5 Things HVAC/R Professionals Wish Homeowners Knew

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“Homeowners with children should encourage them to enter the trades. We need to celebrate the trades, and not look down on them. The top students can make as much money as traditional professionals with academic credentials. Plus, you can find passion and fulfillment in the trades.”

J.R. Kok, Associate Professor in the HVAC/R Program at Lewis-Clark State College

As a homeowner, you own your HVAC/R systems. And while you don’t need to be an HVAC/R specialist yourself, it is important to know a few basic facts about how your home is heated and cooled. What type of HVAC/R system you have, what condition it’s in, and how old it is will impact how and when you (and your HVAC/R technician) should repair, replace, or maintain it. This basic level of understanding can also help homeowners ask informed questions of an HVAC/R professional that may lead to boosted energy efficiency or saved costs.

But having a simple understanding of your HVAC/R systems is just one part of the equation. HVAC/R is a complex field with deep ties to science, technology, engineering, and math; a little extra homeowner knowledge can go a long way to facilitating communication with HVAC/R professionals.

Read on to learn the top five things, large and small, that HVAC/R professionals wish homeowners knew.

Meet the Expert: John R. Kok, MS

J.R. Kok is an associate professor and manages the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC/R) Technology Program at Lewis-Clark State College. His program offers several options for HVAC/R apprentices to become Journeymen.

Kok has worked in the HVAC/R field for 30 years, holding a contractor’s license in Florida and a journeyman’s license in Idaho. He earned a two-year technical degree in commercial HVAC/R at Pinellas Technical Education Center in Florida, and an MS in adult organizational learning and leadership from the University of Idaho. Since 2016, he has served as chair of the SkillsUSA Idaho State Leadership and Skills Conference (SLSC) HVAC Competition. In 2021, he was awarded the Lewis-Clark State College Foundation Award.

HVAC/R is a STEM Field

“Both homeowners and the public at large should know that HVAC/R is a challenging career path,” Kok says. “As an educator, the first indication of this comes from the students themselves, who do not expect the amount of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) that they are exposed to.”

Kok notes that HVAC/R professionals need to understand refrigerant pressure temperature relationships and how refrigerant transfers heat energy from one location to another. They must understand how oxygen and fuel must be balanced to ensure proper combustion. They need to learn about electricity and interpret wiring diagrams. And they need to calculate heat energy transfer through building components like insulation, glass, and masonry. This theory leads to establishing home design conditions and meeting them through proper equipment selection, application, and start-up procedures.

Higher MERV Isn’t Always Better

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic alerted the average person to the importance of air filters. The efficiency of air filters is commonly gauged by their Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV), which scales from 1 to 20; basically, the higher a filter’s MERV, the more effective it is at filtering out particles of a smaller size.

Many homeowners assume that the best air filters have the highest MERV rating, but it’s more complex than that. The highest MERV-rated filters (16-20) are only practical for places like hospitals and clean rooms, and even ratings in the low teens may not be ideal for someone’s home, depending on its schematics.

“Filters with higher MERV ratings may restrict airflow,” Kok says. “Technicians that install different filters than what came with the unit must ensure the maximum external static pressure rating of the indoor blower is not exceeded after the installation. This rating is printed on the data plate of your indoor furnace or air handling unit. If the maximum external static rating is exceeded, your blower will not move the amount of air that your home needs.”

Proper Installation Lengthens an HVAC/R System’s Life

Homeowners may look for high-tech HVAC/R systems to help them save money and increase energy efficiency in the long run, but an HVAC/R system is only as valuable as the person installing it.

“Long-lasting systems start with good installation practices,” Kok says. “One key item is to evacuate all the air from new refrigerant lines before refrigerant is charged into the lines. Ask the contractor if they will evacuate to 500 microns, and if they run for the door, don’t use them!”

Kok also notes that HVAC/R systems need to be sized correctly to work correctly.

“Oversized AC systems will not remove enough moisture from homes in humid climates, and this may lead to mold growth,” Kok says. “Undersized ducts will not allow enough heated or cooled air to be distributed through your home. Changing the HVAC/R equipment won’t help if the size of the ducts is to blame.”

Professional Training and Experience Are Critical

In many states, HVAC/R is a regulated industry. HVAC/R technicians may need to earn an apprenticeship card or a journeyman card, and, at the very least, the owner of an HVAC/R company must have a contractor’s license with the state. Homeowners should ensure that the HVAC/R professionals they consult are, indeed, professional.

“There is a lot of liability that comes with working in the field,” Kok says. “You cannot put an untrained person in a van and expect them to perform ethically and responsibly with no education or previous experience.”

Kok points out that HVAC/R technicians will be working with electrical and plumbing components, and a lack of experience or training could result in disabled furnace safety systems, overloaded electrical circuits, or water leaks. They may need to modify structural components in a home, which, if done haphazardly, can cause structural weaknesses or breached fire barriers.

“A fair amount of homeowners believe technicians do routine tasks that require very little knowledge to perform,” Kok says. “This perception is perpetuated by some contractors, who, facing shortages of skilled workers, put whoever they can into a service van and send them to homes without the proper knowledge needed for the job. It doesn’t take long before homeowners focus on the bad experiences and expect that is the standard. But homeowners should realize the industry can do better through proper training and mentoring.”

More HVAC/R Professionals Are Needed

Labor shortages are an issue in several fields, but the need for more HVAC/R professionals is particularly acute. Today, there are an estimated 290,000 working HVAC technicians, and approximately 110,000 unfilled HVAC tech jobs, according to ACHR News.

That shortage will worsen as another 23,000 HVAC techs leave their jobs every year. Solving the problem will require multiple variables to change, but one of the biggest points of advocacy for HVAC/R professionals like Kok is to elevate the social status of work in the trades up to where it should be, and raise awareness of the fact that this is a challenging, well-paying, highly technical, and in-demand career for those who choose to pursue it.

“Homeowners with children should encourage them to enter the trades,” Kok says. “We need to celebrate the trades, and not look down on them. The top students can make as much money as traditional professionals with academic credentials. Plus, you can find passion and fulfillment in the trades.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He's been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt's writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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