Monday, July 4, 2016

How I Chose an Air Conditioning Contractor

Circumstances have occurred that make it necessary to replace my central air conditioning and heating equipment. Both the condenser and the heater are 18 years old. So I called some HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) contractors. I found them by using reference lists (Angie's List, Yelp, Google) and I also located a couple from ads in the newspaper. Here are the results.
Newspaper ad for Contractor A said I could get "up to $6500 off" a new system. It didn't say what the system was or what the final price would be. I looked up the brand of AC system the company mentioned in the ad and learned that it has an aluminum condenser coil. Fixing leaks on aluminum coiols is expensive (one reviewer said it cost him $1000 to have a leak fixed). Yelp was not very helpful because it had many five-star reviews (mostly about service calls rather than installaions) and many one-star reviews, some of which the contractor had responded to by saying they are fake. One person said he was quoted $17,000 for a new system installation.

Contractor B's newspaper ad promised a super special price. However, their Better Business Bureau rating was D minus because of unresolved disputes.

Contractor C gave me an estimate over the phone after a one-minute explanation of what I thought I needed. I wondered if that was one of those "slam it and cram it, fill it and bill it" contractors.

Contractor D came out and had his assistant look at the existing furnace in the attic. He measured the access hole to the attic to make sure the equipment would fit. I asked what brand he installed an and he said Tempstar. I had never heard of that brand. Looking at the reviews on furnacecompare.com, I noted that they were, like many others, almost equally divided between one star and five stars. Contractor D gave me a price more than triple the lowest price. It was a hot day and he had said he could use 40 more employees to take care of all the calls. That made me think that he was giving me a price that would really make it worth his while if I accepted, and if I didn't, he had all the other business anyway. He also said that the price he quoted was "without permits," and that it was up to me whether or not I got one, even though they are required. He said an air conditioner permit would be $1000. I attempted later to find out online what the permit fee will be. It seemed from what I could tell that it would be under $100. We will see.

Contractor E didn't specify any equipment, only a price, which was only slightly below Contractor D.

Contractor F came out and looked over the situation, including a look in the attic. He gave me three options, a good, better, and best, with increasingly more elaborate equipment, each with prices broken down by condenser and furnace. This contractor installs Goodman and Amana, the latter of which was in his proposal. Ratings and reviews on both are the same as the other brands: half one star and half five star. Contractor F has all kinds of certifications and so on. The company is rated A by the BBB (not A+ because of one complaint in the last three years).

So which did I choose?

I chose Contractor F for several reasons:

1. Three contractors and four Web sites all said that for reliability, proper installation is more important than the actual brand because much of the equipment is the same or very similar. This contractor knows what he is doing and has trained his installers to know how to do it right.

2. Amana has an excellent warranty.

3. Amana condenser units (in the ASX16 series) include high and low pressure cut out switches which help protect the unit.

4. The price was competitive.

Bottom line take away: Find a contractor who will give you detailed hardware descriptions and detailed prices, preferably with options.

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