Has the packaged rooftop market become commoditized? How can an owner or contractor pick the right brand when there are 46 to choose from?

I’ve had the sincere pleasure of working in the commercial HVAC industry (mostly the unitary market until recently) now for nearly 11 years. And I have nothing but good things to say; great people, very challenging projects, and there is something fascinating to learn every day. One thing I learned the other night (big shout-out to my research friend, Google), is there are now 7 unitary HVAC manufacturers that make 46 brands! Yes, you read that right; 46 brands of unitary HVAC equipment. Now, don’t get me wrong, people like having options, but 46 seems a BIT overkill. That’s an average of almost 7 brands PER manufacturer. What happened to the day when there were four brands to choose from? 

My first conclusion was, “yeah, but that’s how a lot of industries are going these days”. But are they? The first industry that immediately came to mind was the auto industry. Soooo, back to pounding on the keyboard again (thanks again Google). It’s hard to tell exactly, since so many auto manufacturers are buying each other up, and some own a minority stake in others, but, best I can tell, there are 17 major auto manufacturers and 46 brands. Which is an average ratio of 2.7-to-1 if you’re keeping score at home. But there is a big difference in the auto industry. You see, even though Honda owns Acura, and Ford owns Lincoln, for example, the specific models are still very differentiated. The Acura TL is not the exact same as a Honda Accord with just a different label. It’s a totally different car at a totally different price point.

So now it was time to quiz my wife. Maybe she could help me understand why the HVAC industry has gone this way. So, while we are “watching” a DVR’d episode of The Voice, an episode that Blake Shelton makes fun of Adam Levine (in case you haven’t seen the show, that’s every episode), I ask the million-dollar question. (“Watching”, by the way, is in quotes because we are usually doing other things while we “watch” TV. You know, like having our heads buried in our iPhone reading a book, checking social media or watching YouTube videos.) The question was: “In what other industries do manufacturers build identical products, and sell them through different sales channels with only a different label?” She came up with some good ones- “Watches? Fountain drinks? Cleaning supplies?” But as we check our sources again, we come up empty handed. Sure, there are plenty of products that have an off-brand. But its “AN” off-brand. One, maybe two. Not 6 or 7. And in many cases, just like the auto industry, the off-brand is not an identical product. 

So, back to the question that started this whole discussion: how does a building owner decide which brand is the “best” when they have 46 to choose from? 

Choose the right contractor 

This is, hands down, the most critical step. Even if you’ve had “really good luck” with a certain brand, don’t focus on the brand just yet. Make sure you choose a reputable contractor that has a lot of experience with the equipment type you are looking to buy. Here are just a few things that could go wrong during installation and startup that would make you second guess your favorite brand in a heartbeat.

  1. Airflow is not verified: incorrect airflow could cause humidity issues, sweating ductwork, premature compressor failure and much more.
  2. Incoming power is wired to the unit out of phase: your blower is probably spinning backward now, which means you are running at 65-ish percent of nominal airflow (if you’re lucky). Refer back to #1 for incorrect airflow issues. 
  3. Unit is not sitting level: condensate drain issues. No one likes water in their building.
  4. Economizer is not set up properly: hopefully you don’t mind humidity issues and no cold air when the ambient temperature falls below 55.

Choose the right distributor

I’ll say it again; this step doesn’t really matter if we don’t have the right contractor selected. But, assuming we choose the right contractor, let’s pick the right distributor.

  1. Does your distributor stock the equipment and parts you need? (Hint: cfm Distributors stocks over 125 commercial units and more than $1 million in York repair parts)
  2. Does your distributor have sufficient after-sales support? Do they have LOCAL service managers that are eager to help solve any job issue? (Hint: cfm Distributors has 3 local service managers that are at your beck and call. We will even come to the site, AT NO COST, on a new install to help troubleshoot a problem)
  3. Does your distributor have the pre-sales support you need? Will they come out to the job and help do a load calculation, look at ductwork with you, check refrigerant pipe sizes, run an ROI calculation if the owner wants to look at high efficiency equipment? (Hint: cfm Distributors does all of this, and quite well I might add) 

Choose the right manufacturer

Last but not least, is the manufacturer (Sorry York). Depending on the product, there may not be much differentiation between brands. Rooftops, for example, all have compressors, fans and coils, and they all can heat and cool a building. But, depending on your application, there can be significant differences between manufacturers when it comes to controls:

  1. A few years ago, York released Smart Equipment controls on units up to 50 tons that allow a contractor to set up and commission a unit from their smartphone, tablet or laptop while on the roof, or from anywhere in the world. This new technology from York also paved the way for the fault detection and diagnostics option, which includes factory installed temperature and pressure sensors that provide superheat and subcooling temperatures, yet again, to your smartphone, from anywhere in the world.
  2. This year York is expanding their controls solution and has introduced Verasyscontrols. By adding only space sensors and a Smart Building Hub, you can take York rooftops or split systems and now have a DDC-lite control system. And since the Verasys control boards are already built into the York units, the cost comes in at a huge price advantage over a full blown DDC system. There is scheduling, alerts and most everything you’d expect from a control system for rooftops and split systems. And it is all accessible anywhere in the world from the smartphone in your pocket! How cool! 
  3. This one isn’t control related, but it is worth mentioning. While many other manufacturers and brands are taking their facilities to Mexico, York unitary commercial and residential rooftops and split systems, 50 tons and under, are all designed, engineered and assembled in the Midwest- Norman Oklahoma for commercial products and Wichita KS for residential products

From a 30,000-foot view, you might think that replacing your rooftop unit is “no big deal”, and any brand and contractor can do the job. Just be careful! Pick the right contractor, distributor and THEN the manufacture. Furnace compare might have York as the top-rated furnace, for example, but what difference does it make if you pick the wrong contractor?

Brad Telker
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Brad Telker

Vice President, Commercial Sales at cfm Distributors, Inc.
Brad joined the cfm team in 2006, and now as Vice President of Commercial Sales he focuses on business development, as well as helping contractors and engineers find creative and unique solutions to any size HVAC project. When he’s not at work, Brad enjoys reading, running and spending time with his family.
Brad Telker
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