Is Preventive Maintenance Truly Preventive?

The term draws ire from some, but the benefits of maintenance are highly regarded

Preventive maintenance has become a popular term for HVAC contractors. In essence, preventive maintenance allows contractors to perform routine checkups on equipment, which ensures fewer breakdowns and longer equipment life cycles.

While this proactive approach is almost universally accepted in HVAC contracting circles, others in the industry believe the word “preventive” actually does the industry a great disservice.

THE BENEFITS

Greg Crumpton, president and founder of AirTight FaciliTech in Charlotte, North Carolina, said educating consumers on the total cost of ownership of a piece of air conditioning equipment and how routine maintenance is comparable in price to running it until it breaks is essential.

“Our companies go from a simple physical check all the way through full coverage,” he said. “If anything breaks, it is covered, much like a car warranty. It’s a budgetable item, and, over time, we have proven there isn’t that much difference between the cost of maintenance versus waiting until it breaks. You spend the same over the lifetime of a unit.”

For Travis Smith, owner of Sky Heating & Air Conditioning in Portland, Oregon, the biggest benefit to preventive maintenance is the actual lack of breakdowns that occur as a result.

“I still remember the first year we really offered maintenance to all of our customers. During the cold and hot spells, we noticed fewer emergency calls than ever before, and I’m not talking about a drop of 10-15 percent,” he said. “We saw almost a 50 percent drop in emergency calls from existing customers, yet our service department was doing more work than ever. It’s a win for the customers because they don’t go without heat and their systems operate at peak efficiency, a win for our employees because they are busier in the slow months and not overworked in the busy months, and a win for the company because it evens out our service revenue.”

Scott Merritt, owner of Fire & Ice Heating & Air Conditioning in Columbus, Ohio, mentioned his company features a multi-tiered maintenance agreement program that offers discounts on repairs, credits toward new equipment, same-day service, and choice of technician. The program also offers no overtime fees, preseason scheduling, refrigerant incentives, accessory discounts, and monthly payment options.

HOW TO PHRASE IT

These are certainly great benefits to consider, however, there are two sides to every coin. The term “preventive maintenance” just doesn’t sit right with everybody.

Ruth King, profitability master and CEO, Profitability Revolution Paradigm, said, “No contractor can prevent anything,” she said. “I’ve had contractors get letters from maintenance clients who say they’re not paying because they had a ‘preventive maintenance agreement’ that should have prevented the breakdown.

“Contractors who use the word ‘preventive’ are potentially setting themselves up for a lawsuit,” she continued. “The terms routine maintenance or planned maintenance are much better than preventive maintenance.”

Rich Morgan, president of Magic Touch Mechanical in Mesa, Arizona, said, over the years, all contractors have been taught to use positive trigger words as opposed to negative words.

“A good example in our industry is calling a salesperson a comfort consultant or referring to the final price as the total investment,” he said. “I’ve read there is proof that these positive trigger words lead to an increase in sales. There are some people who laugh and scoff at these words and prefer a more pragmatic approach. No matter what name we put on it, the most important part, in my opinion, is to communicate the importance of it and let our clients know not only the poetential benefits, but what risk they assume without it.”

Crumpton takes what he refers to as an “old school” approach to the terminology. “The term is preventive maintenance,” he said. “It’s mechanical, and it will break. Let’s be adults and know things break eventually and mitigate that risk. A pulley will wear out, a compressor will get to the end of its useful life, and a car doesn’t last for a million miles. I think it’s largely semantics. I’m a consumer, and I know that maintenance is part of the program with just about anything I buy. No one really likes it, but with my car, for instance, I know the car is maintained, and that gives me peace of mind. By educating customers, you can bring them around to understand the value.”

King also used cars as an example of why routine maintenance or planned maintenance are better terms for contractors to use.

“It’s telling customers what an HVAC company is doing at their homes/offices and why it is necessary,” she said. “People don’t go without changing the oil in their cars [because] they understand the concept. Planned maintenance is the analogy for the HVAC industry.”

CUSTOMER FAMILIARITY

No matter what term contractors are using, the fact remains that raising customer awareness of the option is of paramount importance.

“I don’t think enough customers take advantage of it,” said Smith. “Imagine if only 20 percent of people who owned vehicles maintained them. There would be a lot of broken vehicles. An HVAC system can run around 2,000 hours per year, and if you imagine it’s working at the equivalent of 30 miles per hour, that means you put 60,000 miles per year on your furnace in between maintenance.”

Morgan sees customer awareness as a largely mixed bag, with one group of people who “get it” and actively make sure to keep their HVAC systems up to manufacturer specifications to avoid future problems and people who have the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset.

“There are some homeowners who seem to think if a unit is ‘new’ — I’ve heard many homeowners refer to a five-year or even 10-year old unit as ‘new’ — that it shouldn’t need preventive maintenance,” he said. “Whether they really believe that or not is up for debate. I think if you own a car, you understand the importance of maintenance, new or not.”

Along the same residential lines, Merritt said long-term homeowners are generally pretty familiar with maintenance agreements, but many have had bad experiences with services that are not consistent or not rendered at all, even though payment was made.

“Most first-time homeowners need to be educated on the whole process — the need for maintenance agreements and how maintenance affects a system’s life expectancy and level of efficiency,” he said. “We bring it to every client’s attention, just as an auto mechanic would bring to any auto owner’s attention that it needs oil changes and regular tuneups. There is no difference. Mechanical devices need maintenance or they will break down and have shorter lifespans.”

Commercially, Crumpton said intense market locations, such as data centers, hospitals, schools, etc., understand the value because they can’t afford for their systems to be down for any extended period of time.

“The No. 1 complaint in office spaces is the HVAC system,” he said. “When people are disrupted, hot, cold, or whatever, they are not productive. Setting up preventive maintenance agreements makes you a top priority to a customer and ensures quick treatment of issues.”

 

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