Over the last few months we’ve had the opportunity to interview over forty HVAC contractors concerning their opinions on what a typical US residential maintenance agreement consists of. We were amazed to find prices ranging from $29.95 to $649.00 for a single residential system and the services offered ranged from a filter change to a complete ACCA Standard 4 Quality Maintenance Checklist. Our objective was to better understand the “average” US HVAC maintenance agreement.

Across the industry and in the energy efficiency world there’s lots of talk about Quality Maintenance. While it’s a terrific term, and sounds like a great idea, it appears the concept of Quality Maintenance has raised more questions than the answers that it has provided.

The objective of this article is to help each contractor consider what his or her maintenance agreements look like compared to the typical maintenance agreement, and to help each decide what they should be offering their customers as they seek to follow the upswing of improved maintenance.

What Does the “Average” Agreement Look Like?

As we contacted a number of groups promoting Quality Maintenance as an energy saving measure we asked, “What’s included in the average maintenance agreement?” It seemed to be a logical question since each of these groups were determined to improve the results of maintenance agreements.

After finding no satisfactory research or answers, we began to ask contractors and manufacturers what they believed was included in a typical maintenance agreement for a single residential gas furnace with direct expansion cooling system.

The list includes:

Cooling Maintenance Tasks

1. Change the air filter

2. Inspect thermostat

3. Cycle equipment

4. Inspect condensate drain and verify it is not plugged

5. Inspect grilles and registers for cleanliness

6. Inspect the blower condition

7. Inspect and listen to condenser fan motor

8. Inspect and tighten electrical connections

9. Refrigerant line - hot and cold manual test

10. Inspect condensing unit coils for obstructions

11. Measure equipment air dry bulb temperature change

12. Complete service invoice and make repair recommendations for any significant defects found.

In addition, typical heating maintenance tasks include:

1. Inspect igniter, flame sensor, heat exchanger and flue

2. Inspect and clean burner assembly

3. Sniff for gas leaks and inspect the gas line.

Interestingly, when we ran this list by several groups of service techs, they would accept this list only as long as we included this statement crafted by the IHACI Technical Committee of Southern California: “While this list may represent the typical maintenance agreement, we have found that less than half the tasks claimed by the maintenance agreements are actually completed.

We found that statement and the meaning behind it intriguing. Other contractors struggled with the list until we shared this statement with them. Then they found it fairly easy to assemble their typical maintenance lists.

Maintenance Agreement Statistics

Since one mission of the quality maintenance movement is to substantially increase the number of maintenance agreements, we wanted to know the percent of U.S. households who had HVAC maintenance agreements in place. Once again, no solid answers and no research readily available, so we asked contractors and manufacturers. The answers ranged anywhere from 2% to 12% of single family homes in the US were under maintenance agreements. The majority surprisingly claimed 3% to 5%.

When asked how long it has been since most new service customers have had their system serviced, the average response was 5.3 years. Another interesting opinion was that the average filter usage was estimated at 2.4 years.

The overwhelming opinion about why service calls are generated was, “equipment stopped working; or “no heat or no cooling” calls.

The Big Assumption

One of our obvious conclusions we gleaned from this unofficial opinion poll is that a single assumption has been cast by those creating maintenance agreement content. We heard this opinion as we discussed the subject with a state energy office when searching for maintenance studies. The assumption is made that if the steps of the maintenance agreement are followed, the system will be operating at 100% of rated efficiency.

In order for this to be true, the original installation must be perfect, the equipment must be new and every component in the system must be operating at maximum capacity in perfect unison with each other. Only under these ideal conditions can the checklist above produce the results promised by a majority of maintenance agreements.

We found little evidence, except among NCI contractors, that performance testing to assess the operating performance of the installed system is included in maintenance agreements today. While the elements of performance such as electrical, refrigeration, combustion, venting and temperatures are checked, most maintenance agreement documentation fails to quantify performance or operating efficiency of the system in any way.

We also found that duct systems were excluded from over 90% of residential maintenance agreements. This is evidence of the belief that the duct systems have no effect on the operating efficiency of the system.

The Big Differentiator

The truth is that there are two kinds of HVAC systems, one that is tested and proven to deliver its rated system performance, and the other that does not, but implies performance is delivered when it has never been verified.

What advantage would one contractor have over another if he or she would break away from the status quo and offer system performance testing included in their company’s maintenance agreements? What impact would it have on consumers if a contractor could say, “This system operated at 77% before we serviced your equipment and when we were completed it is now performing at 92%.

Remember, this is not an official industry study, but rather an opinion poll from a few contractors and manufacturers. But, doesn’t it call for a clear official study to be conducted before the powers that be can effectively pursue Quality Maintenance as the new answer to energy efficiency for the HVAC industry? If an effective study answering these questions has been completed, it would be of great value to the HVAC industry.

Rob “Doc” Falke serves the industry as president of National Comfort Institute an HVAC based training company and membership organization. If you're an HVAC contractor or technician interested in a free procedures on how to include duct system performance testing in your maintenance agreements, contact Doc at robf@ncihvac.com or call him at 800-633-7058. Go to NCI’s website at nationalcomfortinstitute.com for free information, articles and downloads.