Top 7 Things to Look for When Choosing an HVAC Company

Top 7 Things to Look for When Choosing an HVAC Company
Installation
Air Conditioner
Heat Pump

Top 7 Things to Look for When Choosing an HVAC Company

04-8-2020
Joshua Rodriguez

I am the Install manager at Fire & Ice, since 2017. I have spent 28 years in this business and have experienced nearly every aspect of HVAC from Industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. From design, install, service, or sales, if it moves air, I’ve touched it.

What are the install processes to look for when choosing a company to replace your existing heating and/or air conditioning system? The installation process is the single most important step for the safety and life expectancy of the system. Day 1 in the life of your new furnace/AC is the single most important day!

Several key processes must be followed and adhered to for the efficiency, comfort, safety and life expectancies of the equipment to be achieved. Failure to comply with any of the necessary processes required by local codes, the manufacture, and industry standards can only lead to high energy bills, discomfort, and a drastically shortened life expectancy of the equipment.

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 or switching ingredients or skipping steps in the recipe will only result in failure. Have you ever heard the phrase “you get what you pay for”? This statement is painfully true regarding installing HVAC equipment. Most customers learn this the “hard way” from a lack of information prior to purchasing. This causes a loss of time/work, additional costs, money not able to be recovered and major safety hazards subjected to the home and the family living in it. Do not put your family at risk.

HVAC installs include:

  • high voltage wiring
  • low voltage wiring
  • combustible fuels
  • poisonous gasses
  • condensate drains  
  • active water lines (humidifiers)
  • sheet metal fabrication 
  • open flames for brazing refrigerant lines, all permanently fixed to your home.

This is not for just anybody that can tell the difference between a refrigerator and a furnace. This is a serious, potentially dangerous, highly technical industry that requires trained technicians to provide installation.

Having a basic understanding of the installation process will give you the confidence and peace of mind needed when choosing the right company for your replacement needs.

Let’s learn a little more about these ingredients and processes.

Key ingredients for a perfect install:

  • Valid Company State HVAC License
  • NATE Certification
  • Digital gauges/testing equipment
  • Training program(s)
  • Product knowledge
  • Proper installation tools/equipment
  • Safety process
  • Commissioning of new equipment
  • Permits
  • Full-time employees

1 - State HVAC License

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
  • the 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 and more.

The license holder must do a minimum of 10 hours in continuous education training every year, along with keeping 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 manufacture 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 install practices, unsafe procedures, and untrustworthiness.

Choosing a company with a valid State HVAC license that will pull the appropriate permits will give you the best chance of having a very successful installation of your new equipment.

N.A.T.E Certification:

N.A.T.E stands for North American Training Excellence.

N.A.T.EThis is the ONLY accepted individual certification for HVAC technicians and installers. It is broken up into 4 categories for service and installation.

If you pass the service portion of the exam, it also gives you the installation certification. The service portion of the exam in all categories includes installation, Technicians who pass the service also pass the installation.

This program requires a minimum of 16 credit hours of continuing education every 2 years. The certifications are broken down into 4 categories for either service or install. Before you can be certified in any category you must pass a “core” exam which encompasses a variety of common concepts that are used with all categories. For example, customer etiquette, electrical circuits, and safety are part of the Core exam.

2 - 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 evolvement of Air Conditioning 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.

The newer equipment is upwards of 20 SEER, communicating (the furnace, AC, and comfort control “talk” to each other), they have multiple stages, variable speed (compressors and motors are like cruise control on your car), use temperature and humidity combined to operate equipment to maximum comfort levels, and more.

Each year there are new technological advancements in HVAC as a whole. As you can see constant training is key to maintaining installation success ultimately providing you with the comfort, reliability and energy savings you deserve for your investment.

Fire & Ice's HVAC Training Center

3 - Proper Tools and Installation Equipment

Do you have the right tool for the job? That is always the question. 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. The air conditioner installer has to install/connect high voltage electricity to a disconnect box then wiring to the AC providing it with the power to operate.

There is also copper piping, oxygen, and acetylene torches, brazing (type of welding) of the copper lines inside the home, and to the AC unit, low voltage or control wiring, sheet metal transitions to existing ductwork, and condensation lines.

There is also specialty equipment required:

  • such as a vacuum pump
  • recovery machine
  • micron gauge
  • and digital gauges for the proper handling of refrigerant.

These Specific tools are required in each of these areas to install the equipment to industry, mechanical code, and manufactures standards. Having the tools is one thing. Knowing what tools, where and how to use them is another. Without the proper tools, used by trained professionals, it will be nearly impossible to achieve a dependable, worry-free air-conditioning system.

Most of the equipment as well as the tools are not commonly found in your garage. These are trade-specific, and as you can see, HVAC encompasses all the mechanical trades along with low-level carpentry. When choosing a company ask if they offer tool programs for employees, as well as training.

Digital Gauges and Testing Equipment

Air Conditioning/Heat Pump installation is a very scientific and technical process. When done right, along with annual maintenance, allows 20 plus years of service from the appliance. You deserve that 20 plus years of comfort for your investment. Without the proper training, install practices and testing equipment, you would 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 100psi to 500psi.

 While this is happening, a fan on the inside (the furnace blower), and a fan on the outside (on top of the AC) 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 a maximum 150psi to test for leaks. Using test pressures exceeding 150psi will damage the compressor. Once there are no leaks, the lines must be vacuumed down to 500microns 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, proper install processes must be followed.

Having the correct testing, set up and install equipment will make installation near perfect. Accuracy is key.

Guessing, using outdated or unprecise testing equipment can produce the following: 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 AC has a long healthy life keeping you comfortable.

AC Testing Equipment

4 - Safety Process

SAFETY, SAFETY, SAFETY!

Air conditioning installation includes open flames inside the home for brazing/welding of copper refrigerant lines, high voltage electricity, condensate lines for draining water away, refrigerant and other gasses, glues, and primers as well as sheet metal.  In addition, HVAC technicians bring big equipment in and out of the home. There is plenty of needs for safety including the safety of you in the home, your home, the men working in the home, as well as the new equipment itself.

Failure to follow any of the detailed safety requirements could result in property damage, injuries or even death.

Having the proper equipment for installation as well as trained, experienced, full-time employees using good practices will almost always keep everyone safe when installing.

It’s best to know a company’s safety and training policies before you choose them for hire.

5 - Commissioning New Equipment

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.

Below you’ll find a detailed start-up and check-out process of the new equipment’s operation. It is a collection of data taken while the new equipment is in operation to verify that it is performing properly and within all manufacture’s guidelines. This process can take an hour to an hour and a half after the install is completed. This is one of the most crucial moments in the new life of your brand-new equipment. If this step is skipped or not performed correctly it's possible to lose years of service, high energy costs, and discomfort in the highest times of need.

Unfortunately, most professionally licensed HVAC companies do not have a process or requirements for commissioning of new equipment. This process is accompanied by a form that can only be completed after the installation is complete and done live in the home while the equipment is in operation. You as a customer should see the form and the installer should go over it with you upon completion. The commissioning process takes information such as voltage readings, refrigerant pressures, line set readings, a series of temperature readings, calculations such as superheat or subcooling, airflow readings, along with several others depending on the equipment.

This information is collected and recorded to give indicators on the new equipment’s performance. Using the information, the system can be adjusted as needed to become within the manufacturer’s specifications for optimum performance, longevity, and efficiency. This also will provide a baseline reference for the new equipment if service may be needed sooner than expected. Properly commissioned equipment, along with annual maintenance gives you the greatest opportunity to enjoy the best comfort and performance out of your new investment. The commissioning process will also allow the greatest opportunity for reliability and longevity.

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 9 out of 10 new HVAC systems installed by licensed companies had comfort robbing and/or energy robbing deficiencies. A study It also found that 75% of newly installed air conditioners had incorrect refrigerant charge. That’s 3 out of 4 new air conditioners installed!

Imagine buying a new set of 4 tires from a known tire retailer and 3 out of 4 of those new tires don’t have the right amount of air in them. The result would be one or multiple failures from low gas mileage, damage to the new tire, uneven wear, shortened life expectancy, discomfort while driving, just to name a few.

There is no shortcut to commissioning a newly installed air conditioning system. As mentioned earlier, it is one of the most critical moments in the life of your new air conditioner.

The best way to protect your investment is to make sure it gets commissioned!

HVAC Commissioning Report

6 - Permits

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.   

It requires a minimum of 10 hours a year of continuous education training and yearly fees to keep valid. A State HVAC license allows the company named on license to pull permits for the inspection of any new installation of product 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.

There Is Never Good Reason to Not Pull a Permit

It’s a requirement agreed upon between the issuing state and the license holder. This protects both the customer and company. The permit is the first step done prior to installation (in most cases, emergency repairs can be handled next day). This gives the building department notice of work being done and then gives 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 install is completed.

You usually have up to a year to have the inspector out for inspection. It is not recommended to wait a year, that is just a standard expiration of most permits.

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.

7 - Full-Time Employees

Employees are a key factor in determining the value of the cost of replacing your air conditioner. This is the area most unknown to the customer.

Who is going to be working in your home? Are they qualified? What type of training do they have? Did I get the “A” team? Are they going to do it right? A lot of questions can arise just from one topic with Employees.

Most HVAC companies sub out the labor for the installation or replacement of new equipment. This happens to keep costs down for the company and provides lower costs to you, the consumer. But at what cost?

Some companies don’t even W2 their install teams, some just 1099 them. This should always be a red flag.

If an employee is not W2’d, they are 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 you being in a lawsuit from them. It is not recommended to hire companies that sub out the labor for replacing/installing your new air conditioner.

Another common method used to pay installation employees is by piece rate. The piece rate is a flat rate system that the installer gets paid by, based on the type of job to be installed.

An air conditioner replacement only (not replacing furnace), may pay, for example, $350.00. This is what the installer would receive before taxes for completing the install.

Whether the install took an hour or 8 hours, that is the most he will get paid. If it were to be a full system install (air conditioner and furnace replaced) then maybe the pay is $750.00.

Again, it’s the same pay regardless of how long it takes to put in.

The most common issue experienced with this, is that the installer wants to get it done as fast as he can so he can either do another install that day or so he can “make more by the hour” In most cases this only benefits the installer, then the company.

You are the last to receive a benefit from this pay structure. Most installers that are paid piece rate (especially if they are a subcontractor), have the mindset that they are their own boss and can make their own rules and processes. This is never beneficial to your investment or the product being installed. The last is the employee that gets paid by the hour, which includes W2, overtime pay, benefits available through the company, company uniforms, company trucks and company tools and equipment required to install equipment properly.

These tools are too expensive for subcontracted or piece-rate employees sometimes. Hourly employees tend to be involved or have “buy-in” with company rules, policies, and processes set in place for perfect installs.

Hourly employees in a good company culture where training and processes are in place for their success achieve higher customer satisfaction ratings, results in better performance while on jobs and fewer callbacks or install errors on completed jobs. Although hourly employees are more costly to the company they provide the best benefits to you the customer in regards to a perfect installation.

Next Actions

When you are looking to replace or service your furnace, air conditioner, air handler, or heat-pump there are many things for you to consider and not just the costs. To find a reliable and qualified HVAC company, look for a Heating and Cooling company that is state-licensed, carries proper insurance, has Workmans Compensation for their W2 full-time employees, and provides extensive year-round training.

When you choose a company like Fire & Ice Heating & Air Conditioning for your installations or service, you will be assured that everything will be done to and beyond industry standards to make sure you are 100% satisfied.

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