Zoned HVAC systems are a missed selling opportunity, manufacturers say
If you told customers you had a product that would save them money, eliminate too-hot upper levels in the summer and chilly bedrooms in the winter, do you think they’d be interested?
There is such a product: a zoned HVAC system, where individual areas or rooms are controlled by their own thermostats, so heating or cooling is only applied to the spaces that need it. A panel tied into the thermostats operates dampers within the building’s ductwork, opening or closing them as needed.
The result is a house free of drafty rooms, stuffy second floors and even freezing basements. Utility bills are often lower, too, especially since a properly installed zoned system can efficiently use fewer HVAC units than a non-zoned system. In some cases, one unit may be all that’s needed.
So why isn’t zoning, which has existed in some form for more than 50 years, more popular? It’s a question that many makers of zoning products and systems wonder.
The problem is not a new one, according to Dick Foster, the president of New Jersey-based ZoneFirst.
“Contractors sell equipment. They’re very focused on that box,” Foster said. “Nobody mentions zoning.”
Foster said his father, a onetime advertising man, was instrumental in the development of some of the first motorized dampers, registers and diffusers used in HVAC construction, selling them under the names Zone-A-Trol and Trol-A-Temp. Initially, furnace manufacturers resisted the technology, saying they weren’t necessary and closing off ducts would void their products’ warranty.
Today, most major manufacturers such as Carrier, Trane and Lennox sell zoning equipment. But what they don’t do, Foster said, is sell them properly.
“They do not really promote them as hard as they should,” he said.
Richard Wilson, a sales and marketing manager with Arzel Zoning Technology Inc. in Cleveland, said there are few situations where adding zoning will not solve a home’s temperature problems — a fact lost on too many contractors.
“When there’s ductwork in the house, zoning is really the only way to go,” Wilson said, adding many HVAC contractors seem to steer customers to ductless minisplit products instead. “There are so many homes out there that have bad ductwork or undersized equipment, and zoning is the perfect solution.”
Contractors not familiar with the product miss the signs that signal a homeowner is a candidate for a zoned HVAC system: blankets on the couch in the winter or window air conditioners in upstairs bedrooms in the summer, he said.
Foster wonders if manufacturers prefer to make and sell multiple central air-conditioning units for one home instead of making more extensive use of dampers, control panels and other products that could accomplish the same thing without the need for so many compressors.
He estimated that about 300,000 zoning systems (mostly residential) are sold each year in the U.S. — a figure that has remained flat for a decade, he said. The Great Recession’s housing crash hit the industry hard, and it has yet to recover even as home building bounces back.
Patrick Rossetto, the president of Duro Dyne Corp., said his company has noticed the change as well. Since the late 1960s, the New York-based company has sold dampers, motors and controls as part of its DuroZone division. But since 2008 or so, the company has not devoted a lot of resources to the line, pointing out that it’s affected by the fluctuations in the new-construction market more than the sheet metal products the company is best known for.
“Contractors could do a better job promoting zoning as a solution,” Rossetto said. “The guys who understand zoning sell it. The guys who don’t understand it don’t.”
Educating contractors and homeowners on what zoning is and what it can do is not a quick or inexpensive process, he added. Duro Dyne considered doing television advertising to boost the profile of zoning, but decided it wasn’t worth the expense. Such a campaign could have taken years to pay off.
“The market for it could be developed, but then again, it’s not an overnight thing,” he said. “And yet, the solution that residential zoning can solve is dramatic.”
The analogy that Duro Dyne liked to use — one that has been echoed by other zoning manufacturers — is you would not expect one switch to control all the lights in your house, so why would you expect a single thermostat to make every room comfortable?
More interested than some think
Some contractors may be underestimating the willingness of homeowners to consider zoning, said Jennifer Franz, a product manager with Lennox International Inc., which has sold zoning products alongside furnaces and air conditioners for more than two decades.
“In our industry, sometimes contractors just make assumptions that a homeowner is just looking for the lowest cost temperature control they can possibly get, so they don’t take the time to have those conversations about extra accessories like zoning,” she said. “We tell our contractors and train them to lay out the options.”
In focus group studies conducted by Lennox, the public has always shown a lot of interest in zoning and wants to learn more about the technology.
“People live with a single-zone system because they don’t know they have another option,” Franz said, comparing it to the popular option of dual- or multizone climate control in automobiles. “If people will do that for their cars, I don’t know why they wouldn’t do it for their homes.”
Contractors who have been properly trained in the sale and installation of zoning products are rewarded with profitable, satisfied customers, Wilson pointed out.
“We find that when (contractors) offer it, 2 out of 3 people will buy it,” he said. “It’s amazing. It really is.”
Arzel is so confident in its zoning technology, the company offers a comfort guarantee, buying the equipment back within a year if customers aren’t satisfied. Very few request to have the equipment removed, Wilson said.
Out of sight
Foster blames the nature of HVAC. It’s an essential home component, but improving it doesn’t excite people like more visible upgrades such as high-end kitchens and luxury bathrooms.
“People care about the granite countertops and the Jacuzzi tubs and all the fancy stuff you can see,” he said. “We’re in the basement, hidden away.”
And during the spring home-buying season, the HVAC system is often not running, with many sellers choosing to instead open windows and allow in fresh air. Zoning’s effects cannot be appreciated in such an environment.
Adding to the sales difficulty is the fact zoning is not an inexpensive option, but its total cost is less than many people think, according Foster and other manufacturers.
Richard Bluestone of Ohio-based equipment maker Alan Manufacturing Inc. said installing zoning in an average-size newly constructed home could boost its price by about $6,000, but the homeowners will save up to 30 percent on their energy bills, presuming the system’s ductwork is sealed and installed properly.
Too many builders and homeowners don’t understand that and are all too happy to have whatever is the least expensive.
“All they see is the price tag,” he said. “Everything has to be cheap, cheap, cheap — and the homeowner suffers.”
But there are contractors having success selling zoning, equipment makers point out. That includes We Care, a plumbing, HVAC and solar power contractor based in Murrieta, California, which sells Lennox zoning equipment. Christian Wrisley, a service manager at the company, said homeowners in Southern California appreciate the flexibility and energy savings a zoned HVAC system offers.
“We find zoning to be something our customers are very interested in,” he said. “It just makes the most amazing comfort levels for our customers.”
With the development of variable-speed motors, the ability of zoned HVAC to give customers exactly the temperature and energy savings they want has become better than ever, Wrisley said. It just takes some time to educate them — a point that was also made by officials with Lennox, Duro Dyne, ZoneFirst, Arzel and Alan Manufacturing.
“People know what they want, but they don’t know how to ask for it and they don’t understand how it works,” Foster said.
It also takes time to educate contractors, Wilson acknowledged. Arzel offers free classes and webinars on zoning as part of its “comfort college” program, which has been recognized by North American Technician Excellence, an industry training group.
Many of today’s zoning systems can be controlled through a smartphone application — devices that most people already have and are comfortable with. That should make selling the technology easier, Foster added.
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