by Sandra Sabo
Zoning, especially with dampers, remains a largely untapped market. Here’s how to change that.
A few years ago, Craig Jones, vice president of Slasor Heating & Cooling, got the type of phone call contractors dream about. A commercial client of the Livonia, MI, company was building a new house. Would Slasor handle all the heating and cooling? “The client wanted comfort, quiet, energy, savings, and a warm basement. So we put in a high-efficiency, four-zoned, forced-air system, plus a boiler to heat the basement floors,” explains Jones. “At night, the family conditions only about 1,200 square feet, instead of the entire house. They are very happy with the comfort level and the energy savings. In fact, their gas bills are about half the amount of their neighbors’.”
Slasor uses dampers and control panels to zone nearly every heating and cooling system it installs in new construction. The company also installs quite a few zone damper systems in relatively new homes. Still, Jones reports, “Zoning is a pretty small part of the overall big picture for us.”
Nationwide, nearly 300,000 zone damper systems are installed each year, representing only 3 percent of the market, according to Dick Foster, president of ZoneFirst. “Zoning offers a huge, potential opportunity for contractors,” he says. “True, zoning takes a bit of thinking, and can be labor intensive, but anyone with basic skills can do the installation. And, with today’s technology and products, you don’t necessarily have to tear any walls apart.”
Show and Tell
How can you tap into zoning’s potential to boost your business? Here are some tips.
Know your market. “Zoning can mean dampers and zone controls, but modulating ductwork isn’t for everyone. Sometimes zoning means installing two separate systems, especially in commercial buildings, or using ductless mini-splits,” says Greg DeBacker, president of DeBacker’s, Inc., in Topeka, KS.
DeBacker, for example, believes zone damper systems work well for homes that exceed 3,000 or 4,000 square feet, but most of his company’s residential clientele live in 2,000 square feet or less. For additions to such homes, he usually installs a mini-split if the existing system can’t maintain the homeowners’ preferred comfort level.
Likewise, Jones often uses a ductless unit in bonus rooms and sun rooms designed for occasional use, as well as in key areas of homes that are smaller, older, and difficult to insulate well. Both he and DeBacker see growing interest in zone damper systems among owners of higher-end homes, who may have more disposable income. Frustrated by their homes’ temperature differences, these homeowners often have already researched the why's and how's of zoning, and are looking for a contractor that offers it.
Get the word out. “Many contractors think homeowners don’t want zoning, but it’s very possible no one has ever offered it to them,” Foster notes. He tells of one contractor, hired for construction of new homes, who took the initiative to meet with buyers to explain the upgrades available to the low efficiency heating and cooling system that came standard with each house.
“They talked about putting thermostats in the master bedroom, kids’ bedrooms, and the living room, so that the homeowner wouldn’t have to heat or cool the entire house at the same time,” Foster says. “They sold zoning, rather than waiting for people to come and ask for it, and they created a demand.” You can also drum up interest by mentioning zone control in your print and web ads, in your phone system’s “hold” messages, on your website or blog, and on your quote form.
In addition to distributing manufacturers’ brochures, Jones uses magazine articles that feature Slasor’s “success stories” with zoning, including projects that have won industry awards. He can also speak from personal experience—his own home is zoned, and guests frequently remark on how comfortable it is, even on the lower level.
“If you don’t show dampers, no one will think or ask about them. So have a zoning display in your shop, and if you exhibit at a home show, have a damper there along with a furnace and an air conditioner,” Foster adds. “Tell it, and then you can sell it.”
Adopt the consumer’s perspective. Homeowners often ask Slasor’s service technicians how to improve a system’s performance. Those inquiries are considered zoning-related leads, and are turned over to a sales consultant for follow-up. Jones always begins the conversations with consumer-oriented questions such as:
- How long do you plan to stay in your house?
- Do you have objectionable temperature differences between rooms and levels of your home?
- Would you like to have separate temperature controls in any areas of your house?
The questions typically open a floodgate of homeowner comments. Jones hears about the finished basement that no one uses because it’s too cold, about the children who like their bedrooms warmer than everyone else, and about the home office that becomes stifling every summer. “The more you ask and listen, the more you learn. Such as whether they just moved in, or are planning a renovation," says Jones.
Such a conversation can help identify the benefit of zoning most likely to resonate with the homeowner, whether it’s increased comfort, energy savings, or convenience. Then you can provide targeted information, such as results of the NAHB Research Center study showing that zoning can achieve up to 29 percent energy savings when compared to a central thermostat system.
“Give consumers information they can easily relate to,” emphasizes Foster. For example, he says that every consumer will understand the convenience of having a light switch in every room of the house, compared to having only one thermostat. You might also mention that most cars sold today offer individual temperature controls for the driver and passenger sides, and often for the rear passengers as well. As Foster observes, “If you have zoning in your car, which is about a $3,000 option package, then why not put it in your home?”
Stay positive. “Zoning systems can cost a bit, which may make people think twice. But the variable speed motors and higher efficiency equipment now available can save them a lot of money,” says Greg DeBacker. Staying focused on zoning’s benefits, rather than apologizing for its cost, will lead to more sales. Plus, unless you provide a quote, you can’t know how much homeowners are willing to spend to feel more comfortable in their homes.
At Slasor, for example, the average zoning system carries a $4,500 installed cost, similar to the cost of installing a mini-split, which also requires a concrete pad, refrigerant lines, a drain, and an electrical circuit. Jones has had homeowners nod and say, “If zoning makes my upstairs comfortable, I can handle that cost.” Others, however, have agreed with the homeowner who exclaimed, “Do you think I have a freezer filled with cash?” But Jones doesn’t assume in advance how a particular homeowner will respond.
Be patient. Every installation and owner circumstance is different, as are people’s priorities, notes Jones. “We try to plant the seed by giving people information and a quote, so just like a generator or tankless water heater, a zone damper system will become part of the homeowner’s wish list,” he says. It’s not uncommon for homeowners to think about the proposal for a year or more and then get back in touch with Jones when they have a year-end bonus or tax refund to invest in their home.
“Zoning is a huge, untapped market,” Jones concludes. “If we contractors would give zoning the time, attention, and advertising it deserves, we’d find it’s a gigantic market for both commercial and residential work.
Get In The Zone
Have questions about zoning? You’ll find the answers in ACCA’s Manual Zr (Residential Zoning). It is the industry's first, and only, ANSI-recognized manual that addresses proper zone design, equipment issues, and identifies best practices. The manual was developed by a team of contractors, OEMs, suppliers, and industry experts to make sure the information is exactly what a contractor needs to be successful at designing zoned systems for new and retrofit applications.
To help you understand and use the manual properly, ACCA developed a DVD set called Understanding Manual Zr. The DVDs walk you through residential zoning system design. It is a great resource for HVAC professionals who want to become more proficient in all aspects of designing and evaluating zoned systems.
To learn more about Manual Zr visit http://ie3media.com/manualzr.
Author's Note: Sandra R. Sabo is a contributing writer for IE3 Magazine.