We’re not here to beat up on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors. No, we love these guys.
Contractors, service and repair techs, they keep us cool in the hot Texas summers, warm in the cold North Texas winters, and make sure our cooling and heating equipment runs efficiently all year long.
But, we realize, not all contractors are the same, so in this post we’re taking a slightly different perspective (loosely based on research at the Comfort Institute) to illustrate what makes a good contractor.
Not All Contractors are the Same
In 20+ years of working in home comfort and closely with contractors, the researchers at the Comfort Institute (CI) have “witnessed an enormous variation in heating and air contractor competence and ethics.” They contend a small minority are “downright dishonest.”
A few years ago, TV investigative news magazines Dateline (NBC) and 48 Hours (CBS, YouTube clip) aired hidden-camera reports that exposed fraudulent HVAC contractors, who bent the facts (watch out for this one) or committed outright fraud.
In most cases, homeowners did not accompany the technicians outside during the equipment examination. If they did, the homeowners didn’t pay close enough attention to what was being said or done.
We always recommend homeowners accompany technicians from the Arlington air conditioning contractor they are using to the inspection of any equipment and ask questions, not in an annoying I-don’t-trust-you manner but in an I’m-interested-to-learn way. Make your questions a conversation. If the tech gets too techie, slow him down, ask him to put it in “plain English” so you can understand what’s actually happening. If he doesn’t do a good job with this, if you don’t understand clearly what’s being done and what how much it will cost, find somebody else. You don’t want to make a $10,000 mistake.
The Better Business Bureau also ranks HVAC as one of the highest-complaint industries.
The Comfort Institute insists “the great majority of contractors are honest. They work hard and mean well.” However, CI notes that most contractors “simply don’t have the business systems in place to properly serve the consumer.
- Staff Training. Most companies don’t invest enough in initial or ongoing staff training. When considering an Arlington air conditioning contractor, ask about training for service, repair, and installation technicians and, if in doubt, request proof. This is surprisingly important because diagnosing problems, properly “sizing” homes, and designing cost-effective, energy-saving systems is getting more complicated as technology continues to improve. Do the techs have the updated technical know-how?
- Staff Support. In addition to training, most residential companies don’t pay high enough wages to attract the best service and repair technicians and don’t supply them with state-of-the-art tools and diagnostic equipment. Look for air conditioning contractors in Arlington that treat their employees well and support them with the needed tools and equipment to do the job right.
Don’t Choose “Fly-by-Night” Contractors
This is always worth repeating:
- How many years has the Arlington air conditioning contractor been in business servicing homeowners in Arlington and the surrounding cities?
- Is the Arlington air conditioning contractor properly licensed and registered? Does it carry general liability or workman’s compensation (not required in some states)? Is the company a member of a national trade association? The service and repair techs? Can it provide names and numbers of customers? And so on.
“Name Brand” Dealers are not an Automatic Choice
Just because a contractor may “rep” a name brand that doesn’t automatically mean he is up to speed with the latest and greatest. Does the company send its service and repair techs to ongoing training provided by the manufacturers?
Don’t Ask if the Contractor Performs Diagnostics
At least not immediately. Comfort Institute says wait to see if the contractors you are considering bring up the importance of diagnostic testing for “right sizing” a home, infiltration (blower door test), or duct system air flow and leakage.
This approach allows a homeowner to see if the service, repair, or installation technician has been “trained about the problems that are likely lurking in your home and duct system and the importance of fixing them, or he doesn’t care.” Be wary of salesmen selling you a metal box and not truly solving heating, cooling, and home comfort issues.
Don’t Be Misled by Contractors Who Only Offer to Replace Equipment
Comfort Institute says “most contractors will only offer to replace your old equipment with the same size (or a bigger one), without performing any measurements, inspections or diagnostic tests” and insist that, while advanced industry training is now available, “relatively few contractors take advantage of it.”
We’ve discussed “wrong sizing” and the importance of “right sizing” at length, but CI’s belief that few contractors are taking advantage of advanced training is alarming. Comfort Institute thinks homeowners may interview 10 to even 20 companies before finding the right match. That’s not a difficult with the number of companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and surrounding cities, but it can be time consuming and confusing. It’s worth the effort — now that you know what’s going on.
Be Wary of Online Search Services
In your search for the right Arlington air conditioning contractor, there are lots of online search services that claim to put homeowners in touch with licensed HVAC contractors. Plug in your zip code and — presto! — here are 30 companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas that match your needs.
Most of these online services make money by charging contractors for “leads” generated by your clicks on their links and filling out a form. At best these search services give you additional names to research. The best contractors, CI says, don’t need these services.
Don’t Choose a Contractor Who Doesn’t Ask Lots of Questions
We’ve discussed the importance of homeowners asking questions and have touched on the service and repair technicians and salesmen asking questions, but Comfort Institute offers this perspective as a reminder.
“A good contractor is committed to 100 percent customer satisfaction. But to achieve this, he needs information. He knows that you and your family are the best source of information about these problems.” The company rep should start meetings by asking questions about “areas that have been hard to heat or cool, air that is either too dry or too humid, about how the old system worked (or didn’t work), and about what you are looking for in a new system.”
They interview you as much as you interview them.
“The typical contractor is only interested in swapping the metal boxes, and won’t try to help you take full advantage of this unique opportunity,” the CI says.
A Few More Pieces of Advice
- Don’t put the burden of a new system on one spouse’s shoulder. Everyone in the home should participate in determining heating and cooling needs and goals.
- Don’t make a rushed decision, which may be difficult when your air conditioner dies in the middle of a hot Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summer. Good air conditioning contractors will work with you (some have even been known to install temporary units).
- Don’t focus on initial costs. It’s tempting to spend as little as possible, but try to fully understand what your opportunities are for whole house comfort, energy conservation, and utility savings.
- Don’t assume the lowest-priced company is the one you should hire. Price matters, but CI’s experience notes that the “low priced contractor is rarely the best value. It usually ends up costing more in terms of unreliable operation, an uncomfortable home, repeated (service) visits to get problems resolved, higher utility bills, and even unsafe operation.”
- Don’t put up with high pressure salespeople. Nobody likes them anyway.
- Don’t choose a contractor who wants you to pay cash.
In the end, the Comfort Institute reminds homeowners that hiring the right contractor to put in the appropriate HVAC system to meet the home’s heating and cooling, energy conservation, and energy savings goals is a unique opportunity.
“Don’t waste it.”
The biggest mistakes air conditioning contractors make.