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HVACR contractors have long been in the business of helping customers solve problems relating to comfort, managing costs and managing health risks.  Going forward, the new challenge contractors will face – driven by Canada’s commitment to transition to a net zero carbon economy by 2050 – will be how to help their customers lower carbon emissions in their homes and buildings.  To meet this challenge will require some training, entrepreneurial know-how, business diversification and, most importantly, a shift in business culture.

A recent research project undertaken by HRAI with funding from The Atmospheric Fund (TAF) concludes that HRAI members are ready to embrace the opportunities that will come with de-carbonization, but they are not entirely sure how to act on these opportunities. Led by Climate Action Services Inc. (Lenard Hart), the research project included a survey of almost 100 contractors, a dozen in-depth interviews and a series of focus groups/workshops. The goal was to hear from contractors about the real and perceived barriers that block them from expanding their product and service offerings to include envelope (insulation) upgrades and other home energy upgrades, to better align their businesses to the emerging market that is being fostered through energy efficiency and carbon reduction programs.

Two key findings stood out from these discussions with contractors: 1) contractors are far more prepared to move into this space than was expected and, by their own admission, the barriers they point to are mostly psychological; and 2) the path to recognizing and acknowledging this readiness to expand only came through a process of “guided self-discovery.” Business owners in all workshops were initially skeptical about the need to change, but talked themselves into being supportive when they realized that all their self-defined barriers were actually quite easy to overcome with some training and adaptation.  The second finding will assist HRAI to develop programs and tools that will help contractors who are interested to navigate their way to becoming “whole home energy retrofit” contractors.

Contrary to expectations, the research team found few “hard barriers” -- in the sense of systemic or regulatory hurdles -- that are preventing the industry from moving forward, but instead identified what were more like reasons or excuses for hesitation, resulting from a lack of knowledge and in-field experience on carbon issues. These “soft barriers” are more readily overcome with a bit of training and shared experience. 

Some member companies who participated in the study already support whole home/building solutions by referring their customers to preferred companies that do building envelope or renewable upgrades. However, this does put an added onus on the customer, who usually does not know enough to handle the role well. Some members work with general contractors, engineers, or even energy auditors to help take a systems approach to the project, but this can add to the project cost.

To be optimally effective as climate-solution providers, HVACR contractors will eventually need to consider expanding their service offerings (either in-house or via sub-trades) to include building envelope and renewable options that will support the integrated design and trade-off calculations they undertake – becoming a one-stop shop for energy/carbon retrofits.

While that may seem a way off, the survey and focus group research clearly showed that the industry is both interested in, and capable of, this transition.

When asked for their perspective on the opportunities, 83% of survey respondents expressed the view that industry should have a leadership role in addressing climate change and 87% were looking forward to programs that will drive uptake.  Fully 82% reported having regular energy-efficiency conversations with customers but, at the same time only 50% felt prepared to talk about carbon emission reduction, and only 60% about fuel choices - which shows that this is still an emerging opportunity for members.

When asked to identify barriers preventing action, only 7% of respondents felt they faced any significant regulatory barriers to becoming climate leaders. In an industry constrained by a wide range of regulations, it was refreshing to hear that this is not a perceived deterrent to business diversification.

Asked about current service offerings, just over 50% of participants said they offer heat-loss calculations as an in-house service, but fewer than 15% offered any in-house envelope upgrade services. When asked about who they thought was best suited to support customers through a major energy/carbon retrofit project, 38% thought it should be an HVACR contractor, 35% an energy auditor, 14% a general contractor, 6% a utility agent, and only 3% picked an engineer.

The focus group sessions supported the idea that members are interested in offering deeper climate solutions. Most participants had a background with the House-as-a-System or integrated design analysis, but seldom used this knowledge in-field, so they were hesitant to offer this analysis to customers without a refresher course and some support tools (like a carbon trade-off calculator or modelling software etc.). Further training is a clear priority we need to explore.

Click HERE for a full report on the study findings.

HRAI will utilize the findings contained in this report to guide program development and to make recommendations to government on how to provide relevant supports to aid in the transition.

For more information, contact Martin Luymes at 1-800-267-2231 ext. 235 or email mluymes@hrai.ca