The Truth About Maintenance

Asteroid Strike

Coming to a furnace and air conditioner near you!

We’ve all gotten that oversized postcard in the mail, the one advertising a preseason tune-up of the furnace or air conditioner for an irresistibly low price. The contractors behind them promise the moon and the stars. What they actually deliver is more like the falling star from that infamous big budget B movie.

Just like the movie’s preview, the tune-up’s “postcard preview” makes the tune-up look pretty good. And just like the movie, you’ll probably regret having paid the price of admission. Read on to learn how and why. And do it quickly, before I stretch the Armageddon analogy so thin that it snaps!

The Postcard You Got in the Mail

The typical ad for a preseason tune-up promises to make your furnace or air conditioner run more efficiently and last longer for a price that’s almost too good to be true. It’s often promoted as a standalone service, but once there the technician will almost certainly pressure you to sign up for some version of a membership program. The membership program may entitle you to discounted repairs, priority service and even a refund if something goes wrong after the maintenance.

One such postcard boldly states, “I promise your furnace won’t break down this winter or my service is free!” He then ups the ante by saying, “I guarantee you will save at least the $78… through savings on your utility bill” That’s right! For less than a C-note he’ll perform 21 “individual operations” guaranteed to pay for themselves in energy savings. If his service doesn’t pay for itself, or if your furnace breaks down that winter, he’ll refund the $78. What’s not to love? As you might have guessed, a lot.

The Truth Behind the Maintenance

It’s often the case that the technician simply can’t make a natural gas furnace or electric air conditioner run more efficiently or last longer by way of a so-called tune-up. Residential furnaces and air conditioners are designed to be as low maintenance as possible. For example, virtually all modern motors are sealed and can’t be oiled. Vacuuming the burner compartment might make you feel better, but it probably won’t help the furnace. The belt they promise to adjust doesn’t exist in a modern furnace. And it’s highly unlikely that the thermostat they promise to calibrate is calibratable. The list goes on.

Aside from servicing the filter, it’s often the case that cleaning the burners and/or flame sensor every five to ten years is all the active maintenance a natural gas furnace needs. Air conditioners need even less. The rest of their “operations” are probably unneeded and may not be applicable to your system. The reality is, most everything that’s done on a so-called tune-up is passive. The technician takes readings and looks for problems. Quite often there just aren’t any problems of importance, at least not any that can be fixed by way of a so-called tune-up.

Your annual checkup is a good analogy. If you feel healthy before going, then it’s probably going to be uneventful. If the doctor discovers a hidden condition, they’ll start treatment. Treatment may cure the condition, but treatment is not tuning. Treatment can be likened to a repair. So it goes with heating and air conditioning. If the furnace and air conditioner are running well before their checkup, then the checkup is probably going to be uneventful. If the technician discovers a hidden problem and repairs it, great. However, that repair is not a tune-up. As you’ll read in a moment, that repair may not even be necessary.

The Truth Behind the Marketing

That low advertised fee just doesn’t pay the bills. It’s a loss leader. Quite naturally they have no interest in taking that loss. As a result, technicians are under tremendous pressure to recommend additional work during the checkup to cover the loss. That pressure isn’t casually implied. It’s systematically applied. A technician’s sales are charted. His ticket average is monitored. His compensation is tied to production. There are even leaderboards and monthly meetings to recognize the top-selling technicians. The specifics may vary from one company to the next, but the result is the same. Your repairman has been transformed into a salesman.

If the technician can’t cover the loss during the checkup, he’ll cover it on a subsequent visit. Sooner or later something in the furnace or air conditioner will break. There’s little anyone can do to prevent that. Most furnace and air conditioner parts are sealed. They can’t be serviced. In other words, there’s little a technician can do during a checkup to make those sealed parts last longer. They will break when they break. When they do break, that’s when the small loss on the checkup becomes a huge gain on the repair. After all, you’d be crazy not to call them and get the $78 refund that the postcard promised – right?

They’d be crazy not to give it. For one, it’s probably not going to be a true refund. It’s probably going to be a credit towards the repair. And two, many contractors who offer low-priced checkups also “offer” a labor rate of around $300 per hour. They hide that fact by burying their hourly rate in a flat rate quote. “We charge by the job, not by the hour!” is the turn of phrase that turns a profit. For example, they routinely charge around $800 to replace a circuit board. That’s $800 for less than ninety minutes of work and a part that costs around $100. Do the math. With such an obscene margin, it’s no wonder they offer to refund the $78.

Don’t just wait till it breaks!

I’ve explained the above to countless homeowners over the years. Almost invariably they conclude that I’m telling them to never get a checkup. I’m certainly not. What I am telling them and you is this:

  • So-called tune-up specials and programs like them are almost always used as a hooks. Their goal is to get a foot in the door. Once there they have significant power to upsell. Not every contractor does that, but the majority do to one extent or another.
  • Checkups are indeed necessary. Just because you think you’re healthy doesn’t mean you skip your checkup. And just because you think your furnace and air conditioner are OK doesn’t mean you skip that checkup either.
  • Have realistic expectations. Most annual physicals result in nothing more than peace of mind and the admonishment to eat more veggies. Similarly, many furnace and air conditioner checkups result in nothing more than peace of mind and a filter change.

In my estimation, around half of my checkup customers get a small to significant improvement in their equipment’s performance as a result of the checkup. The rest get peace of mind. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, from a marketing perspective there’s nothing particularly appealing about that either.

Furthermore, I’m not going to charge just $78 for a checkup. I may charge several times that much so I can pay my bills even if your equipment needs nothing beyond the checkup. That may seem like a lot. However, once you’ve experienced a tune-up special you may be convinced that the higher price is worth it.

WARNING

I wrote this essay for my customers. Most furnaces around here burn natural gas. If your furnace burns propane, fuel oil or something else equally dirty then it may have greater maintenance needs. If Cottonwood trees are gumming up your air conditioner then it may also have greater maintenance needs. Don’t assume what’s written here about maintenance applies to you. You can, however, assume that what’s written here about marketing applies to you. Tune-up specials, membership programs and the like are the HVAC contractor’s greatest marketing tools. Notice I didn’t say “greatest services”.

Also, please note that I have not made a suggestion as to how often you should have a furnace or air conditioner checkup performed. Most authorities on the matter recommend yearly. One very large and famous furnace manufacturer has admitted that every two years is probably enough. I’m not going to expose myself to liability by contradicting them. However, I am going to point out that PG&E performs free safety inspections on gas appliances. It’s not nearly as good as the checkup I perform, but it’s free.

Finally, the most common complaint I get about this page is from contractors who say I’m making gross generalizations. There is, of course, the occasional exception to just about anything. Exceptions don’t break the rule. To my fellow contractors, I say cowboy up and prove yourself an exception. To my fellow homeowners, I say don’t take anything I’ve written to extreme and avoid Michael Bay films at all costs!

Related Reading:
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Snatched from the Jaws of a Tune-Up
How to Manipulate Homeowners on a Tune-Up