To venture into the world of HVAC controls installation and maintenance, you’ve got to be on your toes, and be prepared for anything.

Facility managers interviewed by Contracting Business say experience counts, along with credentials, communication, service, and your reputation as a controls contractor in your market.

“A fairly large HVAC contractor with enough resources to cover any type of job is important, such as having their own sheet metal shop, and plenty of skilled labor resources on which to draw,” says Cybele Thompson, RPA, FMA, vice president and general manager in charge of operations and leasing for the San Diego region of Trizec Properties, Inc., one of the largest commercial property companies in the U.S. with a portfolio of 61 office properties.

“An HVAC contractor with skilled technicians is important,” says Thompson, “along with proper licensing, strong referrals from local sources, and a history of working on similar projects in the same city.”

“And, the contractor must be familiar with energy rebate programs available for this type of installation, and be able to calculate a payback period for the client,” Thompson says.

Talk Over Everything, Including Problems
The complicated nature of controls installations in large facilities, and their integration with existing HVAC systems, suggests that clear communication and responsiveness is of paramount importance to a good contractor/customer relationship, especially during times of trouble.

“Good communication and response time is very important, and it’s important that the contractors state their opinions clearly,” says Thompson.

“HVAC matters swept under the rug have a way of coming back to bite you if you don’t face the truth of your situation the first time around.”

“Even if the vendor can’t immediately address my concern, a quick phone call or e-mail saying something, anything, is better than cold silence,” says “Shophound,” writing in the HVAC-talk.com discussion community website.

“I’ve learned to weed out vendors for this reason,” he says. “The contractors that communicate well and keep me in the loop get my repeat business, even if they’re a shade less competitive in price than the guy I have to nag to death.”

Respectful communications and inclusion includes building engineers, or “board operators,” all of whom are essential players who can’t be ignored in the installation or testing/modification process.

“It’s important that HVAC contractors solicit the building engineering staff’s opinion during the HVAC design process — prior to construction — to avoid any problems after a tenant has already occupied the building,” says Thompson.

Make it Your Technician’s ‘Baby’
In an era in which job-hopping among technicians is common, continuity of personnel is important — both at the contractors’ headquarters, as well as among the field technicians, who should come to know the facility inside and out.

“It’s important that the technicians get to know the building and its eccentricities, so that your own engineering staff is not in the position of retraining new techs unfamiliar with the building every time a new HVAC project commences,” says Thompson.

“We’re making the transition into an era in which the building operator no longer wants to be involved with the actual programming or daily operations of the direct digital controls (DDC) system functions,” says Thomas Hartman, P.E., president of The Hartman Co., an HVAC technology development firm based in Georgetown, TX.

“The operator wants service, so that when the DDC system notifies them of a problem, they can call the contractor to fix it quickly and reasonably.”

Documentation, Training Count
Once the installation is complete, says Thompson, the HVAC contractor should provide the client with a close-out package containing all documentation related to the system that was installed, including operating instructions, a preventive maintenance schedule, lien releases, and any applicable rebate offers and warranties.

“Information regarding rebates and payback periods for these proposed projects is important to the client’s budgeting process, and can make a proposed upgrade doable in a shorter timeframe, depending upon the payback,” says Thompson.

In addition, the HVAC contractor should provide on-site engineers with necessary training required to operate and maintain the new system.

Be the Technology Expert
With multiple properties to juggle, many facility managers find it impossible to stay up-to-date on controls technology. Therefore, it’s up to the contractor to provide information on technology updates, or special offers that might be of interest to the client at just the right time.

“Once the system has been installed, it’s ideal for the HVAC contractor to maintain regular contact with the facility manager, to ensure that the equipment is operating properly, and to let the client know about advances in HVAC technology which might be applicable to their project,” says Thompson.

Hartman says the move to direct digital controls from pneumatic systems requires contractors to be more service-oriented, in order to help building operators use the equipment properly.

“Service is the key to obtaining and maintaining a contract,” says Hartman. “I call maintenance agreements ‘support agreements,’ because, in reality, the contractor is supporting the facility.”

Robert Rinehart, facilities and engineering manager at Arbitron, Inc. — the international media and marketing research firm — manages activity at seven facilities, and is responsible for contractor selection and writing HVAC specifications.

At the top of his list of criteria is that the controls be serviceable by any qualified HVAC contractor, not just by the company that installs them.

“Typically, program logic controllers are used, and a copy of all software required for any controls or program logic controller must be provided to me, in the event something gets wiped out,” says Rinehart.

“We don’t want to be tied in to the original supplier, who might be too busy to help us, or who wants to make a fortune on our work. We want to be able to have the option to use other suppliers. And, the service must be quick. No one wants to wait forever to get parts.”

Rinehart is in no hurry to repeat a real-life episode, during which one of Arbitron’s offices was without fully operational heat or air conditioning for three months.

“In the end, the most important aspect of an HVAC contractor, as with any contractor, is the people they put in place,” says Thompson. “Knowledgeable, dedicated, and responsive is what will keep the contract.”

Advice from controls professionals on HVAC-Talk.com
We asked our hvac-talk.com controls experts to give us a few thoughts on winning — and keeping — controls projects.

INFORMATION: “Provide the facility manager with as much information as possible. Cover all the bases, and he or she will come back. If you let them down, they’ll move on regardless of what you put in front of them.” — nikko

JUST THE FACTS: “Facility managers want someone who can explain in plain English exactly why their control system is better than the others. If it costs more, why? How hard is it to program and operate for the $10/hour guy that we hire to run it?” — skorepeo

RESPECT SITE MAINTENANCE TEAMS: You’ve got to make those guys happy, too. Make them believe you’re on their side, listen to their problems, and try to provide solutions to make their lives and jobs a bit easier. Building maintenance supervisors have more influence with upper level management and owners than might be apparent at first, especially when it comes to repeat business.” — osiyo