Driving down the street, you drive over a nail and your tire goes flat. If you're lucky, you've got a can of aerosol leak sealer in your trunk. You fill the tire from the can, the leak is sealed, and you're on your way. It's a simple analogy for a similar type of technology that Aeroseal Inc. is counting on to seal the leaky ductwork in your home.

Robert Hageman started Aeroseal with a partner, Dr. Mark Modera, in 1997. They had a product - no, a mission - but little in the way of national exposure or marketing clout to carry it out.

That may change now with the acquisition of the company by Carrier Corporation.

"Acquiring the Aeroseal diagnostic and duct sealing service is simply the next logical step in providing loyal Carrier contractors with another way to respond to consumers' comfort issues," said Herman Kling, vice president of sales.

Carrier is granting franchises to its dealers, awarding the first two in January to two dealers in the Chicagoland area: D.M. Dykstra and Hawthorn Heating & Cooling. It was first unveiled to 59 of Carrier's "Distinguished Dealers" at the end of 2001.

"I have yet to walk into a home with metal ductwork that doesn't have some amount of duct leakage," says Hageman. He shies away from being an evangelist, however. Not all ductwork must be sealed, he admits. It's not, after all, a matter of life and death. But to have a truly comfortable, energy efficient home, it's a good idea to first at least perform a whole house test, then more than likely proceed to seal the ducts.

"You can sell someone a high performance, energy efficient furnace or air conditioner, but if the duct work leaks like a sieve, they're not going to be happy," Hageman said. Prime candidates for sealing are those homes where 15-20% or more leakage is discovered through testing.

Aeroseal spreads wings

According to George LaRose, president and general manager of Aeroseal, original franchisees will continue to operate under the Aeroseal name, but new franchises are being initially offered to Carrier Corporation dealer affiliates. Carrier will want national coverage, "but there won't be one on every street corner."

Modera, inventor of the Aeroseal sealing technology, is vice president of strategic operations for this new business, which is headquartered at Carrier's North America Residential headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind. Hageman, now a consultant, continues to be based in Austin, Texas.

According to Modera, "The duct system in an average U.S. home wastes 20-40% of the heating or cooling produced in residential furnaces and air conditioners. Current research indicates that the problem may be even worse in light commercial buildings."

The technology was developed at the University of California in 1994. It is based on the use of tiny vinyl particles introduced into the ductwork, adhering and safely sealing holes up to 5/8-in. dia. The research was originally funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. EPA, California Institute for Energy Efficiency, and the Electric Power Research Institute.

The entire Aeroseal sealing application, including preparation, sealing, and cleanup, involves using a temperature gun, flow hood, laptop computer, proprietary software and printer. The process works on all type of duct systems and takes between four to six hours. But Hageman said this is often a worst-case scenario, and could involve some mechanical reworking as well. "I've been in homes where the original ductwork was never even properly connected," he said. "I'm not belittling the craft, but let's face it: this is not a perfect world."

Metal ducts are the worst offenders, he says, but ductboard and flex duct are also prone to leak.

Duct leakage means rooms are heated or cooled unevenly. Often, a 3 ton air conditioner will be operating as though it were a 1.5 ton unit because so much conditioned air is being lost before it reaches the occupied space. Sometimes the homeowner or light commercial building owner then installs a larger air conditioner as a solution, which promotes even more duct leakage. The advertised equipment efficiencies never show up, and energy is wasted.

It takes four days of training to complete the duct sealing diagnosis and sealing program. Aside from the process itself, the training makes them better contractors, according to Hageman. "It really opens their eyes as to what's going on inside a building."

Dykstra and Co. was one of the first granted a Carrier Aeroseal franchise. Franchisees paid $10,000-$39,000 for the franchise fee, with $16,000 to $24,000 for equipment. Price can vary depending on what equipment you buy. Training takes three to four days at the contractor's facility and includes an actual home diagnostic and duct sealing, according to LaRose. "We strongly suggest they dedicate a salesperson and a small technical crew for this part of their operation," he said.

Pat Monson of Hawthorn said his company got a surprise marketing boost when a local phone-in radio show handyman featured the duct diagnostic-sealing program on a program one day. "The phones have been ringing ever since," Monson said. "We're expecting great things from it. This thing is going to snowball." Hawthorn has sealed about 20 homes so far, he said.

Monson said Hawthorn would even be willing to work with its competitors, for a fee. "I want to see every house in the world sealed," he said. "It makes for a more comfortable home, and the feedback from the customers is great."