Ladies and gentlemen: it's time to step up. This message is especially targeted to the need for our industry to take the lead with regards to whole house and HVAC system performance — before someone else does. Who is that someone else? The home improvement and the traditional energy auditing and home weatherization industry are going after the HVAC slice of the pie in a big way.

There are two main forces at work that will continue to drive the changes that are occurring today and over the next several years. First, competition from new companies coming into the HVAC industry, primarily from the home improvement side — we'll see intense competition from large and small companies as well as the big box retailers. They will step up marketing efforts like never before. Second, the increasing government and utility focus on our industry will only grow stronger and more focused. The buzz and activity from these groups is starting to reach a fever pitch.

We Will Either Lead or Follow. Large home improvement companies and big box retailers will be marketing to be recognized as the leaders in home performance. They're starting to realize the HVAC system is where you can get the biggest bang for the buck — and the most profit.

Many of these companies are currently trying to figure out how to become the total solution providers, leading with their primary products, ranging from windows, to insulation, to other home improvement products and services. They see HVAC contractors as either competitors or subcontractors.

Plus, new energy raters and home testing companies are cropping up everywhere. Some know what they're doing, but many are writing prescriptions for disaster — many don't understand that on the HVAC side, you can't achieve performance through just equipment change-outs or duct sealing.

We Must Step Up. It's vital that the HVAC industry become the go-to people when it comes to total delivered performance and energy efficiency. HVAC contractors should be leading the way on energy efficiency retrofits. HVAC is the most complex part of the equation. You need to learn your stuff when it comes to home performance, but it's a lot easier for an HVAC expert to learn about insulation and house sealing than for a weatherization contractor or rater to learn all the technical components and nuances of HVAC.

Many performance-based contractors know that one affects the other. If you fix the house, you can downsize the system, right? But what if you're not allowed to fix the house? What if downsizing the system requires major system renovations? Who's better positioned to offer the right solution for each home — you or a weatherization company?

Dazed And Confused Homeowners. Couple these realities with many poorly conceived programs being cooked up by energy and HVAC industry groups, government agencies, and some utilities, and we've got a real recipe for disaster. The upshot will likely be a dazed and confused homeowner who isn't sure who to believe.

Get Your Foot In The Door And Differentiate. Your challenge will be to help customers navigate through the confusion. Some contractors have realized this early and have already begun on the home performance learning curve, getting BPI or RESNET certified, offering blower door and whole house testing and remediation services.

So here's the challenge: You have to earn the certifications to play the game with everyone else, doing whatever is required by your local utility, federal, or state program. Then, you can use true performance measurement tools to educate customers about performance and how you're the one who can give them the right solution for their home — and still get them every rebate or incentive that's available.

This year you'll be inundated with programs from state and federal government agencies, associations, standards and certification organizations, and of course, local utilities. So far, most programs still focus on prescriptive measures rather than performance measurements. What does that mean? There will be many "checklist" verification programs that simply report that you did the work per the minimum standards, but few, if any, will verify the system's actual, delivered performance.

Where's your differentiation? So what can you do? Get educated! Learn all you can about what’s going on in your marketplace and nationally. Seek out education about delivering measured performance through real-time testing. There's a lot of great information online and in the pages of this magazine. Just remember that there's more to HVAC or whole-house performance than checklists and modeling.

If HVAC contractors don't take the lead in this new world of home and HVAC system performance, it will be taken from us, along with a big chunk of our traditional business.

Dominick Guarino is Chairman & CEO of National Comfort Institute (NCI), (www.nationalcomfortinstitute.com), an international training, certification and membership organization with more than 500 members. NCI coined the term, Performance-Based Contracting™ to describe what their members do. The organization's primary mission is to help contractors grow and become more profitable. Email him at domg@ncihvac.com.