Handing over the keys

By Cliff McNeill

As an industry, we are great at putting systems together. We do an excellent job of selecting quality products and components that provide comfort and energy savings. Whether it be a hydronic heating system, on-demand water heater or air conditioning system, we provide a wide range of systems and equipment. However, we are not so great at properly handing over the keys to the homeowners.

We typically struggle with setting expectations around the performance of the system and articulating the frequency and necessity of maintenance. As equipment becomes more and more sophisticated, regular maintenance becomes increasingly important.

A classic example of setting expectations around performance and maintenance is the homeowner that moves from a traditional hot water heater to an on-demand water heater. From the homeowner’s perspective, they have been sold a dream of energy savings and endless hot water by marketing firms. This is not untrue, but we do need to set realistic expectations.

When it comes to maintenance, the homeowner’s expectations are that it is the same as their previous hot water system. It should live in the basement, out of sight, out of mind for years without worry. Wait for it to fail and then replace it. Annual maintenance? Who said anything about annual maintenance.

In our industry, manufacturers are great at writing technical manuals with a “Maintenance” section at the very end of them. As installers, we leave the manual onsite in the off chance the homeowner will find this important document, and then will take the time to read it, understand it and schedule their own maintenance per the manufacturer’s recommendations. Hopefully they will schedule that maintenance with you, the one who installed the system.

Over the years of attending jobsites, one of the most common questions I hear from homeowners as we are finishing up is, “What type of maintenance do I need to do?” They ask because they want to be able to look after their home. Quite often I hear vague answers such as, “It should be good for quite a few years …”, or “if you start to notice that you’re not comfortable, give me a call.” I have yet to be on a jobsite where someone picks up the manual, opens it to the “Maintenance” section and walks the homeowner through the manufacturer’s recommendations.

A big part in handing over the keys to the homeowner is letting them know what they can expect from their system and how to properly look after and maintain their system. At the very least, we need to become an industry which schedules that first and most painful maintenance appointment. After that first one, they become easier and easier.

At the end of the day, equipment maintenance is a revenue opportunity that continues to grow and with the type of equipment that dominates the current market, fewer and fewer homeowners are willing or capable to do their own maintenance. Homeowners are relying on us to maintain the systems in their homes. We need to let them know what needs to be done, when and by whom.

Steps to take

Although most people don’t enjoy paying to have their equipment maintained, they are willing to do it because they know that it will save them money and headaches in the long run. Just like none of us enjoy paying the bill to have the oil changed in our vehicle, we know that we have to do it in order to make sure that our vehicle will operate worry free for as long as possible.

An easy first step is to leave the homeowner with a one-page maintenance sheet. Make a couple of copies and give one directly to the homeowner or include it with their invoice. Attach another copy to the equipment that you just installed or in a visible place close by. This can be as simple as copying the manufacturer’s recommendations from their manual.

The next step that you can take is to make your own custom maintenance sheet or check list. Always include your company name and contact information. Include the date the equipment or the system was installed and note after each item how frequently it needs to be done. The first time is always the hardest and takes the most effort. However, if you use a piece of equipment regularly or install a specific type of system, you can reuse it every time that you install the same system or piece of equipment. Now you have set the expectations for the homeowner about how to properly maintain their system. And in the event it does not function properly or needs additional maintenance, they have someone to contact – you.

Today there are so many tools available to take us to the next level in being able to help homeowners stay on track with maintenance. There are tools that have been developed specifically for our industry and a number of tools that can easily be adapted to the task at hand. Some are free to use while other ones that are a bit more sophisticated will have a cost.

A system with teeth

Maybe we need to take a page from our local dentist. The dentist will typically send you an email a week before an appointment, a text message two days before an appointment, and then after the appointment they will schedule the next one for you before you leave their office. During each of these steps, they will include additional information about how to make changes to your appointment and if there is anything you may need to do. All of this is done from a system where they just enter your contact information, the date of your appointment and what type of appointment you have. If you are looking for ideas, the next time you visit your dentist, ask them what app they use.

Many of these tools will allow you to provide the homeowner with additional information and reminders. The reminders can include information for the homeowner about what they can do themselves. Simple tasks such as a visual inspection for leaks, checking the level of fluid in a glycol fill tank, changing an air filter, checking that there is nothing blocking the intakes or exhaust, or changing their humidifier from summer to winter or back again. The reminder can also let them know what they will need a professional to do, such as checking the concentration of glycol or the pH in their system, checking the flame sensor and ignitor, inspecting and cleaning the heat exchanger, testing the relief valve and servicing their condensate neutralizer.

Cliff McNeill is with Equipco Ltd. in outside sales for Southern Alberta. He is also Equipco’s in-house technical specialist in hydronic heating and engineer-focused products. McNeill can be reached at [email protected]

With thanks to our sponsors