How to market tamper-resistant locking caps for refrigerant access ports.

capsTamper-resistant locking caps for air-conditioning refrigerant-access ports have become integrated into many HVACR service contractors’ service call routines in the last five years.

While some service contractors have not used them yet, a growing legion employ innovative ways of marketing locking caps to the public. Some do it as community goodwill, a profit maker or a combination of both.

The 2009 International Mechanical Code (IMC) initially introduced locking caps to inspectors and contractors when it mandated them on all newly installed units. The mandate aimed at reducing the troubling uptick of teen air-conditioning refrigerant-related huffing deaths in the last decade. The escalating price of R-22 during its current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) phaseout and the resultant rash of stolen refrigerant appearing on the black market brought yet another reason to lock air-conditioning refrigerant ports.

Now, the 2015 IMC—which will be adopted into most state, county and city jurisdictions during the next few years—calls for a locking-cap installation on any system opened for servicing. San Antonio, TX is one of the first major metropolitan areas to apply the 2015 IMC.

Install caps now or later

The 2015 IMC puts service contractors into a challenging predicament. Do they market and sell locking caps now to all their existing customers, presumably at a profit, before the 2015 IMC is adopted in their local jurisdiction? Or, do they wait until the 2015 IMC is in full force and then mandated?

The latter option may prevent any kind of profit, because customers will wonder why they are charged for a locking cap when the 2015 IMC mandate shifts responsibility and liability to the contractor. Many customers will question whether the contractor should absorb the charges instead of billing them on an item that is a code requirement, such as a ground fault interrupter or a service disconnect, which are just necessary parts of doing business. That sticky situation could imperil a customer/contractor relationship and is ample reason for contractors to start marketing and selling locking caps to their entire customer base now. While locking caps may seem like another HVACR business obstacle, many contractors have used them for a positive influence in their community.

For example, Chase Tunnell, President of Dominion Service Co. Heating & Cooling (Richmond, VA), discovered the huffing trend through a website of the Chesterfield County, VA-based substance abuse non-profit organization Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE). Tunnell sent out invitations to all local HVACR contractors and formed a 12-member consortium that promoted locking caps. The marketing effort was multifold. SAFE, which covers all types of inhalants beyond just refrigerants, helped fund advertisements promoting locking-cap benefits and listed consortium members who participated in their installation. The organization also created a curriculum that local schools could adopt for classroom huffing education.

Safe also created a 4 x 6-in. postcard that consortium contractors could either mail to their customers or hand out during service calls. Some consortium members also financed their own promotions that were tied to the SAFE campaign. For example, Dominion financed its own $30,000 print, online, radio and TV advertising campaign promoting a free locking-cap installation. Consequently, the company installed more than 2,000 free locking caps spread among 1,000 inquiries that included a multi-family housing complex with hundreds of condensing units.

“Our goal was to prevent huffing, but a byproduct was a ton of new customers and a lot of free publicity amounting to four television station interviews, several large newspaper features and other exposure,” recalls Tunnell, who also installed free caps for his existing customers. “We spent $30,000, but our advertising agency said we received about $100,000 worth of free media exposure.”

Contractors can choose to sell locking caps or provide them free, according to Tunnell. “Some contractors may not want to spend the time and material costs of sending a service tech out to install a free locking cap, but compared to the hundreds of dollars it costs us to get a new customer, it’s certainly worth it,” said Tunnell, who figures new customers cost approximately $300 each when he divides his annual advertising budget by the number of new customers.

Whether they sell them or not, Tunnell recommends contractors create a consortium with the common purpose of installing locking caps. Other areas of the country may not have the benefit of a local advocacy group, such as SAFE, but contractors outside of Virginia can take advantage of SAFE’s school curriculum, according to SAFE’s Executive Director, Regina Whitsett, who will send the curriculum to any interested contractor’s school district.

Therefore, the schools can serve as an anchor for educating teens, while the contractors’ local communications media publicizes and/or advertises the national huffing trend to parents.

Tunnell is not alone. A Google search surfaced dozens of HVACR contractors that have added a page dedicated to huffing dangers and locking-cap remedies. Some of those contractors include:

gMast Heating & Cooling, Zeeland, MI;

gBornstein Sons, five counties in NJ;

gA-1 American Plumbing Heating & Air Conditioning,

Virginia Beach, VA;

gAAA Cooling Specialists, Scottsdale, AZ;

gRoscoe Brown Inc., Nashville, TN; and

gGaines HVAC, St. Louis, MO.

Houston Plumbing & Heating Inc. (Newark, OH), has taken a step past Web pages and started selling caps priced with a small labor/ parts markup during service calls to its existing customers in April 2014. Houston’s office staff informs existing customers a locking cap will be installed during routine service calls and briefly explains the reason. Customers requiring more information can ask service techs during the service call. Nobody has cancelled a service call because of the policy, according to B. Sue Dodson, Treasurer for the 52-year-old mechanical contracting company that specializes in commercial and residential work.

“We think it’s a good business practice, so any unit we touch is now getting a locking cap,” said Dodson, whose local jurisdiction has not yet adopted the 2015 IMC. “We’re proactively trying to prevent anyone from doing harm to themselves.”

As for marketing, Houston’s Facebook and Twitter accounts both refer visitors to the United Parents to Restrict Open Access to Refrigerant (UPROAR) website for YouTube videos

and more information. Dodson reports no huffing tragedies have struck her community, but two customers’ units were suspects when repeated low-refrigerant service calls followed by leak-testing produced no results. After locking caps were installed, the suspect units retained their refrigerant charge, according to Dodson.

Dodson also said locking caps can also deter do-it-yourselfers from tampering with a system if they are not EPA-certified. She said a couple of customers called and said a service tech did not know how to unlock the caps, which led Dodson to believe the service tech had no association with an HVACR wholesaler, most of whom sell the locking caps and their special keys to qualified service people.

The bottom line to any locking cap program is the reduction in teenage huffing and deaths, according to Tunnell. “We know one customer that knew his child was huffing out of their air conditioning condenser and our locking-cap installation stopped it,” said Tunnell. “The local high school also discovered three teens were huffing out of school air-conditioners and our locking-cap installations stopped it.”

James Bowman is the National Technical Manager—HVACR for RectorSeal Corp. (Houston, TX), which offers a two brands of locking caps that operate with either a special key or a rare earth magnetic wrench. Bowman is a former service technician that is EPA-certified, NATE certified and holds a Class A contractor license in Texas. Bowman is available as a speaker on HVACR service related topics to RSES Chapters. For more information, email