Installing new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment is the biggest investment homeowners make. Not as much as buying the home, but more than purchasing a refrigerator or a stove. You can also spend more money on renovations, installing a killer home entertainment system, or putting in a swimming pool — but those are elective decisions.
More than any other home expense, HVAC impacts your family’s comfort every minute of every day throughout the year and your wallet every month.
Because HVAC equipment is such a costly investment, quality installation is more important than the actual product.
Repeat: quality installation is more important than the actual product.
“Luckily I work for an owner who values quality over quantify,” says one HVAC service tech in the Fort Worth area. “If I do a good job, people call back when they need service. Or they tell their friends. It’s more important than if we had a big ol’ billboard on the highway.”
Think about it: When you buy a TV, you may “size it” for viewing in a specific room or add it to an existing entertainment system or home network.
When you buy an air conditioner and furnace, these must be properly “sized” for the entire home. The equipment isn’t plug-n-play, it interacts with the environment — insulation, windows, doors, air leaks, existing duct work, and any problems (seen or unseen) that may exist. There are heat-loss, load, and payback calculations to be made.
Who does all this?
Meet the HVAC Contractor
In this Home Cooling 101 post, we meet HVAC contractors, schedule in-home assessments, and learn how to interact with these highly-trained service professionals.
The HVAC service contractor you choose to do business with in the Fort Worth area will impact your home for years to come.
The analysis performed by the contractor’s technicians will impact the home (and your budget) beyond the installation date. If his calculations are poor, his recommended equipment will be off, his overall “comfort design” for the home will be inefficient, and you will pay for it in poor system performance or higher monthly energy bills.
This post is not meant to be an exhaustive look at everything HVAC contractors do in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas — services and approach vary greatly according to contractor. But in general, their work falls into three categories:
- service, repair, maintenance
- installation of new equipment
- HVAC advisor (on new equipment, comfort design, and on products like humidifiers, filtration systems, energy technology, and efficiency, to name a few)
A previous Home Cooling 101 post covered how to find contractors. We’ll assume you’ve talked to your neighbors, have done your internet research, and have done your due diligence to settle on three to five companies in the Fort Worth area.
Schedule an HVAC Assessment
You NEVER want to get an estimate (even a “ballpark” one) by providing details of your home and needs over the phone, but surprisingly it happens. Companies charm homeowners by saying they’ve installed lots of systems in homes just like theirs. Don’t do it.
You can, however, ask questions of the company owner, lead salesman, or head service, repair, or installation technician over the phone to get started. You definitely want to follow-up the conversation with an in-home visit to get a better sense of the company people you’ll be dealing with.
Questions can include:
- How long has the company been in business in the Fort Worth area? Is the company easy to reach by telephone? Does it offer 24 hour emergency service?
- Can it provide customer references?Call a couple of references: Did the installer finish as planned? Did he leave the space clean after he finished? How did he handle unexpected issues? Were you happy with the work done, the work crew (if there was more than one installer), the company?
- Are the contractor’s installers NATE certified? NATE is an industry standard for technician excellence. Other certifications include: HVAC Excellence, ACCA (Air Conditioning Contractors of America), ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers), among others.
- What type of training do the service and repair technicians get? Technology is rapidly changing every industry. Does the company provide continuing education (on energy technology, for example) to its service, repair, and installation technicians? This is important as they can better answer your questions and offer a wide range of solutions.
- Is the company properly licensed? Just saying so on a website isn’t enough. Ask for proof.
- Is the company insured?Protect your home from damage that may occur during installation. A recent example: A contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area installed two units outside a home and two furnaces in the attic. Afterward the homeowner noticed water leaking onto the kitchen ceiling and called the contractor, who immediately sent service technicians back to the home to find and fix the problem. The company paid to have the ceiling drywall properly repaired and painted.
- Does the company follow industry standards like Manual J and Quality Installation?
A thorough in-home assessment should take an hour or two to complete but to a homeowner it seems much quicker when unfamiliar terms are mentioned like SEER, tonnage, insulation ratings, air leaks, filtration, ductworks, heat exchangers, and so on.
Recommendations for Dealing with HVAC Contractors
Listen to the contractor’s representative, who may be a salesman or a salesman accompanied by a service or installation technician. Is he talking rapid-fire unfamiliar HVAC jargon — SEER ratings (12 or 15?), size and capacity (2 tons or 2.5?), and so on? Truly professional contractors care about the home’s environment (they want your repeat business and recommendation) and should ask detailed questions about occupants, activities in the home, lifestyles, heating and cooling goals, existing issues, budget. Even if they are pressed for time, they should take a moment to calmly, clearly, and with gusto answer your questions to the best of their ability. If not, if they spend time looking at their watch and hopping from foot to foot as if they want to get going, you probably don’t want to use that company.
If everything is going too quickly during an assessment ask questions, slow things down to a reasonable pace. It’s unfair to expect a service tech to go into great detail about the most recent hunting trip, but it’s fair to expect him to take a minute or two to intelligently answer your questions or provide you tips and tricks if asked.
Ask. Have a conversation. Let the installer explain (to your satisfaction) what he’s doing and why it’s important. Get to know your home from an energy and performance perspective.
Sizing and Calculations
Because this is the critical component of an in-home inspection and assessment, we’ve made this the next post. Surprisingly, properly “sizing” a home for HVAC equipment isn’t always done well and the homeowners end up paying for it.
Finishing Up: Get Everything In Writing
So you’ve . . .
- Found three to five HVAC contractors in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas to interview . . . and called each one to learn the basics about their companies.
- Held at least two or three in-home inspections and assessments and have a general idea which direction you may go.
Now get EVERYTHING in writing.
The service technician or installation specialist probably will complete “sizing” calculations on site and report his findings and recommendations. Insist you not only want the calculations but a report on your home’s HVAC status, which will be helpful when considering future upgrades, repairs, and maintenance. The report may take a day or two to compile.
The contractor should provide good-better-and-best options, or scenarios, based on his calculations and the overall assessment of the home’s energy status and needs. For example, maybe improving the insulation in the attic and “tightening” the home’s “envelope” will allow you to install a smaller system. Or, based on special needs, new equipment is recommended with a filtration system or humidifier. It’s not always this brand or that model that’s most important. And make sure you understand the advantages and disadvantages of each scenario.
Options will, of course, include detailed cost estimates for all equipment and scenarios, the installation, supplies, installation labor, and variables. What is the company’s change-order policy in case something unexpected comes up like having to modify ducts? When is the final payment due? (Avoid paying up-front.) Make sure start and end dates for the installation are included and the maximum number of days you are without heating or cooling.
Does the contractor provide free follow-up inspections to make sure everything is performing as expected? Does the company provide a year’s-worth of free service for semi-annual check-ups? Do they offer an annual service-contract discount if you purchase everything through them?
We’ll take a look at winterizing your HVAC system and home for the coming cold months, then we’ll get back to the series on contractors and What HVAC contractors do to “size” a home and why is it so critical?