Jul 04, 2023

How to Add Combustion Testing Services to Your Company

The last thing you’re thinking about during the summer is combustion testing. However, if you want to take advantage of this specialized skill, now is the time to prepare for fall season.

One of the biggest challenges for companies that want to start combustion testing is where to begin. In this month’s article, we’ll take a high-level look at how you can add combustion testing services to your company and some things to look out for.

Before testing, understand why you want to. Everyone in the company needs to understand the reasons why and the purpose for adding this service. If you don’t know and aren’t able to articulate the “why” before you begin, it’s hard to get everyone on board. “Because I said so” isn’t enough.

Plus, when you don’t have an established “why,” you and your team will give up when it gets tough. I have seen companies make significant investments in test equipment and training, only to quit once they hit their first obstacle. Having a strong “why” helps you handle the fears and adversity that often come with combustion testing.

As with any new process, there are always some growing pains. If combustion testing was easy, everyone would do it. That might be why most of our industry doesn’t. Instead, they rely on rules of thumb and antiquated testing methods. Their loss is your gain.

Once you establish your “why,” it’s time for proper training. Your team must know what to look for and what the test results mean. One of the biggest sources of frustration in combustion testing is inconclusive results and not understanding how to interpret the readings.

I might be a little biased, but the Combustion Performance and Carbon Monoxide Safety course that National Comfort Institute (NCI) offers is the class I prefer. Not just because I work for NCI but because it’s the class I took more than 20 years ago when I was still a contractor. It addressed issues that no one else talked about and taught me how to correct them. The answer wasn’t always to replace the heat exchanger, buy a carbon monoxide alarm, or install new equipment.

Start small with training. If you have a larger company, pick a few top technicians and get them trained so they can help lead the effort. If you’re a smaller company, everything will fall on you to lead the way. Getting started may seem overwhelming at first but is easier if you take it one step at a time using the One-Degree Principle.

Ambient CO (carbon monoxide) testing is a great place to begin training. It will raise awareness for all of your staff and educate them about indoor CO levels and their dangers. They also need to know the critical difference between a store-bought CO alarm and a low-level CO monitor. This training also teaches technicians how to recognize common visual clues and why they are of concern.

With some foundational knowledge about ambient CO, CO alarms, and visual clues, it’s time to get the right instruments. Training is great, but without test instruments, you can’t measure combustion gases or ambient air for personal safety.

Your first test instrument should be a low-level CO monitor for each of your field staff. Don’t assume the air they breathe on each call is safe. Instead, measure to verify conditions. Next, equip your technicians with a combustion analyzer and draft gauge. The Sauermann combustion analyzers are impressive, if you’re looking for a reliable instrument. They have Bluetooth features and an accompanying app that solves common testing problems older analyzers couldn’t address.

You need to decide whether you will provide these test instruments or if you’ll work out a deal with your technicians. Some companies provide the test equipment if technicians pass a certification exam as an extra incentive to study hard and take their training seriously.

As your team’s skills improve, you can add other test instruments, like micromanometers, for building pressure testing and combustible gas leak detectors. The important part is to get the test instruments so you can progress to the next step.

Personal monitoring of ambient CO is a great place to begin testing. This helps raise awareness and gets your technicians comfortable looking at CO safety. Once they are used to measuring the air they breathe, it’s time to begin equipment testing. This step is a little more intimidating so start slow. I recommend beginning with your office installation and the home installations of your top technicians. These are great options to build confidence by testing in non-threatening environments.

The two biggest goals for this phase are getting comfortable with the test equipment and doing the basic testing. Don’t underestimate how intimidating it can be to install a test port in a flue for combustion testing. Even for an experienced technician, it can be the monster hiding under the bed. Give them the skills needed to test the right way. Don’t just hand them the tools and say “go do it.”

After testing your office and employees’ homes, move to new installations and change outs. Don’t advertise what you’re doing at this stage. Remember, the goal is to learn and get comfortable.

Once your team is comfortable testing, it’s time to have a follow-up discussion with them to see what went right and what didn’t. This is a time of refinement and adjustment. Find out what lessons they learned and how they can do testing differently. Your techs will often come up with innovative ways to implement testing into their calls.

This addition is also a good time to discuss how your technicians should talk about test results with customers and deal with what they find. Your company’s success depends on making sure everyone sings the same song. Have a process that ensures consistency among techs. If you don’t address this now, all your efforts may fall flat. Don’t set your technicians up to fail by not preparing them for how to handle a scary situation where they have little to no experience.

It takes a certain skill set to discuss CO findings without scaring a customer to death or having them get defensive. Planned response statements help you overcome this challenge. As you and your team discuss their findings, have them explain the measurements and what’s causing them in simple language that an eighth-grader can understand. You don’t need a renegade technician spouting off their opinions that could land your company in trouble.

After your team has a feel for how to move forward, it’s time to create a plan to introduce combustion testing to your customers. Define what you will and won’t test before going live, and define boundaries so everyone stays within the lines.

You also need to decide how you will add combustion testing to maintenance and emergency service calls. Then there’s the question of whether you should charge for combustion testing or include it in the cost of your service fee. This is a companywide decision, so choose wisely. Be sure to weigh the pros and cons of each approach.

This step requires you to decide what you want to accomplish first. Each company is a little different, but most start with existing maintenance customers because your company already has a relationship with them. They know you and trust you to do the right thing, so they make perfect sense to begin with. Next, you can add emergency service customers.

Discuss how you will roll out this service with your technicians and dispatchers. It will take a little more time to do the testing as your technicians implement the essential tests with their calls. Allow time to adjust in the beginning. You’ll notice the test quickly becomes standard practice.

Rob Falke, the late president of NCI, used to say we leak information and must replenish it continually. It’s baffling how much information we lose. As the old saying goes, unless you use it, you lose it.

Prioritize ongoing internal training to keep combustion testing principles fresh. Rank the most common issues your technicians run into and use them as material for training. Refresher training in the fall keeps the principles new and helps reload what is forgotten. The companies that have made combustion safety testing part of their culture often have training classes scheduled at their shops before the heating season kicks off so that everyone is up to date and ready to test.

If you have techs who don’t get this stuff all at once, don’t let them get discouraged. Instead encourage them to remain a student of combustion testing — one class won’t make them an expert. It took me two rounds through Jim Davis’ class and a year's worth of field testing before everything finally clicked. Give your staff time to learn.

To succeed in combustion testing, you must stay consistent and believe in what you’re doing. This is not some silver bullet you plug in like a store-bought carbon monoxide alarm. Instead, it’s a specialized service.

You’ll have to play the long game and adjust during each of the phases, so be prepared to pivot. Your customers trust you, so don’t use scare tactics to promote these services. Instead, educate and inform from a position of integrity, honesty, and concern. You’ll find word spreads fast as you solve problems that your competitors attempt to solve with guesses and assumptions.

As your reputation grows, transition to marketing outside your existing customer base. Word-of-mouth referrals and testimonials work great. We often forget that our industry is the public’s first line of defense against CO poisoning. Why not be proactive instead of reactive and add combustion testing services to your company while it’s still a specialty and not a commodity?

Director of Training at the National Comfort Institute Inc. (NCI)

NCI specializes in training focused on improving, measuring, and verifying HVAC and building performance. Contact him at [email protected].