the install. Your technicians are a marketing person’s ideal strategy come to life.  They are in the home with the client, the client is relying on the technician to offer up qualified advice. The technician can see what’s needed, what the client doesn’t know they need, and they can bridge the gap, do a quick measure-up for a heat loss calculation and recommend a line of action that focuses on the best solution for that client. Bringing them up to speed with home performance will help you leap ahead of the competition into a full-service firm that is second to none.




Think measuring up is tedious, and you can’t warrant the time on site to do it? You’re not alone! There are some cool apps out there for smartphones that allow you to essentially point and shoot. I use MagicPlan, which creates a floor plan from pictures of every corner in a room, then you edit each room to add windows, doors, and stairs. Another app that has good reviews is RoomScan. You touch the phone to each wall and it builds the floorplan, then you add in openings etc. It takes a little practice to get going, but it’s so convenient to plug a digital floor plan (DFX or PDF format) into Wrightsoft. Cuts a nice chunk of time out of a heat loss calculation, making something that you can definitely afford to do!

 A version of this article was first published Feb 2015 Oil and Energy

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