Q&A With the Expert: What’s Hot (and Cool) When it Comes to Home Comfort

A conversation with Cynthia Adams, CEO of Pearl Certification, and Ralph Sachs of Albemarle Heating and Air

Recently I sat down with Ralph Sachs, General Manager for Albemarle Heating and Air (AHA), a Charlottesville, VA, heating and cooling contracting company. Full disclosure: AHA is also a member of the Pearl Advantage Network – a group of vetted, high-quality contractors who Pearl Certify their installations to help homeowners capture the value of their home improvement investments.

I have tremendous respect for Ralph, who has been in the HVAC business for many years, and I was curious to speak with him about the industry’s innovations. What follows is an edited version of our conversation, and homeowners take note – Ralph shares some excellent advice that can help you save money, while increasing the comfort, health and value of your home!

Cynthia, Pearl Certification: A number of new technologies have been making their way into the heating and cooling equipment market – what ones do you think homeowners should be paying attention to?

Ralph, AHA: I find what contractors call a “Smart Maintenance Program” to be really compelling for homeowners – it’s definitely the way of the future. With a Smart Maintenance Program, a heating and cooling contractor installs sensors on the equipment that monitor its performance and alert the homeowner (and the contractor) when something is not quite right. It’s like having your own tech professional in the home 24/7. Emerson’s ComfortGuard is one example of this kind of technology, which is more effective than the twice yearly “tune-up” visits because it can detect a small problem before it turns into a bigger (and more expensive) one.

Cynthia: How much do Smart Maintenance Programs typically cost?

Ralph: Homeowners pay a yearly monitoring fee to receive helpful reports that typically costs @$49/year. Pricing for the product itself ranges from around $299/install to $449 if a smart thermostat is needed. Another great thing about a Smart Maintenance Program is that the technology can be installed retroactively - it’s not just for new equipment. And it gives homeowners that convenience of control over their homes’ heating and cooling right from their phone. Some contractors, like Albemarle, will include discounts on parts and repairs, and a reduced diagnostic fee to go with it.

Cynthia: What I like about products like ComfortGuard is that they give homeowners insight into the performance of the most expensive piece of equipment they own. And with that insight owners can have an informed conversation with their contractor about its maintenance or repair. But what about the equipment itself? What’s new there?

Ralph: Side discharge outdoor units – with these units you see the benefits and efficiencies of mini-split technology applied to traditional heat pumps. It allows for smaller outdoor units and a marked increase in efficiency. Manufacturers like Daikon and Mitsubishi are pros at this because they’ve been making mini-splits for awhile now, but Trane and Carrier have now integrated the technology, too. With these units, air conditioners achieve efficiencies of 16 – 18 SEER and heat pumps 16 – 20 SEER. A big benefit for many homeowners is that they’re not only smaller but also much quieter than traditional outdoor units – anyone who’s had their backyard porch time ruined by the noise of an outdoor unit will appreciate how quiet they are.

Cynthia: What do you recommend for indoor air quality? It seems like there’s a lot of new products coming into the market which monitor that as well. 

Ralph: Assuming the home’s ducts are properly installed and don’t leak (which is a big assumption for most homes), we’ve seen the most success with a 5” media filter and an air scrubber. They really work well to clean the air in a home - if a family member has asthma or allergies, we recommend them.

Cynthia: Let’s say I had a problem with my heating or cooling unit and called in a contractor to fix it. What should I ask him or her to know I’ve got a quality professional who’s going to do the job right?

Ralph: Ask them this specifically: did they run a heating/cooling load? Or put another way, how do they know the system they’re proposing is properly sized? What you want to know is whether or not the contractor did a full analysis that takes into account the home’s size, insulation, and ductwork, or are they just there to make a quick buck by “changing out the box.” Many comfort issues in the home can’t be solved just by putting in a new unit - even if the old one was failing. It’s important the contractor take the home’s building shell into account when proposing a solution and sizing the equipment.

Also make sure your estimates are specific so you can do an apples to apples comparison when making a purchasing decision. This should include the unit’s model number, not just its SEER. For example, a SEER 15 unit with a variable speed air handler will have a higher upfront cost, but it will also provide big savings and comfort over a standard one. You won’t know which one you’re getting just off a SEER number.

Cynthia: Tell me about a recent problem you solved for a customer.

Ralph: Here was an unusual one. We installed a brand new system for a customer, but we got called back to the home because there was a problem with the unit’s noise. Turns out the manufacturer was aware of the issue, and it stemmed from how the unit was made in the factory. We not only repaired the problem, but we also went to bat with the manufacturer on behalf of the homeowner so that they got a 10-year parts and labor warranty – and the peace of mind that went with it. 

Cynthia: Thanks for your time, Ralph - it was good speaking with you! Last question – you’ve been participating in Pearl’s Certification program for some months now, and I know you’ve certified something like 100 homes. Can you share with me the value you see in the certification for your customers?

Ralph: Sure! I think it’s comforting for a homeowner to know a third party says what they’ve done for their home’s energy efficiency has value, and with Pearl they have proof of that value.

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