In September 1976, Air Force Maj. Arthur J. Doherty moved into a new $62,000 City home equipped with the latest in efficient temperature control devices - a heat pump, which is basically a refrigerator in reverse.
In the summer, his Fedders Model CKH pumped heat out of his North Kerrydale subdivision house, cooling it. In the winter, the cycle was reversed to warm the house.
That is, it did until March 11, when the compressor burned out.
"I didn't think anything about it at first," said Doherty, desk-bound officer in Rosslyn high rise. "But I had seen a lot of repair trucks in the area and I started to talk to neighbors. They had had the same problem I had."
Doherty, suspicious that there was some problem peculiar to his model heat pump, launched a campaign that provides a testbook example of successful consumer strategy and tactics.
Working at nights and on weekends and in spare moments at the office, Doherty took on a major manufacturer, its distributor and installers and won a war that will have save hundreds of dollars of each of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeowners.
Doherty's heat pump had the standard industry protection - any problems the first year would be fixed at no cost. For the next four years, the factory would replace the compressor free, but Doherty would have to pay for the labor, about $300.
Worried, Doherty called his builder, Hylton Enterprises ; the installer, the Krafft Co. in Alexandria; the area distributor, E.C. Keys & Son in Beltsville and the Fedders Corp. in New Jersey.
According to Doherty, Hylton agreed that the 17-year Air Force veteran should not have to pay for labor. But Keys, which sells about 1,000 Feders heat pumps a year in this area, and Fedders representatives told Doherty there was no sign of any design problem with the Fedders model. And Krafft said the labor warranty had run out and Doherty would have to pay.
That turned out to be a mistake, Doherty had just begun.
He surveyed his subdivision and found that 14 of 20 Fedders CKH models had experienced compressor failure in 18 months. He also found that 41 other heat pumps - other Fedders models, General Electric and Carrier - had suffered only two compressor failures.
Doherty called area consumer affairs offices and heat pump installers and asked if they had heard of problems. He located three Fairfax subdivisions with heat pump problems.In Levitt's Lake Forest subdivision in West Springfield, 33 of the Feders CKH models had burned up 19 compressors in about six months. The citizens association was up in arms and Levitt had asked Fedders to investigate. Fedders sent a specialist from New Jersey.
Doherty called the Virginia attorney general's office and the state consumer affairs office.The consumer office told him of five other locations in the state with problems and an assistant attorney began to check the situation.
Doherty called Virginia Electric and Power Co. He called the Federal Trade Commission. He called the press.
He called installers. He called distributers. He called Fedders. He called representatives of other neighborhoods and began to discuss lawsuits.
But, Fedders consumer affairs director Joel Gold laid the trouble to Doherty and poor installation work. "We have been very much aware of certain problems in the Northern Virginia area. So far what we have found is a lot of improper installation.
"I know of one individual who has been trying to stir up a lot of trouble," Gold said, identifying the person as Doherty. "During the first year he had no problem. After 1 1/2 years he had a problem. He was charged for labor which was reasonable and proper. He has been advised of that.
Early last week, Gold said, "Our preliminary and continuing investigation in the Northern Virginia area indicates there has been some improper installation and service of our equipment . . . We feel we have a good, reliable unit."
But Doherty was beginning to have impact on installers. Warren Lupson of Beltway Heating and Air Conditioning, which had repaired Doherty's unit and estimated the bill would be about $300, agreed. "There's a defect of some nature."
James D. Walton Jr., manager of Krafft, the installer, said, "Doherty does have a problem and he is doing what he can to to solve it. He's going a lot further than most people would, but I can't blame him for that."
Meanwhile, a neighbor of Doherty, Thomas J. Karvey, was getting his heat pump back from Lupson after four months in the shop Karvey's first compressor had blown under full warranty, but he was expecting a $450 labor charge for repair of the second compressor, that burned up in January.
Other homeowners were getting angry too.
Charlie Dunbar, a resident of Greentree Village in Springfield, said, I don't know what is wrong with my heat pump, but I paid $2,000 for something that doesn't work and I can't get anybody to do anything about it."
Then on Wednesday, The Post asked a Fedders official questions about the CKH model. On Thursday, John C. Adams, Fedders' director of public relations, called The Post.
"I don't think Mr. Gold the Fedders' representative has all the facts at hand," Adams said. "This thing has been referred to a higher level in the company."
"There appears to be a component problem - the defrost control component," Adams said. "It creates an icing condition. The ice builds up, causing stress on the compressor."
The solution, Adams said, is to replace the model's defrost control unit, a component about the size of a brick, Fedders will do the work where a problem exists at no cost to the owner, he said. The work should be completed this summer, he said.
The problem surfaced "largely as a result of the extreme winter," Adams said. "We've experienced it only in a few northern markets."
Fedders will take other steps, Adams said. The company will issue a new parts and labor warrantly on its compressor for an additional year, owners who have already paid for a compressor replacement linked to the faulty part will be reimbursed, he said.
Adams, who would not say how many units might be effected or the cost to the company of the correction, also said that Doherty and others like him would not have to pay labor costs on compressor replacements. "We have an obligation toward them," Adams said.
Thursday afternoon, Doherty received a call from a Fedders official announcing that a factory technician would be at his house next week to work on his heat pump. "Great," said Doherty. "We did something."
"There are thousands of people and a lot of money involved. I hope it solves the problem," Doherty said.