For quality, Checkbook’s surveys of local consumers turned up dozens of excellent outfits. Dozens of companies were rated “superior” for “overall quality” by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. But not all contractors are up to the task: Several scored much lower, receiving such favorable ratings from 60 percent or fewer of their surveyed customers.
Checkbook also found big price differences. For example, to replace the blower motor and capacitor for a Trane furnace, local companies quoted its undercover shoppers prices ranging from $339 to $1,187. And to supply and install an Aprilaire whole-house humidifier, prices ranged from $450 to $1,426.
Comparing prices for repairs is difficult, as you’ll first probably need to have a company out to diagnose the problem. Because most companies charge hefty minimum fees just to show up, you’ll probably have to pay something to find out the price of the repairs.
Once a company has diagnosed your problem, it should provide you a written fixed price to repair it. If the estimate is no more than a few hundred dollars, you may as well have the company go ahead with it immediately. If that company has a low price comparison score and labor rate, the price is likely to at least be reasonable. If the estimate exceeds $500 or so, consider getting additional quotes from other companies.
If you need new equipment, get several companies to prepare written proposals to install it. Although obtaining multiple bids for new equipment will save thousands of dollars, most consumers don’t bother to do so. Carefully compare proposals. Designs can affect how quickly and uniformly your system heats and cools your house, how much energy it consumes, how much noise it makes, what drafts it produces, the amount of space it occupies, maintenance requirements and other important aspects of performance.
When buying new equipment, be skeptical about claims of cost savings from a more energy-efficient system. There may be substantial savings — and there are compelling public-interest reasons to install efficient equipment — but some companies exaggerate the amount of savings to sell new or more expensive equipment (more efficient equipment costs more money). Get several companies to make proposals, ask for documentation of how much the new equipment will cut your energy bills, and ask questions. You can calculate your own estimates by using the U.S. Department of Energy’s Home Energy Saver tool at hes.lbl.gov.
For an illustrative home, Checkbook estimated how energy costs are affected by purchase of new equipment with varying energy-efficiency ratings and found:
- For furnaces, it usually makes sense to pay extra for a more efficient unit, compared with buying a minimally efficient model. The resulting energy savings from more efficient equipment quickly “pays off” extra purchase costs.
- For air conditioners, in this area it usually doesn’t make sense to pay more for a highly energy-efficient air conditioner rather than a basic unit.
- If you’re replacing both your furnace and air conditioner, in this area it makes sense to consider buying a hybrid system that uses a high-efficiency air-source heat pump backed by a gas furnace. Such systems offer low energy costs, but because they are priced a lot more than standard furnace-A/C combos, it takes a long time for their energy savings to offset the extra expenditure.
- Ground-source heat pumps (also called geothermal systems) provide very low heating and cooling bills, but these systems are extremely expensive to purchase and install — typically $30,000 or more. But because of the big-time energy savings, hefty tax and utility company incentives and long life spans, it makes financial sense to consider them if you know you’ll be in your house for many years.
Some additional points:
- When comparing models, look for energy-saving features such as variable-speed blowers and two-stage burners. Presence of these gadgets won’t be reflected on their models’ efficiency ratings because ratings are determined while equipment operates at full capacity. A variable-speed blower, for example, usually runs at a constant low speed to maintain the correct temperature, increasing speed and energy use only as needed. If you are comparing the energy efficiency of two different units with similar energy-efficiency ratings — one with variable-speed capability and the other without — the one that can run at variable speeds will use less energy. The same is true when comparing furnaces that have one- or multiple-stage burners.
- Investing thousands of extra dollars in ultra-efficient equipment makes no sense if your home is drafty or poorly insulated, or your thermostat is pegged on Tahiti during the winter. Before upgrading your equipment, make sure your attic is well-insulated and seal up easy-to-fix leaks (at Checkbook.org, you’ll find advice on these topics). The best way to cut home energy costs is the most obvious one: Dial down your thermostat, and get and use a programmable thermostat.
Before hiring a company for installation work, ask for performance guarantees that specify how warm or cool the equipment will keep your house and how uniform the temperature within the house will be when outside temperatures reach a specified level. Also make sure your contract clearly states the company’s responsibilities on such matters as providing an electrical supply and hooking up your equipment to the electrical panel; providing drainage for condensate; enclosing ductwork and painting and patching holes; and other matters.
Heating and air-conditioning services are likely to push for annual professional maintenance visits, and many will offer a maintenance contract. Such frequent professional service may not be needed as long as you are diligent about the most important maintenance task: replacing air filters whenever they get dirty.
Whether you need repairs or a new unit, pay with a credit card. If you are dissatisfied with the work, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.
Kevin Brasler is executive editor for Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and Checkbook.org. The nonprofit Washington Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. Checkbook is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings of area heating and air-conditioning contractors free of charge until Feb. 25 at www.checkbook.org/washingtonpost/hvac.