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Better Business Bureau

BBB: Consumers should be wary of shady A/C contractors

With recent temperatures reaching triple digits, many Southern Arizonans are thinking about having an air conditioning unit installed, or having their existing unit tuned up. Consumers should be wary of too-good-to-be-true deals, the Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona warned.

An A/C unit or some sort of cooling system is a necessity during Southern Arizona's hot summers. Every year the BBB sees a dramatic rise in consumer inquiries during the spring and into the summer as consumers look for HVAC contractors to tune-up, replace, or install units. In 2011, the BBB received over 9,500 inquires from consumers about heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractors in Southern Arizona between May and the end of September.

Unfortunately, complaints against HVAC companies increase along with inquiries. As HVAC contractors ramp up their advertising, unscrupulous contractors often make misleading, or even false claims about the price of their services, and even the quality of the equipment they're selling.

Wade Hamstra, of Hamstra Heating and Cooling—a Tucson HVAC contractor doing business in Southern Arizona since 1983—says that there are a few "red flags" consumers can look for to ensure they're not being ripped off:

Red flag No. 1: The low-ball price

Ever see those ads that say "$39 Heating or A/C Tune-Up!"? Sounds great doesn't it? Don't be fooled: an average heating and cooling service technician makes at least $18 per hour. Add in the costs of fuel to get to the home, the service van, overhead expenses for a basic office—people to answer the phone, schedule calls, process paper—and the average HVAC company has, at a bare minimum, expenses of $50 per hour. When you add up all these expenses it's very unlikely you'll ever find a true $39 tune-up.

Red flag No. 2: The 400 square feet per ton of A/C 'rule of thumb'

Just about any consumer who has researched buying a new A/C system has read about, or had a contractor tell them about the "rule of thumb" for equipment sizing: "Mr. Johnson, your home is 2,000 square feet, at 400 square feet per ton; you need a 5-ton air conditioning unit today."

"This is the most bogus and lazy lie that exists in our industry," Hamstra said.

"Every reputable heating and cooling company will insist on performing a Manual J Engineering Load Calculation—as required by the International Residential Code book, Tucson Electric Power and Energy Star—to determine the size of system you need," Hamstra said. "This process takes a lot of education and extra time to perform, but is essential for proper sizing. A system that is not properly sized will not keep a home comfortable, and will drive up energy bills at the same time it decreases equipment life."

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Red flag No. 3: New system quotes over the phone are not accurate

There is a large range of variables when performing a system replacement. For that reason it's virtually impossible for an A/C contractor to give an accurate estimate for a new system over the phone.

Hamstra lists three reasons why it's not possible to give an accurate estimate over phone:

  • The home might have experienced changes since the original system was installed (new windows, added insulation, added addition, more internal heat loads like appliances, TV's, computers, people). All of these factors will affect the system size that the home needs. The only way to ensure proper sizing—which leads to better comfort, energy efficiency and longer system life—is to visit the home, take all the proper measurements and run a computerized Manual J Load Calculation.
  • There's the issue of physical unit sizes: the contractor may need to visit the home to make sure that it has the physical space needed for a new model A/C unit.
  • Any customer looking to get new air conditioning equipment should also be concerned with making sure their duct system is adequate. If the duct is overlooked, a customer may get sold a highly efficient and more expensive unit that functions like a lower quality unit, due to leaky ductwork. It would be like putting a brand new Ferrari motor on an old Yugo chassis. It is not going to deliver great results. In order to deliver a proper solution, A/C contractors need to inspect the system as a whole.
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