Tips, Tricks & Insider Info
The doggy tricks are entertaining. These HVAC tips are money saving. They’re not designed to help you troubleshoot, but they are designed to help you with the troubleshooter.
Finding / Dealing with Contractors
“Most online reviewers, the data show, are either cranks or starry-eyed fanatics—and in this supposedly snarky age there are a lot more of the latter than the former. In 2009, The Wall Street Journal found that the average rating in a five-star system, Internet-wide, was a 4.3, suggesting a world of uniformly awesome products, services, and experiences.” —NY Mag
It’s true. Online reviews are completely dominated by happy people. Consequently, both good and bad contractors are highly rated. A small percentage of customers are at least somewhat willing to post negative reviews for businesses that they have visited. That’s due, in part, to the fact that they can do so with virtual anonymity. A business that serves dozens and possibly hundreds of customers daily at a retail location is unlikely to know who the reviewer is.
On the flip side, customers virtually never post negative reviews for small businesses that have visited them. A repairman that serves just a few customers per day will know who the negative reviewer is. More to the point, he’ll know where the negative reviewer lives. Toss in the fact that most repairmen are a little rough around the edges and you can understand why homeowners don’t post negative reviews even when they want to.
The few homeowners who do post negatively are usually persuaded to remove or upgrade their review. Businesses accomplish this by “making it right” or, in some cases, by buying off the upset reviewer. As a result, small businesses that provide in-home services don’t just have normal grade inflation on Yowl and other review sites. They have extraordinary grade inflation.
3B does nothing to investigate the products or services of a business they accredit. They say as much on their site. To be accredited, a business just has to send 3B a check and promise to treat their customers well.
To illustrate the point, I give you these screenshots. As you can see, that 1.5 star company started accumulating negative reviews the same year they became 3B accredited. As you read above, grade inflation is the norm on Yowl. To get a bad rap there a company has to be really bad. That particular company has been really bad for years and they’re still 3B accredited. This is not an isolated incident. 3B accreditation has no cred.
As for Cubic Zirconia Certified, I’ve got their Contra Costa County directory in front of me. Despite the extraordinary grade inflation mentioned above, the HVAC contractors therein currently have a weighted average of just 3.3 stars on Yowl. 3B and CZ are funded by the companies they’re supposed to watch. Is it any wonder, then, that they don’t watch too closely?
The diagnosis is the most important part of the repair process. Stay, watch and ask questions through at least that much. Don’t assume the repairman wants you to go away while he works. Is your doctor bothered when you watch him or her work? Then neither should your repairman be bothered. A skilled craftsman is not intimidated by your presence. Neither is a nice person annoyed by your company. I talk more about this here.
Regarding the diagnosis:
- Don’t approve the repair till you fully understand the diagnosis. A good repairman will make the situation understandable.
- “It’s shot.” is not a diagnosis. “It’s old.” is not a diagnosis either. A real diagnosis explains why a specific function has failed.
- Get the diagnosis in writing. While not common, some repairmen change their diagnosis when forced to document it.
California auto mechanics are legally obliged to give you the old parts if you ask for them before they perform the repair. I’m not aware of any such rule for HVAC. Nevertheless, when dealing with a repairman it’s wise to ask for the old parts before they start the repair. Legally obliged or not, he’s going to give them to you unless he’s up to something. Plus, it makes the repairman think. I don’t know about you, but I like making repairmen think.
Even though the articles above discredit them to some extent, the fact remains that online reviews are incredibly powerful. They can, in fact, make or break a business. If you’ll forgive my potentially self-serving suggestion: Don’t leave leave your contractors’ fate in the hands of the aforementioned “cranks” and “fanatics”. Contribute to the system by giving them real reviews.
As for making your review count, that’s another story. Most of the review sites I’ve seen don’t appear to have any sort of filtering mechanism. Yowl, on the other hand, is different. Yowl explains it this way. I explain it this way: Reviewers have to prove themselves trustworthy to Yowl’s automated system. Until they do, their review(s) doesn’t count toward the reviewed business’s rating. Reviewers become trusted by exhibiting a pattern of behavior that suggests legitimacy.
The exact formula Yowl uses to determine whether a reviewer is trusted and their review is “recommended” is a closely guarded secret. However, after years of observation I’m reasonably certain that doing some combination of the following is how a reviewer becomes trusted. You’re not required to do every one of these things. A combination of some of them is probably enough to make you a trusted reviewer.
- Fill out your Yowl profile with optional information.
- Make Yowl friends.
- Link your Yowl account to your Facebroke account.
- Post multiple reviews over time with plenty of relevant detail.
- Post neutral and/or negative reviews when appropriate.
- Don’t post too many reviews all at once in an attempt to become trusted.
- Browse Yowl while logged in. It gives their system a chance to “see” you.
- Install and use the Yowl app on your smartphone.
Yowl uses the information you give them to determine if you’re legit or a shill. A shill doing his business-owning buddy a favor will do little with his profile, post a quick review that’s short on details and never return. Many legit reviewers do the same because they’re either so happy or so upset with a business that they’re compelled to write a review when they normally don’t. Even though their review is legit, it’s likely to get filtered. However, once they’ve met Yowl’s criteria for trustworthiness then it’s likely that some or all of their filtered reviews will become unfiltered.
The above criteria is a best guess based on experience. Most of my customers who’ve only posted one review are filtered out after a few days. The exceptions tend to have fairly complete profiles and a detailed review. If you want to find out if you’re filtered, visit the Yowl page of a business you’ve reviewed at least one week after the review was posted. Do so anonymously by making sure you’re logged out of Yowl. If you don’t see your review, scroll down to the “not currently recommended” reviews and click that link. You’ll probably find your review there.
Some problems take minutes to diagnose. Others can take an hour or more. Freon or Puron leaks are a good example. Finding a leak isn’t always easy. It can take minutes or it can take an hour or more. If it’s going to be the latter, many contractors will give you the half diagnosis of “low on refrigerant”. They’ll then charge you more to actually find the leak, sometimes a lot more.
Quoting extra for a lengthy diagnosis is not unreasonable. Not informing you of that possibility up front is. You have to inform yourself by asking questions like these: “Does the trip fee include a complete diagnosis? Is there ever an additional diagnostic fee?” Most contractors are not forthcoming about all of their fees. You have to ask.
Virtually all large HVAC companies and many small ones pay their repairmen some kind of commission. In some cases they’re commission only. Some companies get around that ugly word by calling it a bonus or spiff, but it’s practically the same thing.
Even when a company pays strictly by the hour, that hourly wage may be tied to specific goals. A repairman may have to raise his average repair cost (that is to say, his customers’ average repair cost) by 20% or sell a certain number of furnaces in order to get a raise.
There are a thousand and one variations on this theme. The bottom line is that most repairmen are heavily incentivized to sell as much as possible.
The same companies charging $300 an hour have very low trip fees. There might be a few good companies with low trip fees. Nevertheless, in my experience there’s a correlation between low trip fees and low character. The best doctors don’t put their diagnostic services on sale. Neither do the best HVAC technicians.
I recently saw an invoice that shows a labor rate of $80 per hour. That’s a great hourly rate. The same invoice shows that they charged over $400 for parts that cost them less than $100. That’s not so great. That’s not so uncommon either. If you want to know a contractor’s true cost, find out what their hourly rate and parts markup is. I tell you mine here. All companies have an hourly rate and parts markup, including flat rate companies that claim to not have an hourly rate.
Highly skilled professionals don’t work cheap. Take accomplished physicians as an example. They only have so many hours in the day and they can’t duplicate themselves. So if one hospital doesn’t want to pay their price, they just move on to a hospital that will.
It’s no different in this business. The best tradesmen are in demand. They only have so many hours in the day. They may hire a few people, but they won’t hire many or they’ll lose quality control. Their limited availability means they’re not going to work cheap, but then neither will they overcharge.
The worst in this profession do both. That is to say, they appear to be cheap at first and then become incredibly expensive. The tune-up special is a classic example of an apparently cheap service that can become incredibly expensive. Look for skill and integrity instead. The fair deal will almost certainly follow.
Air Conditioner Repairs
When a car overheats, most people pull over immediately and shut it down. When an air conditioner overheats, it’s usually left running. That’s a problem because the compressor is cooled by the same refrigerant that cools you. If your air conditioner isn’t cooling you well, it’s probably not cooling its own compressor very well either. Run the compressor that way long enough and it may fail. That can cost a couple grand to replace.
If the air conditioner runs but isn’t cooling at all then it may be completely out of refrigerant. If that’s the case then turning it off may not be enough to prevent damage. The same leak that allowed the refrigerant out may allow water in. Leave the refrigerant circuit open to the elements all winter long and it may become severely contaminated. That too is a potentially expensive repair.
Replacing bad capacitors is the most common summer repair. The capacitor gives the compressor and the compressor’s fan a boost, so to speak. When it fails the compressor and/or its fan may appear to be dead. Or the failed capacitor may cause the compressor to moan for a few seconds as it attempts to start. The compressor will quickly overheat, possibly dimming the lights for a few seconds, and turn off. The compressor’s fan may do the same. Or the fan may run slowly until it overheats and turns off.
In my experience OEM grade capacitors last ten to twenty years. Replacement grade capacitors last five to ten. Most contractors install the latter. If you’re lucky they will at least match the specs of the old capacitor. If you’re not, they’ll install one that’s close enough to make it work. The “close enough capacitor” will stress the motor and may eventually cause premature motor failure. If that motor happens to be your compressor, it may cost a couple of grand to replace.
Most OEM grade capacitors come from the US or Mexico. Most replacement grade capacitors come from China. Another way to tell is by their cost. For example, an OEM grade 5/440 costs about $6. A replacement grade 5/440 costs about $2. Generally speaking I install Mars Blue Box capacitors (page 12). Mars’ cheap line goes by the name Jard (page 13 of the same document). Packard seems to be popular with other contractors. Their good line goes by the name Titan and is made in the US. Their eponymous cheap line is made in China.
A capacitor’s size and shape doesn’t matter. It’s the specs that count. Capacitors have microfarad and voltage ratings. There are dozens of possible microfarad ratings, often shown as a “MFD” or “μF” rating on the capacitor. In a pinch you can vary the MFD rating by 10% or less, but it’s best to be exact. As for voltage, they’re either rated for 370 or 440 volts – often shown as a “VAC” rating on the capacitor. A 440 VAC capacitor can be used in place of a 370 VAC capacitor, but never the other way around.
Capacitors are little tin cans that give motors a boost. All modern motors have them. When a capacitor fails, the motor it serves also quits even though the motor is usually still good. Some homeowners have replaced motors, compressors and even entire air conditioners when all they had was a bad capacitor.
It’s such an expensive diagnosis that you might want to get a second opinion. I have performed hundreds of second opinion calls over the years. I’ve brought quite a few ostensibly bad compressors back to life.
If a repairman says that a particular part is bad he has not given you a complete diagnosis. If you started having migraines and the doctor diagnosed you with a “bad head”, would you not seek a new doctor? A “bad anything” is not a complete diagnosis. Ask for details. Find out what specifically about the part failed and why. Learn more here.
Air conditioners don’t use up the refrigerant. If you’re low then, with rare and odd exception, you have a leak. If the leak is small enough then there’s a chance sealant will fix the leak. However, sealant comes with the potential of expensive side effects. Finding and fixing the leak the old fashioned way is still the best way to repair a leak. Since Freon (not Puron… yet) is being phased out, it’s becoming increasingly expensive to “top off” the charge. It’s perfectly legal to top off without fixing the leak, but each successive top-off will cost more. Learn more here.
Replacing an out-of-warranty cracked heat exchanger is so expensive that many homeowners opt to buy a new furnace instead. When business is slow, repairmen sometimes stretch the definition of a crack in order to sell that new furnace. Asking the repairman to document the crack’s location might snap him back. It’s kind of hard to document the location of a crack that doesn’t exist. Be aware, too, that virtually all residential heat exchangers have a twenty year warranty. Replacing an in-warranty heat exchanger, though not cheap, is not nearly as expensive as a new furnace.
If you’re home has a balance problem – if one area of the home is consistently hotter or colder than another – then it’s likely that your ducts are partially to blame. They may be entirely to blame. And so you probably need your ducts evaluated. A real assessment of your ducts may only take a few minutes, but in most cases it’s going to take a lot longer than that. If so then you’re faced with the challenge I describe above.
With rare exception, you’re not going to get a time consuming duct evaluation for cheap or free. What cheap or free usually gets you is some guy popping his head into the attic or crawlspace, spinning it round like Linda Blair, and telling you to buy a whole new duct system. Or, if you’re lucky, he may actually enter the attic or crawlspace. However, if he exits just as quickly then he probably hasn’t looked at much. A real duct assessment can, in some cases, take an hour or more.
Avoid getting “Linda Blaired” by being very clear with them on the phone. Describe the symptoms and see if they agree that it could be a duct problem. If so, ask them how much it’ll cost to evaluate the ducts. Are they going to suit up and check all the ducts out? What if it takes longer than normal? A good contractor will embrace the questions and answer forthrightly. A bad one will get annoyed. And, of course, a good customer understands that a real evaluation costs real money.
In my experience most residential air conditioners and natural gas furnaces in central Contra Costa County need little in the way of maintenance. They do, in fact, need a little. And, of course, there are some air conditioners and furnaces that are in desperate need of maintenance. Since most homeowners don’t know which category their equipment falls in, I’m not saying skip maintenance. I am saying have realistic expectations. I explain in greater detail here.
If you’re lucky, the duct cleaners will accomplish nothing. If you’re unlucky, they’ll damage your ducts. Either way, your air is not going to be cleaner nor will your system run better as a result of duct cleaning. Learn more here.