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A First-Time Homebuyer’s Guide to HVAC Companies

First-time homebuyers who need heating and cooling equipment have a huge decision to make. Hiring the wrong HVAC company can ruin your costly investment. We give you tips on what to look for.

A First-Time Homebuyer’s Guide to HVAC Companies

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Brad Angel


Brad Angel


April 5th, 2023

If you’re a first-time home buyer, and one of your decisions is to invest in a heating or cooling unit, there are pitfalls to trusting the wrong HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) companies. Looking to make a quick buck, they might not have your best interests in mind when they’re doing business with you.

The product they are trying to sell you is probably not junk, like some used car salesman who’s trying to push a lemon at you. The product is brand-new (we hope), and it will work fine. Sometimes.

But there are telltale signs that arise when you’re dealing with an HVAC contractor who is in a hurry to make a sale, or isn’t ensuring that what you buy is going to work as well as it should.

If you’re in the market for a furnace, air conditioner, or heat pump, and want to be alerted to some warning signs, this article is for you. We’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of stories and have seen questionable practices throughout Central Ohio.

We’re not here to throw specific companies under the bus. Rather we want to give you a heads-up about some tactics we’ve seen or heard about when something isn’t right.

What Size HVAC Equipment Does Your Home Need?

The first clue that something isn’t right can occur when you’re first sitting down with a salesperson. If you feel like they’re cutting corners there, there will certainly be corners cut in the installation process.

Are they taking an interest in what your home needs, not just shoving things at you, giving you pricing, and then being done? You want to make sure that they’re working in your interest, not just their interest.

At the in-home estimate, if your contractor doesn’t take any type of measurement of your home or ask you any kind of question about your comfort, heating, cooling, and indoor air quality issues that you have, or they don’t take the time to show you the load calculation they performed - all those things might lead them to shortchange you.

For instance, take the Manual J load calculation, which takes all of ten minutes to do. It’s recommended, and it should be mandatory.

During this calculation, contractors take measurements to find the HVAC capacity of a building. The measurements include how many windows or entryways are in the house, the number of occupants, and what other appliances in the building can produce or absorb heat. Contractors then use software and manual calculations to determine the HVAC load capacity of the house, which means how much HVAC power the unit needs to heat, cool, and maintain temperatures.

Here are a few standard rules for BTU (British Thermal Units) when preparing for a Manual J calculation:

1 person = 100 BTU

1 window = 1,000 BTU

1 entry door = 1,000 BTU

The formula might look like this:

(House surface in square feet) x (height of the ceiling)
(Number of occupants) x 100 BTU
(Number of exterior doors) x 1,000 BTU
(Number of windows) x 1,000 BTU

After performing these calculations to determine square footage and total BTU, add the solutions together to determine the HVAC load. For example, if a house is 2,000 square feet with ceilings that are 10 feet high and has six occupants, 12 windows, and three doors, it can look like this:

2,000 x 10 = 20,000
6 x 100 BTU = 600 BTU
12 x 1,000 BTU = 12,000 BTU
3 x 1,000 BTU = 3,000 BTU
20,000 + 600 + 12,000 + 3,000 = 35,600 BTU

In this example, the HVAC load for the home is 35,600 BTU, which would call for an HVAC unit of 3 tons.

Pressuring Customers to Replace Rather Than Repair

A lot of companies will come in and look at your furnace or AC and say, “This is 20 years old. They’re not making parts for it anymore. You need a new one.” They don’t even take the time to open up the furnace door to see what’s going on inside.

Your system should run as long as possible. Sometimes that can mean a cheap repair, sometimes an expensive one, and sometimes a new unit is the right decision. That decision should be up to the customer only. And sometimes a good contractor might miss out on a sale by providing you with each option.

One example was a customer with an 8-year-old furnace that had mechanical issues. A service technician looked at it briefly and told her that she needed to replace it. We recommended a thorough diagnostic instead of a new purchase. It turns out the furnace was under warranty, so she got a free replacement.

We lost a sale; she had her checkbook out and was ready to purchase a replacement. Ethically we cannot sell her a new unit until the old one’s problem is diagnosed.

Recognizing Equipment Installation Shortcuts

The most important day in the life of an HVAC unit is the day it’s installed. The difference between a functional and a proper installation is huge. It affects your comfort, efficiency (and your energy bill), and the equipment’s lifespan. A bad one can also lead to expensive, unnecessary repairs.

It’s easy to cut corners on an installation. Contractors may skip a series of steps called commissioning. It’s a series of checks to make sure the equipment is set to the manufacturer’s specifications. It includes making sure all of the airflow, static pressure, refrigerant pressures, and are actually where they’re supposed to be. You make sure that everything’s level, tight, and caulked properly, and make sure drain lines are running properly.

To be clear, the air conditioner might work if the checks aren’t performed. It just won’t work well, and the customer will be stuck with an underperforming machine.

Here’s an example:

The blower motor in the furnace is used in both heating and cooling. It moves the air throughout your ductwork.

Each air conditioner, furnace, or heat pump will have a capacity. You might need a 3-ton system for your home.

The blower motor, however, comes with factory settings that don’t account for variances in home size and equipment. When it’s brand new, it’s not calibrated to a specific unit capacity.

If an installer installs the blower motor and doesn’t calibrate it, there’s a chance its power settings are incorrect for your HVAC equipment. Its factory setting might be set to move air in a 4-ton system when you need only a 3-ton.

This means that the unit, though it is sized correctly, has a blower that is not. Air will move too fast across the evaporator coil, which will waste energy and make your home less comfortable. You might wind up with too much static pressure in sections of your ductwork. This can cause the system to work too hard and might cause leaks in the ductwork, creating additional inefficiencies and poor air quality.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation. We’ve seen this. All of that happens simply because the HVAC installer didn’t adjust the system appropriately.

Read more: Cutting Corners: A Look at the Best and Worst HVAC Company Practices in Columbus, OH

How Installers Should Be Paid: Piece-Rate vs. Hourly

Workers who are hired on a piece-rate salary get paid X number of dollars to complete a job. If a technician is given that amount of money to install a new air conditioner or furnace, they almost certainly would do it as quickly as possible so that they could make more money.

They’re not going to do anything more than the bare minimum, and they won't commission the system.

If they were putting in a basic system, they could have it done in about 4 hours. Then it’s on to the next job.

Whereas if they were getting paid by the hour, they need to be there for six-nine hours. Someone paid by the hour will take more time because that’s how they get paid. They slow down and do all the right things.

A poor contractor can make the system run, but a good HVAC contractor will have it done right.

Be Wary of Subcontractors as Technicians

A lot of HVAC companies use subcontractors because A) they don’t have to carry insurance for them, and B) they don’t have to provide 401k, dental, or health insurance. If they’re hiring third-party contractors, they don’t have to worry about drug testing and don’t need to supply workers’ compensation.

The subcontractors are not employees of the company. They drive vans that have the company’s name, and they may wear company shirts, but they are their own independent company and they will not do a job if they don’t want to. If they show up at a site that’s a bit outside of their comfort zone, they will cancel the job right then and there.

There’s another problem. The HVAC business that books the job can pass off the blame to the third party if something goes wrong.

So you can get a lot of runaround. You can’t expect anything that goes wrong to be fixed promptly because you’re dealing with a situation in which the subcontractor works for the company you hired to do the work. They’re pointing fingers at one another, and no one takes the blame for it.

A good company will have its own installers, and you know they will do the work they’re supposed to do and have specific standards.

Technicians Need to Have HVAC Certification

If the HVAC technician isn’t fully certified, the warranty will be voided from day one. Units are required to be installed by licensed HVAC professionals.

And if they don’t know what they’re doing because they’re not a certified technician, it’s going to shortchange the life of your equipment. It won’t run as well, won’t make you as comfortable as you could be, and it won’t last as long. You may have saved some money on the installation, but you’ll have no warranty.

HVAC Contractor Checklist

Hiring Good HVAC Contractors in Columbus, Ohio

At Fire & Ice, our initial goal is to have a conversation with homeowners. We ask about hot and cold spots (a sign that the unit is not running long enough to mix the air properly), find out if the energy bills are reasonable or have become unmanageable, the length of time you plan on being in the home, and what is the indoor temperature preference.

That way we can recommend a solution based on what customers say. We’re the HVAC experts, but you are the expert on your home. Let’s be a team and talk about the best solutions.

Good contractors try to solve problems.

Our job is to help you and your family make the right decision for you, even if what we tell you makes you choose another company. We’d love to have your business, but there might be other companies that are a better fit. We’re here to help you make that decision.

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