For some customers, buying a new air-conditioning system is like buying a car: If one dealer doesn't give you the lowest price, somone down the street will. That's the analogy Glenn Hourahan uses to describe how too many mechanical contractors do not sell quality service, but focus instead on selling products.

In other words, many contractors are stuck offering "boxes" for the lowest price, and have ignored other services that could bring more satisfaction to customers and more profit to their businesses.

Hourahan leads the Air Conditioning Contractors of America's research and technology division. The ACCA will be holding its 38th annual convention March 28-30 in San Jose, Calif. According to Hourahan, the convention will offer a variety of seminars and speakers who will explain how offering indoor air quality products and services will increase customers' happiness and the bottom line.

The indoor-air challenge

If the air we breathe is so important, why are so few contractors involved in indoor air quality services?

According to Hourahan, only about 15 percent of mechanical and HVAC contractors are actively offering IAQ products. The main reason is price.

He explains that many customers only see the HVAC contractor as the person to call when the air conditioning goes out, not the person who can improve their indoor environment.

"All (the customers) really want is the technician to get the thing to run like it did yesterday," he said. And they want it for the lowest price, he added. Most contractors are just following along with this customer attitude, not taking advantage of the opportunity to provide better indoor comfort - and make a better profit margin.

"There is no margin in being ‘box changers,' " said Hourahan, using his term for contractors who just install new products in their customers' homes. "With IAQ, that's where the profit is. That's where contractors rise above the pack." These so-called box changers don't take the time to explain how the product will improve the homeowners' environment, or for that matter, what other services can be provided to go one step beyond the product, he said.

Hourahan says many contractors refuse to offer indoor air quality services because they feel like they don't have time to educate their customers about the options. For example, some contractors feel they're too busy to run load calculations or perform IAQ tests because they need to close bids and get to the next potential customer. But Hourahan says that contractors should spend more time educating customers during the bid process instead of scheduling more bids that will inevitably result in a low-priced job.

"(Contractors) don't want to bother competing with guys who can go to the bottom line," said Hourahan. "A good value job will cost you more. With the low-end job you are just installing a box."

A ‘culture' of air quality

According to Larry Taylor, indoor air quality is where contractors can find profit and a smart company will implement a culture that takes on IAQ issues.

Taylor, president of AirRite Air Conditioning Co. Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas, and a speaker at this year's ACCA convention, has made indoor environments an integral part of his business. In fact, Taylor doesn't like to refer to indoor comfort issues as "indoor air quality." He prefers to call it IEQ - "indoor environmental quality." And the company's technicians are known as "environment systems specialists."

AirRite offers its customers various levels of indoor air quality testing. Technicians can check to make sure that the home is free of allergens and they can monitor the air in the home for contaminates such as particulates, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide, or measure humidity.

AirRite also checks the customer's ductwork. According to the company, more than 80 percent of homes in the United States have significant leakage in the duct system. How does this pertain to indoor air quality? The leaks waste air and put unconditioned air from dirty attics, basements or crawl spaces into living areas, company officials say. This polluted air can bypass filters and get distributed into supply ducts. From there, this dirty air can be blown throughout the home. This kind of IAQ solution cannot be found in a box, Taylor said.

"If you put the best filter in the world on leaky ductwork, it won't work," said Taylor.

Another IAQ service the company provides is duct cleaning. Contamination can build up in ductwork. When moisture and heat is introduced in dirty ducts, bacteria and other germs can become a problem.

These are all services that contractors can provide to create a better indoor environment and create revenue. And according to Taylor, it works for Air Rite. "(Customers) are wanting health, safety and comfort in their homes and they are willing to pay for it," he said.

Making the move

So how do you cross over from providing just products to providing quality service?

According to Mark Atherstone, another speaker at this year's ACCA convention and Western region manager for Dynamic Air Solutions, the first place to start is education, but not just product training.

Dynamic Air Solutions provides IAQ training to technicians, but Atherstone says that the company's training is only 10 percent focused on specific products.

"Product training does not place the product in the home," he said.

Atherstone said he believes it is important for technicians to learn more than just how to install a product; they need to know how and why it works.

"Technicians need to understand the problems with air quality today," he said. "When technicians are not confident about how a product works, they usually don't end up offering it to the customer."

Technicians must also be educated on how IAQ products benefit homeowners and when and where products can be used, he added.

Atherstone also says that when a company is ready to increase its IAQ marketing, it is important that the company send more than just one person to training sessions. He says it doesn't work to have only one person in charge of educating the rest of the company. Everyone involved in the IAQ business needs to participate in training, and this includes anyone involved in service and sales.

Atherstone added that to be successful, IAQ services need to be offered on every call. This, according to Atherstone, is the most important challenge. And if the technician is well versed on how the indoor environment works, they will be comfortable in offering solutions and closing more deals.