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A 360° View: Overcoming QA Challenges

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In the last edition, ACCA opened a discussion with a Quality Assured (QA) recognized contractor, a Homebuilder, and a RESNET Rater to learn about their experiences implementing the new HVAC requirements as part of ENERGY STAR for Qualified New Homes (version 3.0).  Greg Cobb, is the president and CEO of Sonoran Air, Inc., Mike Mancini is the National Director of Project Integration for Meritage Homes, and Daran Wastchak is the president of D.R. Wastchak, L.L.C. (RESNET Rating Provider).

During that discussion, these gentlemen explained their roles as the implement the ENERGY STAR version 3.0 requirements as well as the most important lesson learned thus far.

This edition begins by asking what has been the biggest challenge implementing the HVAC requirements in v3?

GREG (QA Contractor): In an effort to reduce costs and improve quality, Sonoran Air has been performing designs, installations and commissioning for years using methods that are very consistent with Energy Star v3.0. In addition many of the installs we have performed in recent years have been for builders who participate in local utility rebate programs that had requirements similar to Energy Star v3.0.  Thus, our primary challenges may be different than contractors new to the program.  Our biggest challenges implementing the v3.0 requirements have been: (a) ventilation, (b) cost control and (c) document management & exchange.

Ventilation. Our team has spent an immense amount of time on this topic.  We are based in Phoenix and have some of the most extreme summer temperatures in the country in our home market.  Homeowners love the utility bill savings of well-built Energy Star homes.  However, they think we are crazy for drawing 120-140F air, preheated by concrete tile roofs or stucco walls baking in the heat, into the home for ventilation to meet the requirements of ASHRAE 62.2-2010.  When properly explained of the benefits, homeowners understand the need for whole-house ventilation, but they will disable it if they believe it will cause their utility bills to skyrocket.  To solve this we designed a ventilation system called Sonoran Vent (this topic will be discussed in more detail in a future edition of IE3).

Cost Control. We are implementing Energy Star v3.0 in the middle of the most severe residential construction downturn in recent memory.  Because their own margins are under severe stress, builders are highly resistant to cost increases.  With Energy Star v3.0 material and process specifications, the easy approach is to throw money at the problem by increasing labor and using higher cost materials.  We have challenged our team to use creativity to provide v3.0 results while keeping cost increases to a minimum.  We have experimented with new design tools, new installation practices, new components, etc. to keep initial costs down.  This is an ongoing process.  Long-term the larger cost savings is in reduced warranty costs.  This requires a leap of faith initially and good tracking to ensure these expected savings are realized.  We made our leap of faith a few years ago and are now realizing the rewards.

Document Management & Exchange.  Sonoran Air is focused exclusively on residential new construction and performs thousands of installations annually.  Managing the design and commissioning documentation for hundreds of plans and thousands of lots for a wide variety of builders in several cities throughout the Southwest has been a challenge.  Establishing new processes and employee training has been key to generating consistent results.

DARAN (Rater):In a production building environment, where we are dealing with multiple floor plans in many communities, the biggest challenge has been the overwhelming amount of work that both the HVAC contractor and the rater must do to get every home ready for ENERGY STAR version 3.  Specific challenges related to HVAC have been coordination between the energy modeling and Manual J load calculation assumptions; implementation of a workable, cost effective ventilation strategy that is fully ASHRAE 62.2 compliant; and coordination at the end of a job that requires the HVAC contractor to complete their work first, get documentation to the rater in a timely manner, then do the verification of the documentation all while faced with a fast paced closing process to get the house finished and the homeowner moved in as quickly as possible.

MICHAEL (Homebuilder):Changing the way our industry thinks.  The fact is….we are building homes that have not been built in the high production environment before.  HVAC contractors have little experience designing and installing systems in homes that are super-efficient.  Most are uncomfortable using the science based design, due to the fact that they have been servicing 10-20 year old standard constructed uncomfortable homes for so many years.  It goes back to the “predictable” built environment.  Once the builder makes the commitment to produce a home that the HVAC contractor can successfully warranty, then the mindset changes.

What has been the biggest benefit from implementing v3.0?

MICHAEL (Homebuilder): Validation. Our customers simply want a comfortable, safe, clean, energy efficient home for their families.  Energy Star validates that the time, effort and expense we put forth to design, construct and warranty their home, has been done correctly, and has been certified by third party experts in the Building Science field.

GREG (QA Contractor):We have observed two primary benefits from implementing v3.0: a more predictable building envelope and lower warranty costs.  With a more predictable building envelope, we can make our HVAC designs more accurate and avoid oversizing as an insurance policy against the unknown.  The combination of a better performing envelope, more accurate HVAC designs, a quality installation and a detailed start-up result in lower warranty service costs.  Our number of air balance requests and comfort complaints have dropped significantly since we adopted the v3.0-like approach a few years ago.

DARAN (Rater): The ENERGY STAR version 3 homes that will be rolling off the assembly line in 2012 will be some of the best built, most energy efficient homes ever built on a production basis and made available for homeowners to purchase.  The attention to details on the building shell, air tightness, duct tightness, properly sized HVAC equipment and water managed building assemblies is nothing short of incredible.  The fact that any consumer can buy an ENERGY STAR labeled home that they have the same features and benefits in a custom built or boutique home is a huge win for consumers, home builders, trade contractors, home energy raters, and the EPA.
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