Customer Control: The Future of Home Automation - IE3: Business Tools for HVAC & Plumbing Contractors  

Customer Control: The Future of Home Automation

More and more consumers are asking for home automation products to make their HVAC systems run more efficiently and their homes perform better – which can also bode well for HVAC contractors as people continue to transform their residences into smart homes.

“Home automation has brought HVAC systems to a new level never seen before – being able to control a home’s temperature from a phone, or being able to turn lights on and off if there are any signs of smoke in the house,” says Jason Griffin, service manager at Energy Services Air Conditioning, Heating and Electrical in Naperville, IL. “These safety features are now available at affordable prices.”

As an exclusive Carrier dealer, Energy Services offers Carrier-branded home automation products available as add-ons – a homeowner can buy a thermostat on its own, or it could be tied to a larger function for whole house automation, Griffin says.

Offering such products benefits the firm in many ways, Griffin says. It gives everyone more work — installers get more time on the job, and it gives services technicians more time programming the system and educating the owner.

It also gives the company the ability to be “locked into these customers for years,” Griffin says.

“Typically, homeowners initially buy perhaps a few sensors and locks, but over time, they may want to then install garage door controllers, locks, smoke alarms, power switches for lamps – there’s an unlimited amount of things that can be added to systems,” he says. “I had one customer purchase a starter kit – a sensor and a couple of light dimmers. But then he added 40 extra things, including automatic pool lights, control on the sump pump, and all sorts of night features.”

Other automation products give people “peace of mind,” such as an automatic safety sensor underneath a furnace to detect water leaks that could damage the furnace, Griffin says. Another safety feature is automatically turning a furnace off in the event of a fire, so the furnace won’t push oxygen throughout the house and strengthen the fire.

“Home automation also gives us one thing to offer that our competitors do not, so that helps our business,” he says.

Special Offers & Convenience Are Major Selling Points

The Internet of Things (IoT) movement in homes is ubiquitous, and the HVAC system is one the most mechanically complex and important mechanisms in the home – and so the immediate benefits of home automation are very tangible, says Luis Orbegoso, president and chief operating officer of ARS/Rescue Rooter, a nationwide network of company-owned locations providing HVAC, plumbing and other services, whose corporate headquarters is in Memphis, TN.

ARS began offering the Nest Learning Thermostat as a standard component on its Better and Best HVAC systems sales in May 2017, Orbegoso says. In September the company added Nest Thermostat E as a standard component on its Good system configurations, coinciding with the launch of the new Nest product.

ARS then partnered with Google and in December launched a campaign that included a Google Mini with every purchase of a Nest product. Since then, the company has expanded to selling both Nest and Google products across the network.

By having ARS install a Nest thermostat, customers not only have the opportunity to lower their home’s carbon footprint, but they also save money in the process, he says.

“Convenience is also a major selling point for a smart device in homes,” Orbegoso says. “IoT products like the Nest Learning Thermostat can virtually eliminate small hassles, such as adjusting the thermostat when you wake up in the morning or remotely correcting your home’s temperature while on vacation. Peace of mind is invaluable, and that is why technology in HVAC is becoming so prevalent.”

Providing home automation products helps expands ARS’ business and it starts with “having a different conversation at the kitchen table,” he says. The natural conversation begins with the Nest Learning Thermostat and Nest Protect Smoke and CO detector.

“Some customers are already asking about these smart home products, but for many, our conversation is an introduction to the smart home,” Orbegoso says. “HVAC is a core competency for us, and introducing the smart home through Nest’s amazing product and technology was a very easy transition for ARS. From there, we introduce the consumer to the suite of products that easily integrate to help them understand and see the benefits of how the smart home can make their lives better.”

As a ProElite provider for Nest, ARS can also offer customers extended warranties on Nest products due to a professional installation, he says.

Upselling Is Good For Everyone

David Chadwick, owner of Chadwick Mechanical in Highland, CA, and a Nest Pro, offers home automation products to people who have homes in

the San Bernardino Mountains. For his customers – especially those who have second homes – having Nest products can help them see what’s going on when they’re not there.

“For my business, offering Nest products is good because it gets you in the door to see what else is going with the whole system,” Chadwick says. “You might spot some pressing needs, or find opportunities to make their system more efficient, or at least get them on a maintenance program.”

While offering upgrades is “obviously good” for sales, it’s also important that his company provides the customer with the options that are out there.

“If we’re not informing our customers, we’re doing them a disservice — and again also ourselves a disservice – by not maximizing on sales and customer service,” he says.

Creating A Want

Bryan Savoie, chief operations officer at A.J. LeBlanc Heating Inc. in Bedford, NH, says that home automation is making the HVAC industry “more appealing to the consumer.”

“With plumbing, they get pretty fixtures, whereas traditionally in the HVAC industry, it’s equipment in the dark basement or closet and no one pays attention to it,” Savoie says. “But with smart thermostats, it makes HVAC systems more aesthetic.”

It’s also more interesting for consumers, especially being able to control the products from their phone, he says. Before smart thermostats, A.J. LeBlanc rarely got a call for thermostats, but now people want to automate their home and the firm gets calls to install smart thermostats “all the time.”

“It’s not so much waiting for something to fail or needing service – consumers want these products, so home automation brings a ‘want’ aspect to the industry,” Savoie says.

A Foot In The Door

Home automation is good business for the HVAC contractor, because it allows the company to get into the customer’s home and see potential other issues and create new business.

“We don’t make a ton of money off installing thermostats, but if we do the job right and make them happy, we might gain an HVAC customer off of that,” he says. “We also use home automation products as a selling feature – we’ll include it with the new furnace installation, just to differentiate us from our competitors.”

A.J. LeBlanc includes a smart thermostat section on its website, describing the different products the firm sells and installs. EcoBee is the firm’s preferred product, but the contractor will also install Nest and Honeywell Lyric thermostats if customers ask for them. Nest is popular with homeowners, because it is easier to install and does not require a common wire, but the firm prefers EcoBee, because it requires a common wire instead of batteries like the other products, making it more dependable.

“When it gets really cold here, people’s furnaces are working all day, depleting the batteries of thermostats, which are not utilizing a common wire,” Savoie says. “Without a common wire, once your thermostat’s battery depletes it no longer signals the equipment to come on – often resulting in a ‘no heat’ service call.”

If A.J. LeBlanc’s customers choose Nest, the contractor always suggests adding a common wire. If there are not enough wires for a common, the firm uses a device called a fast-stat to add one.

Ecobee also has advanced features for heat pumps and dual fuel systems, as well as room sensors to “even out temperatures” and Alexa built into the system, he says.

A.J. LeBlanc gets a lot of calls from people who want “smarts,” but when the technicians arrive at their house, the thermostats are not compatible with their existing system, Savoie says. It’s mainly customers who have master/slave zoning, which requires both an O and B terminal, whereas modern thermostats only have a single O/B terminal.

“Sometimes we end up replacing older zoning systems to accommodate the new smart thermostats – which creates more income opportunities for the installing contractor,” he says.

EcoBee also has a feature that enables customers to tie into A.J. LeBlanc’s system if something is wrong. Ecobee notifies the contractor if the customer’s system needs service or if something is not working as it should. “This data creates new business opportunities for the contractor and helps the customer resolve issues quickly,” Savoie says.

Push For Automation In Rural Areas

HVAC contractor R.F. Ohl in Lehighton, PA. serves a predominantly rural area, and now customers there are starting to ask about having WiFi for thermostats to control their HVAC equipment remotely, says Steve Ohl, president.

“Adoption of this technology has been slow in our area because not everyone has had WiFi in their house, but now more have it and home automation is finally starting to take hold,” Ohl says.

R.F. Ohl is an authorized dealer for Bryant products, including its Housewise WiFi thermostat and mini-split system, but the company also offers Mitsubishi’s Kumo Cloud WiFi thermostat.

“Home automation has changed the way we do business in that we are gearing our marketing to a certain audience that is tech savvy, because they respond well, particularly for the mini-split system controlled by the WiFi thermostat,” he says.

The firm also benefits because its competitors are not well-versed in home automation, Ohl says. Other HVAC contractors in the area may see a WiFi thermostat in a home, but they’re not familiar with it, so the homeowner ends up calling R.F. Ohl for service.

The firm also gets more business for its core systems, because typically customers interested in home automation are also looking for higher-end more efficient systems, which has raised R.F. Ohl’s average dollar ticket sale, he says.

“Every contractor should really be looking at home automation – even those located in rural areas,” Ohl says. “Maybe their customers aren’t asking about it, but they will be shortly. I was just on a call and the one of the first questions asked before we even got into the whole design of the HVAC system was, Can we hook this up to our phone and control it?”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer who writes for IE3. She has more than two decades of experience writing about corporate, financial and industry-specific issues. She is based in Running Springs, CA.
Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer who writes for IE3. She has more than two decades of experience writing about corporate, financial and industry-specific issues. She is based in Running Springs, CA.
Katie Kuehner-Hebert

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