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Ride the Wave of the Ductless Revolution

Originally published: 12.01.19 by Pete Grasso


As ductless technology continues to become more mainstream, now is the time to get in on this market segment and offer additional solutions to your customers.

 

Ductless technology — both residential mini-splits and commercial variable refrigerant flow (VRF) solutions — have been the biggest growth segment in this industry over the past several years. And, as more and more consumers learn about the benefits this technology offers, contractors who are on board with ductless continue to thrive.

Still, with all the benefits to your business, ductless technology isn’t without its challenges. From educating customers, training technical and sales staff to pricing, navigating this market segment can be tricky. Nonetheless, ductless technology is here to stay and if you want to grow your business, it would be smart to get on board.

I recently interviewed a panel of top contractors from around the country to get their thoughts on ductless technology and the contractor’s role in educating customers about this emerging comfort solution.

The panel includes Darrell Gross, president of MRS Heating & Cooling in New Castle, Ind.; Jason Hanson, president of Sierra Pacific Home & Comfort in Rancho Cordova, Calif.; Jennifer Stueber, vice president of Blue Ridge Heating & Cooling in Pine Beach,


N.J.; Andrew Torres, sales manager at Isaac Heating & Air Conditioning in Rochester, N.Y. ; and Jeff Vida, director of sales for Four Seasons Heating, Air Conditioning, Plumbing and Electric in Chicago.

Here’s what they had to say.

Do you mainly install residential mini-splits, commercial VRF or both?

Gross: Mainly residential, but we have done some VRF in industrial applications.

Hanson: We only do residential work.

Stueber: We’re mostly residential.

Torres: Isaac does both residential and commercial installs.

Vida: We focus on residential.

How do you sell this technology?

Gross: We focus on outlining the high efficiency and flexibility of the systems, as well as the quick installation.

Hanson: We use it to solve problem rooms, solve homes with no central HVAC or as additional heating/cooling capacity on homes with undersized central systems and problem areas.

Stueber: We focus on three areas: saving money, ideal comfort and super quiet. Customers like that these systems are so efficient (so utility bills will be lower) and will cool or heat up a room very fast compared to unitary systems. This is also extremely helpful in houses at the Jersey shore where occupants only come down on weekends.

Torres: It’s a problem solver solution. Ductless is a great option for homes heated with boilers. If a client’s adding an addition and the existing system won’t be able to handle the load, ductless should be part of the conversation. If a home is being heated by baseboard resistance heat, ductless is a great way to add air conditioning as well as save the homeowner on their utility bills.

Vida: We use a solution oriented sales approach, which means offering the customer the best solution for their needs.

Is demand for ductless technology driven by customer demand or by the solutions you’re able to provide?

Gross: The demand is coming mostly because of the solutions we provide, but homeowners are definitely becoming more knowledgeable in this area of industry.

Hanson: We’re marketing ductless solutions to our clients so they’re more familiar and now asking for it, but we’re still finding a sizeable population that don’t really know anything about it or understand it until we offer it as a solution.

Stueber: Demand in our area is driven by us, as not many consumers know about mini-splits. Old homes, sunrooms, auxiliary heat or cool, restaurants, and shore houses are an easy sell.

Torres: Both, but in large part listening to the customers’ needs and educating them on how ductless could be the best option for them is a heavy driver for us.

Vida: Both. I’ve noticed over the last couple of years a greater percentage of customers are acclimated to the technology. My consultants work with the consumers where applications/needs dictate the technology to satisfy their comfort needs.

What type of education on ductless solutions do you offer your customers?

Gross: We have a working display, brochures and, of course, testimonials that we use to help sell and educate ductless systems to customers.

Hanson: We give an overview of the technology, the aesthetics available with ceiling cassettes, the energy efficiency and avoidance of ductwork and lost energy in ducts. We also demonstrate how you can customize comfort to each room.

Stueber: We provide brochures. We also give them a sample unit size made of paper to attach on their wall. The biggest objection is they don’t like it or are afraid it will be too overbearing in the room. Mitsubishi has a brochure with the actual length of an indoor evaporator head. We place it on the wall and come back with proposal one week later. Most people find they don’t mind it.

Torres: Our project managers are trained to educate the homeowner on the best possible solution for their particular situation, and if that happens to be a ductless system, then they’re prepared to outline the benefits.

Vida: We use our manufacturer partner’s marketing and educational videos. They do a great job of visually showing how the products efficiently condition rooms.

What kind of training do you provide technicians and sales staff?

Gross: We send our technicians to factory sponsored training and we also offer in house training. I’ve been selling ductless for more than 20 years, so I personally handle that. With the help of YouTube and brochures, I’m able to use my experience to educate our sales staff on the best approach to selling ductless to customers.

Hanson: We rely on training support from our manufacturer partners.

Stueber: We use any and all classes offered to my technicians from supply houses and distributors. They take the sales classes, such as Fujitsu 101, and the teardown classes for trouble shooting.

Torres: We use factory training and in-field support. We have also recently expanded our training facility lab in which we have fully functional systems set up to be able to run technicians through troubleshooting or our field representatives on proper application types. Representatives from the manufacturer will come on site to do training as well as field support.

Vida: We have specialized installers that went through our vendor’s training program. By specializing, this group is comfortable with the applications and have reduced installation times. We also have the vendor come in multiple times a year for both new product and refresher training. This, coupled with their videos showing customers how the equipment works, is a real aid to educating customers on the advantages of ductless.

Do you believe this category will continue to grow?

Gross: I’ve seen steady growth in this area. As contractors become more comfortable with ductless and consumers are better educated on this technology, I definitely believe growth will continue to accelerate.

Hanson: Yes. There is a large inventory of buildings that will benefit by adding or converting to ductless and consumers are becoming more familiar each year with these new solutions available to them.

Stueber: Yes, I believe ductless is just starting to make an impact in the U.S. and will only keep growing as more and more consumers learn about it.

Torres: With the current state incentives on the rise for heat pumps, this area will only continue to grow.

Vida: We have doubled our business in the category four years in a row. This is no longer a niche market; it’s mainstream.

Where do you see the most growth potential for ductless technology?

Gross: Small office buildings and homes that are adding square footage are two applications that are suited well for this type of technology and ones I believe are a big opportunity to sell these systems.

Hanson: Older homes that pose a challenge when retrofitting a central system, as well as large homes that have problem areas.

Stueber: We see huge potential for commercial zoning, as well as server rooms.

Torres: Existing homes with electric, propane or oil heat are ideal candidates for ductless technology.

Vida: Using the technology as the primary heat source in Northern markets has grown. The ductless air handler with heat strips does a better job than conventional air handlers heating electric provided homes.

Is this a worthwhile business opportunity for HVACR contractors?

Gross: Absolutely. We’ve gained many customers because the contractor they normally use refuses to embrace this technology. But customers know ductless technology is an option and they want a contractor who embraces this solution.

Hanson: Yes, if the price is right.

Stueber: Yes. As I said before, this is only going to continue to grow in the U.S.

Torres: Absouloutly. Being able to offer a ductless option makes you more versatile in addressing comfort issues in all homes.

Vida: Absolutely. The more education we provide to customers, the faster the industry will grow.

What’s been the biggest selling point for ductless technology?

Gross: Equipment prices have become more reasonable and that has really helped sell more jobs. Also, now that we can add ducted air handlers, it opened up a new area for installs. It’s no longer just ductless.

Hanson: Energy efficiency, hands down.

Stueber: It has to be ideal comfort. Why heat or cool rooms you’re not using? When you go into your house, do you have one light switch that turns on every light in the house? No, you only use the lights when you’re in the room. We apply that same technology here with mini-splits.

Torres: The building block approach. If the goal for the customer is to do the whole home, but financially they can’t all at once. With the technology offered by manufactures, we’re able to start off with a zone or two and still have the capability for future zones.

Vida: Ductless systems improve indoor air quality, are extremely efficient, easy to install and offer a wide variety of products for different applications (i.e. ceiling cassettes, ducted, floor and wall mount units).

What challenges are you experiencing with ductless technology?

Gross: When installed correctly using the correct tools, we really don’t have a lot of challenges. Vendor stocking has created a few issues for us, but nothing is perfect.

Hanson: We went through our learning curve, but initially it was learning to size it right for larger spaces or spaces with heavy heat gain/loss. We have experience now, so we don’t face many challenges anymore.

Stueber: For starters, it can be expensive. It can also be a challenge when it’s the primary source of heat. But, labor is cheaper. Technicians like them because they’re lighter. But the line hide is ridiculously priced and the hyper heat model that don’t lose capacity to 0 degrees are necessary (they cost a lot more vs a standard system rated at 40F). Customers will choose someone cheaper but not get same model and will be cold on those zero degree days. Another challenge is equipment going bad … for example, having to change whole system because they don’t make the evaporator anymore in that series and the new revision won’t communicate.

Torres: In our market, the majority of the housing stock is heated by natural gas. Our natural gas rates are relatively low, so with the cost and low ROI for these particular homes, it can be challenging to make the numbers work. With the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) offering more and more incentives for these types of systems, however, the outlook is positive.

Vida: Up-front cost and aesthetics. The product has been in the U.S. for years, but relatively unknown to the majority of the populous. Time spent educating the customer exceeds that of regular split systems, but the benefits to the customer warrant the additional time.

 




About Pete Grasso

Pete is the editor of HVACR Business magazine. He has spent his career working in and with trade media, both as a public relations practitioner and as an editor. He gained a great deal of expertise in the B2B arena, within large and medium sized advertising agencies. Be sure to follow Pete on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn!

 




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