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The kids are back at school, Labor Day has come and gone, and before you know it, there’ll be candy in black, orange and purple wrappers on clearance at the supermarket. The seasons change, the leaves change, and the seasonal function of mechanical systems change, yet it still catches customers off-balance every time (and sometimes us, too).
September is seasonal maintenance time. Some customers require manual switchover from cooling to heating equipment. Others have automated systems. The nature of our business — residential, commercial and pool heating — means we deal with both. Now is a great time to reach out to customers and be proactive about ensuring their systems are running as efficiently, reliably and safely as possible.
Emergency calls are in the nature of our business, but we do what we can to reduce the volume we receive. We also use seasonal maintenance to mitigate sticker shock by employing the “stoplight approach.”
Red, Yellow, Green
The stoplight approach isn’t groundbreaking, but it works very well. During seasonal maintenance, we go through every component of the heating system, not only the heating appliance. The appliance is cleaned and thoroughly checked, but all associated controls, zone valves, circulators, etc., are checked, too. We also ask if any systems need to be winterized (pool systems, water features, etc.) and check that if a snowmelt system exists, it’s ready for its busy season.
At the end of the service call — or once we’ve discovered an issue that needs attention beyond cleaning — we present a list to the customer with three categories: red, yellow and green. Red items need to be repaired or replaced immediately. These are either component failures or safety concerns.
Yellow items are issues that need to be rectified within six months or so. It’s critical that our technicians make note of these yellow flags in our files, but it’s just as important to make the customer aware of the problem and the cost to repair it. Green items are components that are in serviceable condition.
The most mishandled issues by service companies are yellow items. It’s just as bad to replace a component without asking as it is to ignore it altogether. Bringing the issue up with the customer allows him to replace it immediately or schedule the repair within a certain timeframe.
This helps with budgeting if the repair is substantial. Letting the customer know in advance prepares them for the expense. Notification of a yellow item the customer opts not to fix will alleviate some, if not all, finger-pointing if that item fails in the coming heating season.
I’ve found that most customers are willing to spend the money to properly maintain their equipment if they’re given an opportunity to budget for it.
Remember, replacing a yellow item during a scheduled service visit without notifying the customer is a great way to be accused of taking advantage, even though you had the customer’s best interest in mind.
Being proactive in all aspects of the scheduled maintenance procedure has plenty of other benefits. Keeping a record of each customer’s system health provides time and opportunity to order and stock parts. It makes it easier to allocate resources, whether that be funds or labor.
No-heat calls can be very profitable, but I’d rather not have my technicians go out on their personal time, especially late at night or when roads are hazardous. These calls are disruptive and stressful for everyone in our organization.
However, it’s not all about us. Avoiding a no-heat situation saves our customers money, reduces stress and discomfort in their lives and, in extreme situations, eliminates safety concerns or the potential for extensive property damage. Everything we can do to reduce the number of no-heat calls we get, the better. Being proactive is the best way to do that.
There are other ways to add value and show value during scheduled maintenance. We conduct a combustion analysis before and after the cleaning to demonstrate the efficiency improvement as a result of the service. On commercial jobs, we perform a net BTU calculation by testing the flow rate and delta-T across the appliance or heat exchanger(s).
To deliver maximum value, it’s important to assess the system as a whole. For example, we’ve seen situations where the boiler was running at high efficiency, but the amount of energy being used was still more than expected. In one commercial scenario, we found a grossly undersized circulator. Replacing it with a properly sized pump and tuning the system immediately reduced energy consumption by 20 percent, and the comfort of that zone went through the roof.
Here’s another example of how addressing the system as a whole is critical, even in residential systems. Condensing boilers without outdoor reset (ODR) sensors or improperly placed ODR sensors can be perplexing at first glance. It’s common for lazy or uninformed installers to place the sensor at the nearest possible location or forgo installing an ODR sensor at all. If the sensor happens to be in the sun, especially on a south-facing exterior wall, strange things will happen.
We had an apartment complex manager call during subfreezing weather to say that the boiler wasn’t running. When we arrived, the boiler was in warm weather shutdown mode. The sensor, mounted in the sun, was telling the boiler that there was no need for heat.
We believe in full transparency. Our prices are what they are. The best way to avoid price resistance and maintain your good reputation is to communicate with the customer. This also reduces the number of emergency visits.
Unfortunately, in any industry, you can find yourself in a price race to the bottom. Budget-option boiler systems rarely, if ever, provide value beyond the upfront initial cost. Something will be lacking, whether that be overall design, component quality, programming, fine-tuning of reset curves, improper sizing of pump and pipes, etc.
We get what we pay for. Be the contractor known for superior work, not the lowest price. Your customers, employees and banker will thank you for it.