HVAC Sting: Do You Value Quality or Price?

Attic HVACYesterday I read a great blog post by Energy Vanguard (if you don’t know these guys you should). This post focused on the Today Show’s ‘sting’ to see if HVAC contractors would do the right thing when brought to a home to diagnose a heating and cooling problem. As you might expect, the results were ‘made for TV’ and nobody that made the cut to be shown in the episode did an honest job, some even proving to be outright crooks. So moving past the sensationalism aspect of this television investigation, I want to look at the issues that really exist in the industry as a whole.

When a HVAC contractor is called out to a home to address an issue with the “system not cooling like it should” it could be a variety of factors.

  • The homeowner does not understand how to program the thermostat
  • The system is not working correctly
  • The system is not sized correctly (this is actually probably the most common issue)
  • The system is not distributing air correctly (ducts not designed right, someone crushed a run, dirty ducts)
  • The refrigerant level is low
  • It is the hottest day on record and the system cannot keep up since the system is in the attic that is not conditioned

I am sure there are more issues that I did not think of for my list. The other problem is the level of training the service tech that shows up at your front door might have prior to getting to your front door. If you simply picked up the phone book and found the company that offered a free review, or fast service, or has the first listing, you have no idea of their track record, ability to actually fix the issue, or ability to understand the problem. A HVAC system is not a simple appliance like a stove. It is a complicated piece of engineering that has many factors, parts, and influences. This may be the most complicated part of your home to manage, understand, design, and diagnose. The HVAC tech that comes to your home to figure out how to address your problem with the system needs to understand how the mechanics of the system function, how the mechanics of the home impact the system, and how the environmental conditions may impact each of those elements. If they are working on a fixed fee and get bonuses for up-selling, the temptation may be too great not to resist giving you some questionable information about your system. However, if you hire a reputable contractor that has the appropriate training (ask them about building science, BPI certification, insurance and license, and past clients that you can call and talk to) you should not have to worry about getting sold something you do not need.

HVACA home is complicated. Designing and building a home is more than just understanding carpentry. It should also be understanding building science, carpentry, spacial flow, functionality, design, aesthetics, proportions, zoning, usability, indoor air quality, material science, and much more. The construction industry as a whole is running towards a new standard of what is acceptable, but we are not there yet. Almost every seminar I go to now shows a slide of air leakage in homes as this is the low hanging easy thing to fix to show clients added value. The problem is once you make the house tight, you open up another layer of the onion with humidity issues, water infiltration, and air quality. The education is coming, some have jumped on board early and “get it” and some are still trying to figure out how to change their standards (the construction industry is VERY slow to change). Reports like this one done by the Today Show are only an added value to the discussion if they also show the guys doing the work right and tell you how to find a qualified solution. Running a sting is about ratings, and providing solutions is about quality.