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Why Do So Many Expensive Homes Get Walmart-Class HVAC Systems?

million dollar home crappy hvac wall street journal The fellow standing in the home he’s having built is proud. It’s his dream home in Brookline, Massachusetts after all. The Wall Street Journal last week published an article about affluent home buyers getting their own jumbo construction loans to do just as Mr. Deshpande has done. Usually, they hire a home builder to build the home, but if you look at that photo, you’ll see a mistake that’s common even in million dollar homes.

The fellow standing in the home he’s having built is proud. It’s his dream home in Brookline, Massachusetts after all. The Wall Street Journal last week published an article about affluent home buyers getting their own jumbo construction loans to do just as Mr. Deshpande has done. Usually, they hire a home builder to build the home, but if you look at that photo, you’ll see a mistake that’s common even in million dollar homes.

See all that flex duct? That’s Walmart-style. Wait, I think I’m being too generous. It’s probably more like Big Lots-style.

I can’t see much of the duct system in that photo, but I can see enough to tell me that they could have comfort problems.

  • The bundle of flex duct behind Mr. Deshpande is strapped a little tightly. 
  • If they’re running three ducts in the same direction, why didn’t they use a trunk line?
  • Worst of all, they ran flex duct in the roofline.

It’s a shame that they’ve done this, too, because they used spray foam insulation in the walls and roofline. Someone obviously cared a bit about making the house comfortable and efficient, but as usual, that didn’t apply to the duct system.

Sadly, this problem is common. The big expensive homes always get the fancy finishes. They often get the hot, green products as well: spray foam insulation, tankless water heaters, ground-source (aka geothermal) heat pumps… If they’re putting in a forced-air HVAC system, though, they get crap for a distribution system.

Here’s one I saw in a 10,000 square foot house recently:

duct system flex particle accelerator no trunk line

Yeah, they made it look pretty, but guess what — Those ducts all go to the master suite, which is one of the least comfortable areas in the house. The master bath gets too hot in winter and too cold in summer (i.e., too much air). The master bedroom gets too hot in summer and too cold in winter (i.e., not enough air). They should have designed and commissioned the system properly. Trunklines instead of all those individual ducts would have done much better.

Whose fault is this? It’s hard to say in general, but it’s almost certainly not the HVAC contractor’s fault. The home builder hires the HVAC contractor to fit the budget. A cheapo budget gets cheapo HVAC. The home builder probably bears most of the responsibility, although in some cases, the person they’re building for would rather put the extra money into finishes.

Mr. Deshpande looks proud of his new home in the photo above. If he knew he was standing next to a Walmart-class HVAC system, though, I wonder if that smile would turn to a scowl.


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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Love it ! Seen way too many
    Love it ! Seen way too many of these, in fact, I am also the proud owner of what I refer to as a “D-” system which I now use as backup to my Fujitsu heat pumps. Nothing like long runs of flex in an attic. Nice work and great photo of proud homeowner.

  2. People, specifically home
    People, specifically home buyers, do not as a rule have a working knowledge of the mechanicals. As you state, and in my experience it is true, buyers are focused on the aesthetics. People do not show off their duct work, however they do like to show off the beautiful crown moldings and granite counter tops. The portion of the budget for the important stuff, at least in my mind, gets chiseled down to pay for the fluff.  
    It’s hard to buck human nature.

  3. You went through that entire
    You went through that entire article and did not mention ACCA Manual D. You did mention a trunkline would be superior to 3 or more smaller ducts in parallel, it would have been enlightening to expound on the reasons why (I know some of them). It was never mentioned explicitly but between the lines I perceive you look down on flex duct. It has lower flow capacities and needs to be larger for a given air flow… but it deserves mention the problem is sizing and perhaps design, there is nothing about hard pipe which actually solves the problems you mention. Thank you.

  4. [rant on] 

    [rant on] 
    Some fault for what you see above needs to rest with the HVAC contractor. If the HVAC contractor does not have the knowledge and expertise to install a decent air distribution system for a given budget, who does? Certainly not the GC, in most cases. 
    It has to reside somewhere. Yes, in the context above there are many competitors against paying proper attention to proper air distribution, but the question that should be asked is how much more does it really cost to do the job correctly? Does doing so absolutely kill the granite countertops and multi-sprayhead shower stall…every time? Is it always an either/or choice? 
    What’s evident in the photos above is a never ending source of callbacks for the home builder, who will have to go after his sub (if they can be found) to find relief. Callbacks cost money…and a builder who merely resorts to ignoring the new homeowner just to save some $$ risks his reputation…unless he cranks out so many houses in a year that ticking off the buyers does not move the needle all that much. But I digress… 
    Bottom line: enough of this fog shrouding an obscene lack of expertise and skill. The home building as well as the HVAC industry must man up in order to realize its full potential. I am weary of the “justification” for this fog being that to do it right “costs too much”. To that I say B.S. It’s more apparent too much is being paid and too little is being delivered. 
    [/rant off]

  5. I would like a little advice
    I would like a little advice on refurbishing all of the the duct work at my home.  
    Some review; 2,000 sqft; all ducts in attic, VAV system; 5 zones; jumper ducts to hallway return or say devoted return for any and each zone; hard pipe or metal round duct (no flex besides a couple turns), using the static regain method. 
    Manual D and Manual Q conflict, and it seems if any one was to install a VAV system using actual math to balance the system, they would use the static regain method. Would a designer of my creed find a plethora of information in say a certain Carrier manual or something? Can you suggest?  
    What sort of plenum does one suggest. There is only about ten feet upwards after the central cabinet unit coil and blower. Even so, this ten foot ends at a roof line that shares a temperature difference with the outdoors. How can I avoid turbulence? How can I avoid an octopus (with straight tentacles, mind you). (I may move the cabinet unit to the house floor and order side return unit, by suggestion of my reading the ACCA manuals -and if code allows. This would provide me a couple extra feet when installing the plenum above the cabinet unit.) 
    I understand many of the basics, such as increasing my return register face sqft and beveling those sides out for an inch, etc.. For example, I understand that some system effect, when all is said and done, is unavoidable. By the way, the new Manual ZR is practically no help at all for anyone employing variable speed and variable capacity equipment with VAV duct design. ZR is for bypass or over-blow designs, etc.. -Some good stuff to learn, but nothing in-depth concerning a variable capacity and an entirely variable fan CFM (not ECM) design.  
    What would one use for a PLENUM or first-few-feet after-a-coil-and-blower strategy for a smaller duct system that will not be using all but mathematical fudge-factors such as the modified equal friction method throughout their design? Could you wye the entire plenum in half at some point or something? (When I decrease airflow during part loads, won’t many things including turbulence also change within any first plenum?) 
    Where is the best information on thus. 
    I love this band – 
    The Khan of Man  

  6. Hey Allison, 
    Hey Allison, 
    I have been in meetings with Large homebuilders discussing as many as 10,000 systems at a time, sometimes negotiating over as little as sixty cents a unit, and those of us who have done this nasty business don’t talk much about what we had to do to get the order. 
    Once we got the job I would “cost engineer” it so we would not lose money by cutting the bed room doors up 3” to avoid returns, put the same leaky duct (“built to code”) system through unconditioned attics in each house, and watch our labor run away for 3 days if a helicopter flew over our job site. 
    Looking back, I can see that in building HVAC systems to the lowest cost total crap we could (anyone competing with us built) for the largest production builders, we were creating the construction jobs of yesterday and the HP jobs of today, We were thinking ahead! 
    I do find it silly that folks think they need to do a Full Monty, Science Project, Proctological Audit on each of the 30,000 houses in the Sub Division 10 years later, take my word for it, they don’t all Suck I didn’t do my Job right. 

  7. Lmao. 

    Period of silence. 
    Crying my eyes out. 
    (another nice post Allison)

  8. Unfortunately Home Builders,
    Unfortunately Home Builders, Home, Inspectors & many HVAC “professionals” have no clue that duct design has standards, protocol and accepted practice layed down by A.C.C.A., ASHRAE, SMACNA and the International Mechanical Code as well as The International Residential Code and Energy Code. The problem is that noone is enforcing them……or trained to! Therefore there are HVAC companies who install whatever, whenever and however they feel like it and Homebuilders/ Homeowners push the price down by using them to the point that folks who do train their staff and follow codes/acceptable practices can’t compete. When will we learn that you don’t get Brooks Brothers suits at Walmart prices!! If you pay peanuts you get monkeys! And deserve them!

  9. Matt and Tim are so correct
    Matt and Tim are so correct in their observations. Custom home construction demands better project documentation, products and team management. Another factor is sometimes the client driving the cost down. When told flexduct was to be used and they would save $5000 they just said “ok”.

  10. True or false: Flex duct used
    True or false: Flex duct used with a good duct design, will give bad results. Hard duct used with a poor design, will give the same. What do you think and why, please.

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