When it’s time to get a new heating or cooling system, it’s a big investment for you. Ideally, your system will last 20 years or more, will add to the value of your home, and will provide you and your family with comfort throughout the year. Choosing an HVAC company to work with is a big deal.
So what should you be looking for in an HVAC Company? Have you ever heard the phrase, “you get what you pay for?” This statement can be painfully true for HVAC equipment installation.
Most customers learn this the hard way from a lack of information before purchasing. This causes a loss of time and money, as well as potential safety hazards in your home.
Unfortunately, though, most homeowners don’t know the industry well enough to be able to make an informed decision. We’re here to help with that.
Even if you live outside the Fire & Ice service area, we want you to feel secure in your choice of HVAC provider. That’s why, in this article, we’re going to walk you through items you should be looking for and asking about with any company. By the end, you’ll have the tools you need to pick the best HVAC company for your project.
What an HVAC System Includes
Did you know that installing an air conditioner can include work with both low- and high-voltage wiring? Or combustible fuels and poisonous gases? Installations also routinely include work with condensate drains, active water lines, sheet metal fabrication, and open flames from brazing refrigerant lines that are affixed to your home.
HVAC installation is one of the only jobs that includes carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, metalwork, and others. It is a highly technical process that can be dangerous unless handled properly by trained technicians.
Several key processes must be followed to ensure the efficiency, comfort, safety, and life expectancy of the equipment. Failure to comply with any of the necessary processes required by local codes, the manufacturer, and industry standards can lead to high energy bills, discomfort, and a drastically shortened life expectancy of your HVAC system.
Think of it like having and following a recipe. You need key ingredients and must follow a certain process for the expected outcome to be achieved. Using subpar ingredients, switching ingredients, or skipping steps in the recipe will only result in failure.
While you don’t need to understand each of these areas in detail, it helps to have a basic understanding of the installation process. Being aware of the expertise required to handle the job will help you to assess an HVAC company.
Let’s learn a little more about these ingredients and processes.
State HVAC License
Pulling a permit is the phrase used to describe the process of obtaining local or state permits that authorize work on an HVAC project. A state license means that a member of the company has met all requirements in experience and training levels within that state to pull permits and provide HVAC services for a cost to customers.
The process of earning a State HVAC license is selective and lengthy. A minimum of 5 years’ experience with a licensed company is required before you can even apply to take the 10-hour state test.
To pass the state test you are required to know:
- All local and state building/mechanical codes
- Fuel codes (natural gas, liquid petroleum, fuel oil)
- Manual J heat gain/loss load calculations for a building
- Service and installation methods
- Electrical wiring and circuits
- Safety in all areas related to HVAC
After the test, the license holder must do at least 10 hours in continuous education training every year. They must also keep a good citizen standing with no felonies or criminal records every year when renewing.
In most states, a permit must be pulled when any HVAC work is being performed. This is a requirement, not a suggestion. A company that installs based on industry standards, local codes, and manufacturer specifications will always pull a permit. The permit is to make sure the equipment is installed safely according to all codes and manufacture specifications. This is a protection to the customer as well as the installation company.
You are taking a risk if you hire any company not willing to or suggesting that not pulling a permit is okay. This could be an indication of poor installation practices, unsafe procedures, and untrustworthiness.
Give yourself the best chance to have a successful installation. Choose a company with a valid state HVAC license that will pull the appropriate permits.
N.A.T.E stands for North American Training Excellence. This is the ONLY accepted individual certification for HVAC technicians and installers.
The certification is broken up into four categories for service and installation. In addition to service and installation techniques for equipment, it includes “core” topics such as customer etiquette, electrical circuits, and safety procedures that must be learned before you can pass the service and installation portions of the test.
The certification program also requires a minimum of 16 credit hours of continuing education every two years.
Ensuring that your HVAC installation technician is N.A.T.E. certified is essential.
HVAC Training Programs
A key component in the accuracy and success of an installation is to have continuous education training programs in place for employees.
The evolution of HVAC equipment by all manufacturers industry-wide is ever-changing. With the constant advancements of the technology and efficiencies of newer equipment, you will be lost without having a training program in place to keep up. Certifications can help, but there are a lot of differences between equipment types. A mentality of ongoing education is important.
Each year there are technological advancements in HVAC as a whole. A system that was installed 15 years ago would have had a very different installation process than one going in today. Examples of recent innovations include increased efficiency of units, the ability to communicate or “talk” between your air conditioner, furnace and thermostat, enhanced options for variable-speed compressors and motors, and digital technology that links your system to your phone or tablet.
A company that isn’t keeping up with each of these is falling behind. You want an HVAC provider that can give you the comfort, reliability, and energy savings you deserve for your investment. Make sure your technicians have ongoing training as part of their certifications and employment practices.
Proper HVAC Tools and Installation Equipment
Do you have the right tool for the job? That is always the question, and it’s a very important one in HVAC.
In the HVAC industry, installing air conditioners requires the tools of a plumber, an electrician, a sheet metal worker, and in some cases a carpenter.
There is also work with copper piping, oxygen, and acetylene torches, brazing (a type of welding) of the copper lines inside the home and to the AC unit, vacuum pumps, micron and digital gauges, low voltage or control wiring, sheet metal transitions to existing ductwork, and condensation lines.
Sometimes tools are specific to a type of installation or service repair. Other times, they’re particular to a manufacturer, and must be up to certain standards set by the manufacturer. Additionally, some tools require specialized training.
These tools are necessary not just to do a job right, but to do it safely. And if you’re thinking this equipment is cheap or easy to come by, you’d be wrong. Most of these tools are not commonly available and are specific to the industry.
So, I can hear you asking, how does this affect me? When choosing a company, ask if they offer tool programs for employees, as well as training on them. What you’re trying to avoid is a company that subcontracts out their installations without providing a tool program for the contractors. Now you’re at the mercy of whatever your installer decided to purchase for the job. Oftentimes, it’s not the proper equipment.
Digital Gauges and Testing Equipment
Air conditioning and heat pump installation is a very technical process. When done right, along with annual maintenance, you can get 20+ years of service from the appliance. You deserve that 20+ years of comfort for your investment.
Without the proper training, install practices, and testing equipment, you will drastically reduce the life expectancy of the appliance.
Air conditioning is a process of moving a chemical (refrigerant) to a coil inside the home, then back to a coil outside the home. Along the way, it must change forms a few times. It changes states from a liquid to a gas, then back again. At different stages, it has pressures that range from about 100 pounds per square inch (PSI) to 500 PSI.
While this is happening, a fan on the inside (the furnace blower), and a fan on the outside are both pulling or blowing air across a coil that the refrigerant is traveling through. The quantity of the air that is forced across these coils is what helps the refrigerant in the coils to change state and pressure. Ultimately the movement of air and changing state of refrigerant is what allows the “heat” from the inside to be transferred outside, leaving the remaining air being delivered inside the home to be “cool”.
At the time of install, the copper lines the refrigerant flows through must be prepared before any refrigerant can be introduced. This requires brazing with nitrogen flowing through the system to keep the system free of contaminants caused by brazing.
The lines, once welded, must be tested at 150 PSI to test for leaks. Using test pressures exceeding 150 PSI will damage the compressor. Once there are no leaks, the lines must be vacuumed down to 500 microns with a special pump and a digital micron gauge. Failure to pull a vacuum on the lines before introducing refrigerant will cause failure in the compressor. For your air conditioning system to operate successfully over 600,000 times in the expected lifespan of the air conditioner, these processes must be followed.
Having the correct testing, setup and installation equipment will make installation near perfect. Accuracy is key.
Why is it important for you to ensure that your HVAC provider is using this equipment and testing your system? The potential downsides include discomfort, high energy bills, multiple service calls, and shortened life expectancy. Using digital gauges and testing equipment when installing your new air conditioning system will make sure that your new HVAC system has a long, healthy life.
Proper HVAC Safety Processes
SAFETY, SAFETY, SAFETY!
Air conditioning installation includes open flames inside the home for brazing, high voltage electricity, condensate lines for draining water away, refrigerant and other gasses, glues, and primers as well as sheet metal. Also, HVAC technicians bring large pieces of equipment in and out of the home.
The HVAC industry has many best practice safety procedures, and more detailed safety procedures accompany different equipment types. Failure to comply with any of them is a danger to your home and family.
Having the proper equipment for installation as well as trained, experienced, full-time employees using good practices will ensure when installing, and safe performance through the life of your system.
The takeaway? It’s best to know a company’s safety and training policies before you hire them.
Commissioning New Equipment
Equipment commissioning is the process of ensuring that all components of an HVAC system are installed, tested, and maintained according to the operational requirements of the manufacturer and any other regulatory entities.
It is always necessary to commission new HVAC equipment after completion of the installation of air conditioners, furnaces, heat pumps, air handlers, and all accessories. Never take it for granted that your system is functioning properly.
The image below is a commissioning report. It’s a collection of data take while the new equipment is in operation to verify that it is performing properly and within all manufacturer guidelines.
This process can take an hour or two after the installation is complete. So if an installer is ever looking to leave immediately after finishing the installation, they’re missing this important step!
If this step is skipped or not performed correctly it's possible to lose years of service in the life of your HVAC system. This means higher energy costs and more discomfort for you and your family.
Unfortunately, many professionally licensed HVAC companies do not have a process or requirements for the commissioning of new equipment. You as a customer should see the form and the installer should go over it with you upon completion. The process will take information such as voltage readings, refrigerant pressures, line set readings, a series of temperature readings, airflow readings, along with several others depending on the equipment.
The other reason why this is so important is that it sets a baseline for your equipment’s performance. If a service technician returns in a week or a year to check on the health of your equipment or repair something, they’ll know exactly how well the system was running at installation. This is an important benchmark in maintenance.
Properly commissioned equipment, along with annual maintenance gives you the greatest opportunity to enjoy the best comfort and performance out of your new investment. Without a commissioning process, your investment is at risk for poor performance, unreliability, high energy bills, and early failure.
A third-party study proved that nine out of 10 new HVAC systems installed by licensed companies had energy deficiencies. It also found that 75% of newly installed air conditioners had incorrect refrigerant charge. That way too many!
Imagine buying a new set of four tires from a known tire retailer and three out of four of those new tires don’t have the right amount of air in them. The result would be multiple failures from low gas mileage, damage to the new tire, uneven wear, shortened life expectancy, discomfort while driving, just to name a few.
Don’t be part of this statistic. There is no shortcut to commissioning a newly installed air conditioning system.
Permits to replace or add any type of new HVAC equipment in a building or home, new or existing, are required to be pulled by the HVAC contractor.
For an HVAC company to pull a permit, the company must have a valid State HVAC license.
A State HVAC license allows the company named on license to pull permits for the inspection of any new installation of products such as air conditioning, furnaces, ductwork, etc. Permit costs depend on the scope of the work to be completed at the addressed home and vary between cities and counties.
Related: For a full range of costs to expect with your installation, check out our Air Conditioning Cost Breakdown.
There is never a reason not to pull a permit. It’s a requirement agreed upon between the issuing state and the license holder. This protects both the customer and the company. The permit is the first step done before installation. This gives the state or county’s building department notice of work being done and then grants the ability to have an inspection scheduled.
The main purpose of the inspection is to make sure the equipment is installed to code and manufacture specifications and to make sure there are no life safety issues. The inspection is scheduled after the installation is completed.
While it’s recommended that you schedule your inspection immediately after installation, you usually have up to a year to have the inspector out for inspection.
Make sure that the company you hire shows you their HVAC license, and then provides a permit. It is not recommended to ever hire an unlicensed contractor for any of your HVAC needs. The ability to pull a permit is a privilege as much as having a driver’s license is. Do not jeopardize your investment, safety, or home by allowing an unlicensed company to install any part of your HVAC system.
Much of what we’ve discussed has to do with what happens inside your home. However, it’s equally important what happens inside the company you choose.
The employees of an HVAC company matter more than you might think. Many HVAC companies subcontract out labor for the installation. As we discussed regarding tools, training, and certification, this is a big red flag.
So why would a company want to subcontract? Well, to state it bluntly: cost. The cost of training, certification, health, and other insurance benefits, and tools can add up for a company.
As you might suspect, though, this comes at the expense of the customer.
If an employee is not W2’d, they are generally not covered under the company’s license, worker’s compensation or liability insurance. Anything that happens to the employee or your home while working in your home could result in legal liability for the homeowner.
This is easy to avoid once you know to look for it. Make sure the HVAC company you choose has full-time, W2’d employees doing all aspects of installation and service.
Another common method used to pay installation employees is by piece-rate. The piece-rate is a flat-rate system in which the installer gets paid based on the type of job to be installed. Sounds common enough, right?
Here’s the problem, though: whether the installer takes one hour for the job or 12 hours, they’re going to get paid the same rate. So if you get an installer who wants to get through your job as fast as possible to get to another job, your installation quality will suffer.
Additionally, a subcontractor will generally buy their own tools, which means they may cut corners with what tools they use.
To be clear: a company can cut costs by doing this, and the installer can get paid more this way. The only one who loses in the equation is the homeowner. This is unacceptable for such a large investment.
Find a company with full-time employees that aren’t paid piece-rate. They’ll be more invested in the quality and performance of your equipment, and they’ll do it right the first time.
Companies like Fire & Ice provide incentives to their installers when they don’t receive callbacks related to installation problems. It’s a culture of quality that should be a part of any HVAC company you decide to work with.
Want to hold your HVAC company accountable? Make a list of each of these and make sure the company you choose is handling each of them. If not, it might be a slightly lower cost, but it will also be at the expense of your system, its installation, and ultimately your peace of mind with your new HVAC system.
Cost is part of the overall equation, but the quality of a company you choose can save time, money and hassle in the long run. Make sure you’re looking at the whole picture to make the best decision for you and your home.
Want to make sure you're holding your HVAC contractor to the highest standards? Click before to get our HVAC Contractor Checklist. It will give you 10 questions to ask at any estimate to make sure whoever you hire is prepared to do the job the right way.