Your Adventure Awaits
First things first: Congratulations! Having the resources to build a new house is a luxury, no matter which part of the country it will be located in. Here in the California Central Valley – from Sacramento to Fresno, and all the many communities in between, such as Modesto, Turlock, Tracy, and Manteca – homeowners are finding that it’s a beautiful, neighborly, agriculturally rich alternative to the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area.
But even a few Google or YouTube searches will reveal that it can be a daunting process with complex questions that need decisive and timely answers to keep the project on schedule and on budget. Some future homeowners can consider themselves fairly savvy about aesthetic decisions, but it is also fair to say that most won’t have a clue on how to make decisions regarding their Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC).
Before going through HVAC tips, consider the difference between “stock” designs or hiring an architect. Anyone can go online and spend a range of a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars for stock drawings of a designed house, “ready to go” for a contractor to build. The price tag is generally the selling point, and there are countless options in a wide variety of styles. Here are some pitfalls, which explain why this article is geared for those who plan on hiring a design team:
- HVAC planning is not included! The plans MAY contain a recommendation, but how can the layperson know if it is the right choice for their climate or room size? Tack on the fact that the structure of the plans may not accommodate the ideal HVAC solution for the house.
- Hidden costs can easily cost more than the plans themselves, i.e. any customization of the plans (requires an architect), the lot the house is to be built on might require the plans to be checked and adjusted for SEVERAL types of code compliance (hire an architect), the site might not accommodate the design of the house, etc.
- It should go without saying that when you work with a design team, the product is not necessarily always designed with one’s vision in mind. You’ll need to bring your vision to the table to bring it to life.
There is No “I” in Team
It’s time to learn the best path forward for a house perfectly conditioned for all seasons, for many years to come. The big surprise? The first step has nothing to do with HVAC.
- Hire the Right Team. If you know someone who can recommend an architect or contractor, great! If that’s not the case, though, you’ll have some research to do and face-to-face time to spend ahead. Unless you have a grandiose design and budget in mind, start searching for local contractors with a strong residential portfolio. Because the Central Valley is an industrial area, there are several to choose from in the Modesto, Turlock, Merced area. A local team is usually an advantage; they should have a good understanding of the area/climate, and they should know the local players in order to recommend good consultants and tradesmen.
Shop around. Ideally, architects and contractors will have testimonials about excellent work they have done in the past. Ask for a tour of at least one of their projects! If they’ve done good work and had a good working relationship with a client, the client should be happy to provide a tour.
Spend time talking to your potential future hires. You will be spending a lot of time with them when things get rolling, and your gut feeling can give you a sense of how smoothly the process will go. No matter how perfect any design/build team may seem, understand that contentious things will come up, both about schedule and budget. A team that is transparent about issues, handles surprises calmly, and comes prepared with potential solutions is always the preferred choice over a team that tries to win you over with the razzle dazzle of professional photos.
- HVAC Basics. While your team should be clarifying everything as much as possible for you, some basic knowledge of HVAC may help you feel more comfortable during discussions.
Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning can be accomplished with a single central unit, or multiple, smaller units. Regardless of the number, the unit(s) serves multiple “zones”. A zone is simply an area you designate – it could be 3 bedrooms in one zone, or each bedroom as its own zone. Think of a window A/C in one bedroom as that room’s individual unit and zone. At Wally Falke’s Heating and Air, we actually do manual room-by-room load calculations to determine the best option, which is probably something you should ask your HVAC contractor to do.
Heating is comprised of a heat source, a distribution system, and controls. The typical house’s heat source is a boiler, furnace, or heat pump. A boiler is a large tank of continuously heated water that is distributed throughout the house in pipes. If you’ve seen a radiator in a room, you can be sure its hot pipes are being supplied by a boiler. A furnace takes in cool air, exchanges temperature with a combustion source within, and distributes the heated air through ducts and finally vents. A heat pump is a fancy word for a unit that moves heat to a cooler area, the opposite direction it wants to go. A common version of a heat pump is often found hiding in an inconspicuous place outside the house mounted to a concrete pad; it has the ability to heat or cool your house.
The mechanics of air conditioning are more complex than heating, and the various common forms all have differences. Rather than getting into technical details, pay attention to pros and cons of each typical version.
- Central air cools several rooms, eliminates ugly units in the interior, and dehumidifies the air, but it is energy intensive, can lose efficiency as air travels through ducts, and can cause poor air quality if not maintained well.
- A ductless mini-split doesn’t require ductwork, is more efficient than central air, and can be used for heating or cooling, but has large components in interior spaces, and more than one is generally required for large homes.
- An evaporative cooler is extremely energy efficient and adds humidity to the air in dry climates, but requires ducts and is only recommended in consistently arid climates since it’s efficiency reduces are the outside air becomes more humid.
Ventilation in many homes, especially older homes, is accomplished by the many leaks throughout the shell of the building and by opening windows. Even today, unless you are living in a “green house” that is very well-sealed, and you may not need an active ventilation system. If you live in a really humid or dry climate, ventilation can be combined with humidity control. Some of the heating and cooling methods listed above already bring in fresh air. The topic of ventilation will likely come up in meetings; the key types to know are:
- Exhaust air – Fans and ducts pull air from the interior and push to the exterior, drawing fresh air from leaks in the house.
- Supply air – Fans and ducts pull in air from the outside and push stale interior air out through leaks in the house.
- Balanced air – Fans and ducts simultaneously pull stale air out and bring in fresh air from the outside.
These are the very basics of common, residential HVAC types. There are new, exciting technologies coming out however, especially if you are interested in maximizing energy efficiency. The most progressive technologies are something you should bring up with your contractor, mechanical engineer, or an HVAC specialist like those we have here at Wally Falke’s.
- Working with the Architect. Once you’ve settled on the proper architect, be prepared for jargon, or “archispeak” as they like to call it. (See? They already have another word for jargon.) The contracts should clearly lay out expectations for the process, but it can be easy to get lost. Feel free to ask for a reminder about where the project stands. Feel free to ask for 3D images if you’re not comfortable approving 2D drawings. And feel free to continually ask for English over archispeak! Don’t be shy about asking for clear, well defined explanations of your project. Also, keep all discussed changes in writing.
- Working with the Mechanical Engineer. The mechanical engineer is a consultant of the architect who will be the expert on your HVAC needs. You won’t be talking to them directly much other than full team meetings. If you thought you needed a translator before, get ready for your second new language. They will have the knowledge of traditional and progressive HVAC methods and work to size all related products correctly and efficiently. The basics outlined above will give you some common ground, but this is an instance where the architect will be your translator.
- Talking to the Contractor. Generally, the contractor has limited involvement until construction begins, but a good contract will have pre-construction meetings included. The contractor can help vet the plausibility of the evolving design, potentially bringing in a tradesman if things get overly technical. When construction begins, keep in frequent contact. Establish protocol: Have a short progress call every day, or a longer meeting weekly. Take notes and keep track of all changes and associated costs. Keep all discussed changes in writing!
- Upfront Costs vs Lifetime Costs. Once you have decided combinations of HVAC methods that work for your house, it’s important to consider what you can afford. At this point, the upfront cost will likely affect the lifetime and operational costs. The contractor should help with pricing estimates for the equipment and installation, while the design team should help understand cryptic manufacturer performance labels. As one would guess, a higher upfront cost means lower long-term costs. Most people will only consider a 5-year payback time, or the time it takes for the cost difference of a superior product to be paid off by lower operational costs.Once you have your new equipment installed, make sure you maintain it per the manufacturer’s recommendations. It might be simple enough to do yourself, or you may have to hire a technician, but proper maintenance will ensure better performance and a longer life. It’s a good idea to add these checkups and maintenance days to a recurring appointment on your calendar. You will kick yourself if an expensive piece of equipment breaks down or isn’t at peak performance due to lack of attention.
No Need for Luck
Building a new house is an amazing opportunity, but also a major step that can have confusing and overwhelming demands. By understanding the process, the team, the HVAC possibilities and costs, though, you’ll have a well-conditioned and healthy environment for years to come!