How to choose an HVAC contractor is an important concept to master because not all contractors are the same. Doing your research may mean the difference between getting a solid, professionally installed air conditioner and just plain getting ripped off. Think about it, are all mechanics the same? What about all doctors? HVAC contractors in particular have a bad reputation, and in our experience this is, unfortunately, well deserved. In California, the bad rap is for one simple reason…most of them aren’t actually contractors, but rather, a couple of handymen with a truck and a sticker. But don’t let that turn you away from that much needed air conditioning installation job – not all contractors are bad. In fact, there are many of us out there that still do things the right way. So, let’s take a look at how to choose an HVAC contractor. In this article, we will show you seven tips to help you stay out of trouble, and ensure that your air conditioner keeps running efficiently for years to come.
7 Tips on How to Choose an HVAC Contractor
1. Be wary of an HVAC contractor that gives you a bid or an estimate over the phone.
Just as no two automobiles are the same, no two air conditioning units are the same. Be wary of any HVAC contractor that tries to give you an estimate or a bid over the phone. There are far too many factors to take into account that a technician cannot see over the phone: How is your ducting? Are there the proper amount of registers per room? What type of insulation do you have? What type of windows do you have?…and a dozen other factors…and after all of that, a trained HVAC contractor will then do a Manual-J calculation for your air conditioning system. None of this can be done over the phone, so again, if someone gives you a bid over the phone, they are either inexperienced, or are trying to gain your business without using the time and gas required for a visit. When they get there, also be wary of anyone who gives you a bid without properly surveying your house. A real contractor will crawl in your attic, crawl spaces and walk around the entire house. If they don’t do this, then they aren’t properly inspecting your house for their Manual J calculation.
2. Be careful of any HVAC contractor that replaces your old air conditioner with the same type of unit as before.
The average air conditioning unit lasts 10-15 years. Is a 1990 Toyota Tacoma the same as a 2005 Toyota Tacoma? It is the same with your air conditioner. A properly trained HVAC contractor will recommend several options to bring your home up to date, and increase the efficiency of your home.
For more information on decreasing energy costs, also see our article: How to lower your electric bills
If they try and sell you an older model, they are likely trying to unload some of their own inventory. That is why All Systems Mechanical keeps minimal inventory; we will customize the air conditioning unit for your home, and use the most current, energy efficient units on the market. If you don’t live near Santa Clarita or Greater Los Angeles, make sure your contractor buys a system new for your house, instead of using older inventory. It is pretty rare to have the exact system you need for your home just lying an a warehouse, and no not all AC units are the same. In fact, choosing the proper size is far more important than the make and model.
Check out: What Size Central Air Conditioner Do I Need?
At ASM we have over 25 years of HVAC experience, but we’d also be the first to warn you that experience isn’t everything! Be wary of someone who is telling you that they have been “doing things this way for twenty years” because the air conditioning business, like all technology, is ever changing. There are new and exciting technologies that decrease your utility costs and are more efficient at cooling. Be sure your contractor is well versed in cutting edge technologies, including the most up-to-date HVAC control units – a computer that runs your home or business’s AC system for you, programmable with schedules and preferences. Experience is important, but it isn’t everything. In fact, some of our most talented technicians have a computer background and are in their twenties (scary, I know).
For information on technologies like zoning systems (making one room a different temperature than the other), take a look at Do I need a zoning system?
4. Your HVAC contractor should be licensed by the Contractors State License Board.
Unfortunately, many HVAC contractors claim to be licensed, but are actually working under the radar. There is too much at stake, and a licensed HVAC contractor is licensed to manipulate gas lines as well as electrical and plumbing applications – we have to be experts in each to get properly licensed. You don’t want someone who isn’t closing off your gas line, or properly disposing of refrigerant. It is a huge problem in California and is tantamount to a doctor operating without a license.
A contractor should have their license number clearly marked on most, if not all, of their literature and on their website. For instance, All Systems Mechanical HVAC, Ca License No. 963922. Without a license, there is no insurance that the job will be done properly or that you can take recourse if it isn’t! Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a license. Period.
Click here and see if they are licensed: CSLB – Check a License
5. Your HVAC contractor should give you a written bid or estimate.
Some people like to give you a bid via a “verbal contract.” Although this is accepted in California as a legal, binding contract, try and prove it in court and you will see why some contractors do this. In short, always get it in writing. Any reputable HVAC contractor will give you a written bid that they will adhere to. It should include a list of everything that will be done, as well as the price.
6. Read Online Google Reviews and Avoid Yelp!
Google does not filter their reviews and makes it very difficult to write fake reviews, which is what makes it a good, reliable source for choosing an HVAC company. Conversely, Yelp filters their reviews using “proprietary software.” If you scroll down to any business’s Yelp page, you will see a little grey link that says “other reviews that are not currently recommended.” Click it, and see all of the reviews that Yelp filtered out. Actually, Yelp is currently involved in several class-action lawsuits due to evidence that these reviews may be altered based on whether or not the company is a paying customer. All I know is that there are an awful lot of five star reviews on there. Look, it isn’t my point to go off on a tangent about Yelp, but what I will say is that we also encountered problems when we refused to pay them for their services. Bottom line – Yelp filters their reviews – Google does not.
Regardless of what you believe, I’d recommend going with the option that has NO doubts – Google. No, I wasn’t paid to say that, and Google will never pay people or alter their reviews in any way if paid – that’s exactly why I like and recommend them. Research your local HVAC contractors on Google and see how they match up.
Also be suspicious of anyone who has a ton of reviews but is a “small local business.” Use your gut. Although it is hard to write fake reviews on Google (because Google sees everything), some companies do give people a discount if they write a five star review about them. Bottom line, just use some common sense! Choose your favorite review site and do tons of research! Who you get to install your air conditioner is more important than which equipment you choose.
7. Be Careful About Going with the Lowest Bidder…It Costs More in the Long Run.
It’s heartbreaking when we come across someone who just had a new air conditioner installed, and they are calling us out to see why it stopped working. Unfortunately, about 25-30% of our residential business in 2015 came from fixing botched installations from “bargain contractors.” I always tell people never to skimp on HVAC. I know that this sounds like self promotion, but think about it…it is literally the only mechanical system in your house. It isn’t a water pipe, or a coat of paint – it is a machine with moving parts that will (hopefully) be running for 10 or 15 years, and if it isn’t installed properly, it will do one of two things: either it won’t keep your home properly cooled or heated, or worse yet, it will fail altogether.
So how do these bargain contractors afford to install a new unit for $4,500? It is becoming more and more prevalent in California, unfortunately, and it’s simple…as sad as it is, they are a couple of guys in a truck, who are unlicensed or using someone else’s license. They are using stolen equipment from a new construction site, or they bought used equipment off of someone and are passing it as new. If it’s too good to be true, it is, and no matter what anyone tells you, you can’t even buy proper equipment and materials for $4,500, let alone pay for skilled technicians or liability insurance. So, be careful and pay attention.
What do you do? Get multiple bids, and go with your gut – ask, who is going to do the best job? Who do you trust? Believe me, it is always cheaper in the long run to go with the reputable contractor up front, even if they are a bit more expensive – and as someone who knows, the real HVAC contractors always are. You can’t use unskilled laborers to install an air conditioner. Otherwise, you’ll spend $2,000 – $3,000 for us to fix the problem, and since we are taking over the job and attaching our reputation to it, we will literally need to uninstall and reinstall everything to make sure that it is done properly…that’s assuming you don’t need new equipment. Moral of the story…if you forget everything else about this article, remember this: just do it right the first time.
For more information on air conditioning pricing, read: What is a Fair Price for an HVAC Installation?
A Quick Word About Our HVAC Design & Consultation Program
Before you talk to any contractors, you should seriously think about trying our new online service, the HVAC Design & Consultation Program. Designed, owned, and operated by U.S. Veterans, this program was created with just one thing in mind: to provide consumers with the insider-information that contractors know, and keep them from getting ripped-off.
It’s completely automated and is done right from your computer, cell, or tablet. You’ll spend around 15-minutes or so filling out customized questions about your specific house and project, right from our website. The program’s interactive software will continue to ask you additional questions based on your job’s parameters, and in the end, it will provide you with a customized, 12-page report that is tailored for your specific project. We designed it to include everything you’ll need to know to make the right decision on your upcoming HVAC project, including:
- Look-up what contractors actually pay for your specific equipment from big-name brands such as Lennox, Carrier, Trane and more…
- It will calculate and provide recommended sizing information for your new air conditioner and/or furnace.
- Calculates a Fair Installation Price for your specific project.
- You’ll get a full price breakdown.
- See the contractors’ profit margins for your individual job at different price ranges.
- Get recommended SEER and AFUE values for your job.
- …and much more.
If you’d like to find out more about the HVAC Design & Consultation Program, here’s a short video on it:
Final Thoughts on How to Choose an HVAC Contractor
How to choose an HVAC contractor is about doing research and then following your guts. Go with your instinct using the tips I showed you above, not just who is the cheapest. Who is going to do the job right? Who is going to cut corners? Remember, who installs your HVAC unit is more important than what type of unit you buy. A good HVAC contractor can make almost anything run efficiently. Choosing a contractor isn’t something to be taken lightly, so do your research. We at ASM have not forgotten what it is like to have someone show up late or tell you a six-hour time block during which they might show up, only to come in a thousand dollars more than they promised you. We believe in customer service, and we stand by our workmanship. We are about efficiency, and no nonsense. Period. It isn’t just a slogan, these are our words to live by. If you live in the Santa Clarita area or Greater Los Angeles then give us a call. If you live elsewhere, then hopefully this article has proven helpful to you – still feel free to call us with any questions you might have.