Home Cooling 101: The ASHRAE List Part 1

If anybody knows anything about air conditioning its the folks at ASHRAE, better known as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

Around since 1894 — before there was actual air conditioning — ASHRAE is a global society advancing human well-being through sustainable technology for the built environment.

That’s a mouthful, when basically the society and its members focus on building systems, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, refrigeration, and sustainability within the industry. Better, but let’s cut to the chase . . .

They know how to keep us cool in the hot Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summers.

They know how to keep us warm in the unpredictable North Texas winters.

In this two-part Home Cooling 101 post, we take a look at ASHRAE’s not-so-David-Letterman-style list of Things Consumers Should Know About Air Conditioning.

What Is Air Conditioning?

ASHRAE says the first functional definition of air-conditioning was created in 1908 and is credited to G.B. Wilson. It is the definition that Willis Carrier, the “father of air conditioning” subscribed to when inventing the first actual air conditioner.

  • Maintain suitable humidity in all parts of a building
  • Free the air from excessive humidity during certain seasons
  • Supply a constant and adequate supply of ventilation
  • Efficiently remove from the air micro-organisms, dust, soot, and other foreign bodies
  • Efficiently cool room air during certain seasons
  • Heat or help heat the rooms in winter
  • An apparatus that is not cost-prohibitive in purchase, service or maintenance

How an Air Conditioner Works

The job of your air conditioner is moving heat from inside your home to the outside, thereby cooling you and your house.

Air conditioners blow cool air into your home by pulling the heat out of that air. The air is cooled by blowing it over a set of cold pipes called an evaporator coil. This works just like the cooling that happens when water evaporates from your skin. The evaporator coil is filled with a special liquid called a refrigerant, which changes from a liquid to a gas as it absorbs heat from the air. The refrigerant is pumped outside the house to another coil where it gives up its heat and changes back into a liquid.

This outside coil is called the condenser because the refrigerant is condensing from a gas back to a fluid just like moisture on a cold window. A pump, called a compressor, is used to move the refrigerant between the two coils and to change the pressure of the refrigerant so that all the refrigerant evaporates or condenses in the appropriate coils.

The energy to do all of this is used by the motor that runs the compressor. The entire system will normally give about three times the cooling energy that the compressor uses. This odd fact happens because the changing of refrigerant from a liquid to a gas and back again lets the system move much more energy than the compressor uses.

Air conditioners are fairly robust appliances, especially when you have an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area contractor service your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) at least once, if not twice, a year.

If you do not have an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas contractor conduct annual or semi-annual service checkups, problems arise that may continue undetected for a while, reducing energy efficiency, costing you more in electricity bills each month, and adding additional wear and tear on the equipment.

What is a Ton of Cooling

Before refrigeration air conditioning was invented, cooling was done by saving big blocks of ice. When cooling machines started getting used, they rated their capacity by the equivalent amount of ice melted in a day, which is where the term “ton” came from sizing air conditioning.

A ton of cooling is now defined as delivering 12,000 BTU/hour of cooling. BTU is short for British Thermal Unit (and is a unit that the British do not use) The BTU is a unit of heating – or in this case, cooling – energy. It’s more important, however, to keep in perspective that a window air conditioner is usually less than one ton. A small home central air conditioner would be about two tons and a large one about five tons.

What Goes Wrong

Unlike most furnaces, air conditioners are complex mechanical systems that depend on a wide variety of conditions to work correctly. They are sized to meet a certain “load” on the house. They are designed to have certain amount of refrigerant. They are designed to have a certain amount of air flow across the coils. When any of these things changes, the system will have problems.

If you produce more heat indoors either from having more people or appliances or because of changes in the house, the air conditioning may not be able to keep up.

If the refrigerant charge on the system leaks out, it lowers the capacity of the system. You will simply get less cooling and system will not be able to keep up when the load gets high.

If airflow across the outdoor (condenser) coil is reduced, the ability to reject heat outdoors is reduced and the again the capacity of the system may go down, especially at higher outdoor temperatures.

In dry climates such as the Southwest United States, the same issues happen with regard to the indoor (evaporator) coil: higher airflow helps, lower airflow hurts. In humid climates, the situation is more complex. At higher airflows, there will be less dehumidification, leading to high indoor humidity levels. If the airflow gets too low, however, the evaporator coil may freeze. This makes performance worse and can damage the compressor until it fails – leaving you with an expensive repair bill and no cooling.

Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and North Texas are a combination of heat and humidity, which places extreme demands on air conditioners from late spring to early fall. That’s why regular service and maintenance is essential to maintain peak performance.

What Filters Do

Almost every air conditioning system has a filter upstream of the evaporator coil. This can be in the return grille or in special slots in the duct system and can be a fuzzy-looking or a folded paper filter. This filter removes particles from the air stream to both keep the air conditioning system clean and to remove particles from the air.

As the filter does its job, it gets loaded with more and more particles. This actually has the effect of making it more efficient, but it also increases resistance and reducing airflow. When this happens, it is time to service or change the filter. How long it will take to happen depends on how dirty the air is and how big the filter is.

If you don’t change the filter, the air flow will go down, and the system will not perform well. Not only that, but if the filter is too dirty, it starts to become a source or air pollution itself.

If you take the filter out completely, you would solve the low air flow problem, but this victory would be short lived. The particles that the filter would have taken out will now build up on your evaporator coil and eventually cause it to fail. A new filter is a lot cheaper.

When you do buy a new filter, ASHRAE recommends getting one with a Minimum Efficiency Rating Value of MERV 6 or higher. These are available at home improvement centers, hardware stores, and other retail outlets throughout Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

Maintaining the System

Routine maintenance such as changing filters can be handled by most consumers, but others tasks such as checking refrigerant levels, re-charging refrigerant levels, and servicing or repairing the compressor, evaporator coils, furnace, condensate drain, among others, should be handled by a knowledgable HVAC contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area.

Home Cooling 101: Warranties

This is the not-so-fine-print when it comes to buying heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment:

Read the fine print.

No. Make that . . .

READ THE FINE PRINT.

Got that?

No matter what equipment you’ve purchased from a contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas, it’s attached to some kind of warranty from the manufacturer and the company that installed the system.

So, if you have two warranties, you’re covered. Right?

Yes. It depends.

The warranty process can be confusing.

Chances are the contractor’s service tech or sales rep tried to sell you an extended warranty, either for future labor costs (his area of interest) or for the manufacturer (extending the parts warranty). Should you buy? Are these worth it?

This Home Cooling 101 post takes a quick look at warranties, whether extended warranties are a good idea, the difference between service contracts and warranties, and home warranties.

Types of Warranties

When you buy an HVAC system from a contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas, it will come with two warranties.

  • The first is from the manufacturer. Of course it depends on who that manufacturer is. Leading companies such as Trane, Carrier, and Lennox are offering 10-year warranties on parts, which is a significant increase over what it used to be — maybe five years.
  • The second is from the contractor. Manufacturers require companies installing their equipment to provide a one-year labor guarantee.
    Now, examples of fine print.
  • The manufacturer may require you to use an authorized dealer, which really isn’t a problem since you already used one in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas to purchase the equipment and have it installed.
  • The one fine-point that may slip by is that many manufacturers require homeowners to have their HVAC systems regularly serviced and maintained twice a year, usually at the start of the summer and winter. Failure to do so has, in some cases, voided warranties.
  • Now, to the contractor. The one year labor warranty is pretty clear cut: Anything that fails due to faulty installation is covered, at no cost to the homeowner. But what if something is found during one of those service and maintenance checkups? The part is covered, sure. But what about the labor? It’s worth asking.

Extended Warranties

Just like when you buy an new phone from Apple or a TV from Best Buy, extended warranties are offered (often strongly suggested) to customers. Of course, the length of the warranties and the terms vary, for example, by location (more expensive in Florida or Corpus Christi due to proximity to salt water than in land-locked Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas), among other considerations.
But are these a good idea for HVAC equipment?

Mostly, no. If you are someone who wants “peace of mind” knowing that costly equipment is covered beyond the manufacturer’s warranty, then it might be a great investment for you regardless of the cost or return on the investment. In some instances, an extended warranty may add value to your home as it’s transferrable should you sell it. You may also receive service priority if something breaks down (but, again, read that fine print).

Why You Should Not Purchase An Extended Warranty

  • In general, most products come with a year’s warranty and studies, including ones done by Consumer Reports, indicate that a minority of malfunctions occur within the first year, while the major problems occur much later — usually beyond the reach of the extended warranty’s terms. This includes HVAC equipment.
  • The air conditioner or furnace would have to break at a certain time — after the manufacturer’s warranty runs out and before the extended warranty expires. How likely is that?
  • Consumer Reports studies on repair rates for a variety of small electronics to home appliances, including HVAC equipment, range from 5 to 37 percent, which indicate that you’re unlikely to need service or repair.
  • Extended warranties are also not cost effective, often overlapping the manufacturer’s protection.
  • The general consensus in the HVAC industry is that the manufacturer’s warranty — especially if it’s 10 years — should be sufficient, especially if you’ve purchased quality equipment from a respected brand.
  • Extended warranties are not always effective as they are filled with exclusions and fine print. If you must purchase, read the terms and conditions and make sure it offers adequate protection for the system purchased and meets your expectations. If you trust your HVAC contractor — and, hopefully, you do — talk over the fine print with the service tech, salesman, or owner.
  • A rule of thumb is: Don’t buy an extended warranty that costs you more than 20 percent of the total system cost.

How to Keep HVAC Warranties Valid

  • Register your warranty.
  • If the contractor offers to do the paperwork for you (good ones, often do), follow-up and 1) make sure it’s done and 2) get copies for your records. Don’t suffer if your contractor drops the ball.
  • Make sure you understand what’s required of you — like annual service and maintenance obligations. Schedule it, mark it on your calendar, and get all worksheets and receipts as manufacturers will ask for proof.
  • If you need to replace a part, by having read the warranty you will know that the equipment manufacturer will or will not accept off-brand parts. This is important: Some manufacturers consider a warranty voided if off-brand parts are used to repair or upgrade a unit.

HVAC Service Contracts Are A Good Thing

If the manufacturer requires twice-a-year service and maintenance checkups, check with your contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas to see what they offer after the break-in period has expired.

  • These contracts vary by contractor, so — again — read the fine print and understand exactly what you are buying. Basic service is relatively cheap, maybe $75 to $150 year. Will that include parts and service for problems found during a routine inspection, or will that be extra? This additional coverage may cost extra.
  • Some service contracts also may include emergency service, which could be a good thing in the middle of a sweltering Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summer.
    Benefits of the Regular Service and Maintenance Contracts
  • Keeps warranty valid
  • Makes sure everything is functioning as expected so you realize the energy efficiency and cost savings you expect
  • Potential issues are identified early, while they are small and easy to fix, rather than waiting until they become bigger and damage your system (and are more expensive to repair)
  • Note: Semi-annual inspections and professional cleanings are usually NOT included in home warranties that include HVAC equipment (read that fine print to make sure). If maintenance is not done (at your cost), a home warranty company may deny any claims for repair work, stating the breakdown was due to poor performance, leaving repair up to the homeowner.

Speaking of Home Warranties

These are not warranties, per se, like ones offered by HVAC equipment manufacturers, but insurance against repairs. Home warranties cover all sorts of things in your home — and here, you must read the fine print carefully to understand what is actually covered.

The home’s major appliances, including the heating and cooling systems, are insured for repair, but the policy may not cover the most expensive repairs. If so, there may be conditions. Some home warranty companies charge extra for plumbing and HVAC. And so on.

And keep in mind:

  • You call the warranty company, a service or repair tech is sent to your home from anywhere in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, or the entire Metroplex. You cannot use a contractor of your choice. Arrival times are often not as convenient.
  • Beware of pre-existing conditions.
  • Be aware of deductibles for each claim.
  • Is the work guaranteed?
  • Consumer affairs agencies are stuffed with complaints about home warranties, including HVAC.

So what’s the best advice? Read the fine print.

Home Cooling 101: equipment non-buyer’s guide

Looking for a Buyer’s Guide for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment?

Looking for something to help you understand manufacturers of HVAC equipment, their brands, models, and service and repair histories?

Want a tidy Excel spreadsheet of features, functions and annual service requirements?

Good luck.

There are a few buyer’s guides and comparisons if you dig deep enough on the Internet. If you find one, it’s most likely at a techy industry site where the information is dense, mind-numbing, and far from consumer friendly.

Why is that?

HVAC is complicated for homeowners, who may have new equipment installed once in their lives and whose only real interaction with air conditioning and heating is when they call a contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas for service or repair.

Homeowners can compare overall categories like energy efficiency (SEER, AFUE), capacity (tonnage), air quality (filtration and humidifier add-on products), and controls (programmable or internet-enabled).

But everything — everything — in the HVAC world depends on pairing the correct equipment with the home’s “envelope” and the quality of the installation, making it difficult to provide a Buyer’s Guide that consumers are used to when shopping for other products like TVs and computers.

For that reason we provide a Buyer’s Guide of HVAC Topics that homeowners should consider when buying new equipment. This will give you something to think about when talking with your Arlington-, Fort Worth-, or Dallas-based contractor.

What Influences Overall Satisfaction More Than Brands

  • The quality of the contractor and its service and repair technicians and installation specialists, who calculate the load, design the system, and install it. This is more important than the equipment you choose.
  • Having a reasonably energy efficient home, its “envelope” with few wasteful air leaks is just as important as the equipment you choose.
  • Having regularly scheduled maintenance, preferably by the same company in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas that installed the equipment, is important for the equipment regardless if it’s made by Goodman, Carrier, or Lennox.
  • The efficiency ratings for cooling (SEER) and heating (AFUE) begins to define the equipment you choose.
  • The warranties from the manufacturer and, if applicable, the installing company (labor) is just as important as the equipment you choose, particularly for covering big-ticket items like the compressor, evaporator coil, condenser coil, and the heat exchanger/furnace.

Factors That May Impact When You Buy

  • Are there any current rebates, tax credits, and incentives offered by utility companies or third parties for the equipment (with the energy features) you want to purchase?
  • Are there current rebates or incentives offered by third parties on energy conservation improvements to your home?
  • Are there any extended warranties offered for major components or the entire system? It’s a good sign when manufacturers offer additional warranty coverage because it demonstrates confidence in the product’s longevity, no matter if you buy it or not.)

Energy Efficiency Considerations

Due to today’s higher energy costs (which continue to rise, not lower), air conditioners are expensive to operate and consume more electricity. When choosing what to buy, it’s about the unit’s ability to convert that electricity into cooling in the most cost-effective way. That’s efficiency.

To reduce wasted energy, the U.S. Department of Energy established SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating) as the minimum standard for air conditioners. The higher the SEER the more efficient, the less it will cost to cool, but the more expensive it will be to purchase and install.

Models manufactured after January 2006, which can be found in newer housing developments in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, must have a 13 SEER. Service and repair technicians in the area recommend 15 to 17 SEER for the “biggest bang for the buck.”

A 13 SEER is 30 percent more efficient than a 10 SEER, which is found in neighborhoods built in the 1990s in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, or older (but these units probably have been replaced).

What Makes It More Efficient?

Look for units with . . .

  • larger coils for better heat transfer
  • variable speed blowers to reduce electricity consumption
  • a fan-only switch that allow you to turn off the cooling but leave the fan running to circulate air for more natural (and affordable) cooling
  • an automatic delay fan switch, which keeps the fan on longer to utilize residual cool when the compressor is shut off
  • filter indicator light, which notifies you when the air filter needs changing, an important DIY service/maintenance task
  • programmable thermostats, which allow for greater homeowner control over heating and cooling temperatures

Energy Efficiency Consideration: Heating

Like SEER, furnaces have an efficiency rating to help homeowners conserve energy and reduce their heating bills. The Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) ratio divides the ratio of heat output by heat input. It describes how well fuel, gas, or oil is consumed to produce heat by a furnace.

As the AFUE rate increases, the furnace’s efficiency also increases, lowering fuel costs. Furnaces are required to have at least an 80 percent AFUE, with equipment in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area eclipsing 90 percent or better.

Understanding Cost

To help determine the type of system you can afford, find out . . .

  • the system’s total cost, which includes the equipment, installation, any additional costs like ductwork modifications, and monthly operating costs. The higher efficiency, the more initial cost, but the more money you will save in the long run
  • the differences between the systems you are considering
  • and ask your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas contractor about any rebates, yearly operating cost estimates, and payback schedules that are available from the manufacturer

A Comparison Worksheet

A good contractor will help homeowners understand “payback schedules,” or how many years it will take to see the equipment purchased “paid back” through savings on monthly utility bills.

Choose up to three products to cover the good, better, best scenarios.

Step 1: Price

  • Note the manufacturer, brand, model, and size of Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3
  • Note the price quoted for each unit minus any rebates (separately recorded) for the actual cost.

Step 2: Price Difference

  • Unit 3 actual cost minus Unit 2 actual cost provides the difference between the best and better choices and gives you an idea how much more it will cost to achieve higher efficiency.
  • Unit 2 actual cost minus Unit 1 actual cost provides the difference between the better and good choices and gives you an idea of what it will cost to step up to slightly better efficiency.
  • Unit 3 actual cost minus Unit 1 actual cost provides the difference between the best and good choices.

Step 3: Operating Cost Difference

  • Unit 1 operating cost minus Unit 2 operating cost gives you the difference. Remember, Unit 1 is the good option, meaning it will be less efficient than Unit 2.
  •  Repeat for Unit 2 minus Unit 3.

Step 4: Payback

  • Unit 2 operating cost difference divided by Unit 3 operating cost difference gives you payback in years, or how long it will take to recover the money you’ve spent on a high efficiency system.
    An example of annual cooling cost comparisons:
  • 2 ton unit, 24 BTU/h: $710 annual cost to cool your home (10 SEER)/$510 (14 SEER). (Annual cost to cool your home are $470 for 15 SEER, up to $360 to 20 SEER)
  • 2.5 ton unit, 30,000 BTU/h: $890 annual cost to cool your home (10 SEER)/$640 (14 SEER). (Annual cost to cool your home $590 for 15 SEER up to $450 20 SEER)
  • 3 ton unit, 36,000 BTU/h: $1,070 annual cost to cool your home (10 SEER)/$760 (14 SEER). (Annual cost to cool your home are $710 for 15 SEER up to $530 20 SEER)

Home Cooling 101: Equipment

Quick: Name the company that manufactured the air condition cooling your home. How old is it? What are its specs?

Now what brand is your television? What are its specs and features and functions?

Bet you know more about your TV than you do about the most important system in your home.

In this Home Cooling 101 post we take a look at heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment, giving Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homeowners an introduction to purchasing new cooling systems.

Buying an air conditioner and furnace is no where near as fun as purchasing the latest and greatest big-screen TV and home entertainment sound systems, but it’s more important considering all it does for the occupants in your home.

Low Awareness

HVAC manufacturers, brands, and models suffer from low awareness. Even if you see a Carrier or Trane product advertised on television in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas market, chances are you’ll never remember the make or model.

According to some industry reports, only 8 percent of consumers can name the equipment brand in their home right now. Even if you’ve had a service or repair contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas come to your home for maintenance, do you remember anything the technician told you about the equipment?

Probably not.

This is because consumers buy, on average, HVAC equipment once every 17 years or twice in a lifetime if they’ve lived in the same place long enough.

And, let’s be honest: Who wants to buy an air conditioner? They’re big, boxy, and expensive. Now, if Apple made the iConditioner, maybe it would pique consumer interest.

A Different Kind of “Product”

HVAC equipment is a different kind of product and should be regarded as such.

  • For one, the quality of the installation by service and install specialists, as well as the company chosen to do the work, is actually more important than the product itself.
  • Next up, central heating and air conditioning are part of a system that includes the entire home, not just the living room or a bedroom. Televisions, for example, may be a part of an entertainment system or network, but that’s it. Refrigerators and stoves are “plug in and forget” appliances.
  • Any HVAC component, feature, function, or benefit you could compare in a detailed Excel spreadsheet must be installed and operated within a system, or environment, that’s affected by a myriad of other factors. The TV is impacted by the quality of the home theater components, but that’s it.
  • Lastly, your overall satisfaction and cost of operation is determined throughout the life of the system. With a TV you don’t consider a) how much it’s going to cost to operate monthly, b) how much service or repairs will cost over the life of the set, and c) how many years before it needs replacing.
  • With a product like a TV, you can always buy the latest and greatest and relocate the “old” set to a bedroom, but with HVAC homeowners may only buy equipment once in a lifetime.
  • OK, one more. HVAC equipment isn’t featured in the Sunday newspaper ads for Best Buy or RadioShack in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, or surrounding cities. No Hot Deals! on Carrier or Trane like there is on Samsung, Toshiba, or Vizio products.

Influenced by Advertising

There are about 70 HVAC consumer brands available — manufactured by seven or eight companies. That number jumps to about 150 when considering commercial equipment and overseas sales.
Only three — Carrier, Trane, and Lennox — advertise on television, particularly at the start of summer (Save money on summer cooling bills with a new Trane!) or winter (Save on heating bills with a new Carrier!)

Local contractors, more so than actual manufacturers, send direct mail advertisements to homeowners throughout Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, proclaiming a great deal on a “2 ton, 16 SEER, air conditioner with gas heating, installed, with a 10-year warranty for $1,550″ and the equipment happens to be made by Bryant (a Carrier sub-brand), American Standard (a Trane brand), or maybe even something completely different.

And let’s not forget those “door hanger” advertisements for Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas contractors that scream Summer Service Check-up (or Winter Maintenance Check-up) for as low as $39! Repairs starting at $79!

In the end, 80 percent of consumers will buy equipment that does’t carry the Carrier, Trane, or Lennox name, although more than likely it will be manufactured by one of them.

Without getting into business models and case studies, choosing a contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas with ties to a manufacturer has several advantages, including:

  • Access to local distributor and account reps for parts and support. When a supplier is close by, your contractor can service, repair, or install equipment much more efficiently, saving time.
  • Contractors keep fewer items in inventory, so they save money; but with quick, local access to supplier inventory, they may be able to offer equipment and parts at a lower cost to the consumer.
  • Staying current through technical training, service bulletins, and sales and marketing information is important and easier when they are nearby, benefitting the homeowner in numerous ways.
  • A relationship with an HVAC manufacturer allows contractors to provide homeowners with more options to meet their needs, giving them good, better, best scenarios.
  • It’s possible that additional rebates and incentives can be passed along to customers.

Home Cooling 101: Maintaining the System

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

We’d like to posit the First Law of HVAC: Neglecting necessary maintenance ensures a steady decline in air conditioning performance while energy use steadily increases.

As a service tech from an Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor recently told a homeowner:

“Your AC needs to be tuned up once a year, ever year. People think I tell then that so they hire me. I don’t care if you use me or someone else. It’s just a fact of life.”

In this Home Cooling 101 post we examine what it means to maintain your air conditioner.

“If the outdoor coils are dirty, if the cooling capacity is not up to par, if you are not getting air flow like you expect, that means the air conditioner needs to be tuned up,” the service tech said.

“You can lose up to five percent efficiency when the system is not operating the way it’s supposed to due to things like dirty coils, overheated motors, and lack of refrigerant.”

To start, here’s a simple maintenance walk-thru for residents in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area. None of these require a service tech or repair call to your HVAC contractor, unless problems arise.

One: Shut Off The Power

Due to the dangers of working around electricity and the air conditioner’s moving parts, it’s essential to completely turn off power to the unit.

Outside and on the wall near the air conditioner, look for a shut-off box. Open and turn the breaker to the off position. Indoors, just to be extra safe, turn the power off at the breaker box.

Two: Remove Debris

On the air conditioner unit (the condenser/compressor) remove the fan cage with a screwdriver or wrench, remove the fasteners, and lift the cage or fan grill away from the top of the unit. By hand, or with a wet/dry vacuum, clean leaves and other debris from the interior.

During a semi-annual checkup, your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area service tech will do this for you.

Doing this, and the other steps below, doesn’t mean that you will not need a maintenance or service checkup at least once a year. It just helps your HVAC system run at peak efficiency all year long.

Three: Clean The Fins

With a strong stream from a garden hose, spray through the fins from the inside out (not outside in) to blast away any built up dirt or debris in between the fins.

Never use a pressure washer, since the pressure can damage the fins. If the fins are particularly dirty, use a commercially available fin cleaning spray (available at home improvement centers throughout Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

Four: Straighten The Fins

Since any reduction in airflow through the fins can reduce efficiency, carefully straighten bent fins using a butter knife or commercially available fin-straightening tool or “fin comb” (available through AC wholesalers or possibly at Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas home improvement centers).

Be gentle. The aluminum fins on evaporator and condenser coils are easily bent and can block airflow through the coil.

Five: Clean Area Around The Unit

Once finished with the cleaning, replace the fan cage.

Rake back leaves and debris outside the condenser and cut back branches and vegetation at least two feet in all directions to ensure proper airflow around the unit.

Note: It’s OK to have plantings near the AC unit, including shading trees or shrubs, but you’ll want to make sure there’s plenty of room and debris is cleared so airflow is not restricted.

During winter months when the condenser is not in use, it’s good to cover the top of the unit with a piece of plywood or plastic to keep debris from falling in. However, don’t completely cover the unit’s sides because moisture can build up inside and cause corrosion. Also, a completely covered unit encourages vermin to build nests inside.

Six: Level the Unit

Over time, the pad upon which the condenser unit sits can begin to tip as the soil settles beneath it. An out-of-level condenser unit can cause the compressor to fail early. Check the condenser for level and use rot-resistant shims to bring it back to level.

If you are uncertain about this, the next time your Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area contractor comes to the home for a service call, ask him if it’s an issue or will become one.

If you have a heat pump system, it’s okay for the pad to be slightly sloped away from the home’s foundation to allow for defrost run-off during the winter.

Seven: Clean the Evaporator Coil

Now it’s time to move inside the home.

The air conditioner’s evaporator coil collects dirt over their months and years of service. A clean filter prevents the evaporator coil from soiling quickly. In time, however, the evaporator coil will still collect dirt. This dirt reduces airflow and insulates the coil, reducing its ability to absorb heat.

To avoid this problem, check your evaporator coil every year and clean it as necessary. If you do not want to mess with this, call your HVAC contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas and schedule a service call.

If you want to do it yourself, on the inside of the blower/furnace unit, find the evaporator coil door. You may need to remove some foil duct tape and take out a few screws or bolts.

Inside, use a soft brush to dust off the coil, then spray the coil with commercially available no-rinse coil cleaner (available at home improvement stores in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area).

The spray will foam up and drip into the drain pan. Clean out the drain pan with soap, hot water, and a little bleach. Then, pour a cup of 50 percent bleach/50 percent water down the drain. To keep the drain clear longer-term, place a commercially available drain pan tablet in the pan. This will inhibit future algae growth.

If the bleach solution drains easily, skip the next step. If not, move on to next step. Replace the evaporator coil door and use foil duct tape to re-seal, if necessary.

Eight: Clean a Plugged Evaporator Drain

On the inside, warm, humid air from your home’s interior is blown through the evaporator coil. The cold coil absorbs heat from the air, cooling it, before the air is circulated back into your home. The humidity in the air condenses on the cool surface of the evaporator coil as liquid water, dripping into a pan below. From the pan, the water flows into a drain tube which is typically routed into a basement floor drain, utility sink, or outdoors.

Over time, algae and mold can build up and potentially plug the drain, so if the drain is either not flowing or flowing very slowly, it will need to be unplugged. A plugged drain can either cause damage by flooding onto the floor or, if the system is equipped with a drain float, cause the system to stop cooling in order to avoid flooding.

First, find the drain line where it leaves the evaporator coil enclosure. The drain is usually a one-inch PVC pipe (white, grey, or black). Follow it to the end where it drains. Often the line drains outside near the condenser unit, but it can also drain into a utility sink or basement floor drain or, in the case of attic units, down an outside wall.

Once located, use a wet/dry vacuum to clear the drain. It’s best to remove the paper filter from the wet/dry vacuum so as not to ruin the filter. Hold the hose of the wet/dry vacuum to the end of the drain line. You can use duct tape or simply hold a rag around the gap. Turn on the vacuum for 2-3 minutes then turn off. This will clear the drain of any growing biological matter.

Nine: Change The Blower Filter

Dirty filters kill your AC’s efficiency.

The filter in your HVAC system should be changed at least twice a year – once just before the heating season begins and once before the cooling season begins. If you live in a particularly dusty area, you may want to change it more often.

Always replace the filter with a new filter that has the same airflow rating. Look for the filter’s minimum efficiency reporting value, or MERV, which ranges from 1 to 12 for home AC units; the higher the number, the better filtration it provides (and the more energy needed to pull air through it, so balance air-quality concerns with energy costs).

It’s a good idea when you’re at a home improvement store around the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area to pick up a couple of spare filters to have on hand.

Be careful with ‘air purifying’ or HEPA filters because they can dramatically reduce airflow in your system. That can cause the indoor coil to freeze because of the reduced airflow.

Locate the filter enclosure on the indoor furnace/AC where the large fresh air return duct enters the unit. You may need a screwdriver to turn the latch to open the door to the filter enclosure. Remove the old filter and install the new filter, matching the air-flow direction arrows on the filter to the arrows on the unit. Close and latch the door.

Replacing a dirty, clogged filter with a clean one can lower your air conditioner’s energy consumption by five to 15 percent.

Ten: Turn The Power Back On

Back at the breaker inside the home and at the wall outside the air conditioner.

A Reminder for Room Air Conditioners

At the start of each cooling season, inspect the seal between the air conditioner and the window frame to ensure it makes contact with the unit’s metal case. Moisture can damage this seal, allowing cool air to escape from your house.

Conclusion

While these steps will help to keep your AC system in top shape, be aware that there are maintenance items that only a HVAC service tech will be able to do.

Home Cooling 101: Common HVAC Problems

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment is usually well manufactured, rugged, and reliable. However, problems do arise, mostly at the worst possible time.
Some issues are do-it-yourself fixes.

Others require a service call to an HVAC contractor in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas.

In this Home Cooling 101 post, we take a look at common HVAC problems. When a distress call is placed, these are the most common things that service techs check (in no particular order).

Blown Fuses

Fuses protect the unit’s motor or compressor against overheating, and is found in the evaporator coil. When a motor is suspected of going bad, the breaker is one of the first things the technician checks.

Worn Contactor

There are three contactors in a unit: one for the compressor, one for the condenser fan motor, and one for the blower motor. The contactors engage when there is a need for cooling or heating, making an electrical connection. This starts the compressor and motors. Arcing and pitting can form on the contactor making it hard for the electrical current to pass and start the motor. (A few examples.)

Capacitors

The run capacitor is used to help the motors of the unit run at a consistent speed, rated in microfarads. Start capacitors give the compressor a brief increase in starting torque. If either capacitor burns out, it will need to be replaced for your HVAC to work properly.

Gas Valve

The gas valve meters gas to flow from your gas line to your unit. They are only used during the heating season. Sometimes the gas valve gets corroded. If this is the case, it will need to be replaced.

Filters

Filters get dirty and clogged from air particles. Once this happens, the filter needs to be changed. One way to tell if the filter needs to be changed is to hold it up to the light and see if you can see light pass through it. If you cannot, the filter needs to be changed. A dirty filter will reduce the air flow to the unit causing the unit to freeze.

Thermostat

This is the device that tells the system what to do and when to do it. Before calling your HVAC contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area, make sure the thermostat is on. Many times the thermostat is accidentally turned off or is on the wrong setting.

Room air conditioners feature a thermostat sensor, located behind the control panel, which measures the temperature of air coming into the evaporative coil. If the sensor is knocked out of position, the air conditioner could cycle constantly or behave erratically. The sensor should be near the coil but not touching it; adjust its position by carefully bending the wire that holds it in place.

Drain Lines

The drain line commonly clogs with dirt or algae. If it is clogged, the drain pan will fill up and cause water to leak over and create water damage.

When it’s humid outside, check the condensate drain to make sure it isn’t clogged and is draining properly. Room air conditioners may not drain properly if not mounted level.

Refrigerant Leak

Refrigerant leaks happen with vibration of the unit while it is operating and require the attention of your HVAC contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area. Refrigerant leaks in the condenser or evaporator coils cannot be repaired. If the leak is found in another place the service tech can remove what is left and charge the unit levels back to their correct amount.

A service tech should fix any leak, test the repair, and then charge the system with the correct amount of refrigerant. Remember that the performance and efficiency of your air conditioner is greatest when the refrigerant charge exactly matches the manufacturer’s specification, and is neither undercharged nor overcharged. Refrigerant leaks can also be harmful to the environment.

Compressor

This is the heart of the A/C unit. The compressor is located with the condenser coil. If the unit is undercharged with refrigerant, the compressor will run hot and will eventually seize. If the unit is overcharged, your liquid refrigerant will get back to the compressor and cause liquid slugging. It is important that the A/C unit has the proper amount of refrigerant.

Condenser Coil

These are located outside with the compressor. They are exposed to the outdoor elements, so they often get dirty and should be cleaned at least yearly. This can be done with a water hose by the homeowner when the unit is not operating. If the dirt and grime get bad enough a service tech will have to clean the coil with a chemical cleaner.

Evaporator Coil

On split systems the evaporator coil is located in the attic, but on a package unit it is located outside with rest of the unit. If the coil is located inside, cleaning will only be necessary if suggested and should only be about every three years or so. If the evaporator coil cracks, a service tech from your Arlington, Fort, Worth, or Dallas-area HVAC contractor will need to fix repair.

Improper Operation

One of the most common air conditioning problems is improper operation. If your air conditioner is on, be sure to close your home’s windows and outside doors. For room air conditioners, isolate the room or a group of connected rooms as much as possible from the rest of your home.

Improper Care

Other common problems with existing HVAC equipment stem from faulty or shoddy installation, poor service procedures, and inadequate maintenance.

Improper installation of a central air conditioner can result in leaky ducts and low airflow.

Many times the refrigerant charge does not match the manufacturer’s specifications. If proper refrigerant charging is not performed during installation, the performance and efficiency of the unit is impaired. Unqualified service techs often fail to find refrigerant charging problems or even worsen existing problems by adding refrigerant to a system that is already full.

Electric Control Failure

The compressor and fan controls can wear out, especially when the air conditioner turns on and off frequently, as is common when a system is oversized. Because corrosion of wire and terminals is also a problem in many systems, electrical connections and contacts should be checked during annual service checkups.

Inadequate Air Cooling

If the central air conditioning unit doesn’t seem to be cooling your home adequately, start by lowering the thermostat five degrees. If that does not fix the problem, you may have a dirty evaporator. Carefully clean the evaporator and let it run for a few hours. If the problem remains, it could mean you have an improperly sized air conditioner. Consult your HVAC contractor in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area for what to do.

Keep in mind that an extremely hot day may impact your unit’s effectiveness. If temperatures outside are over 100 degrees, you may not be able to achieve 62 degrees inside your home, especially if you have a lot of windows letting in the sun’s energy.

AC Runs but Doesn’t Cool

If your A/C is running but you don’t feel any cool air, you should still check the thermostat. Next, take a look at the condenser. Is it dirty or blocked? If so, clean it and remove the blockage. The condenser can become blocked by tall weeds, grass or other airborne debris.

It could also be the result of a faulty compressor, or an inadequate amount of refrigerant in the system. As already stated, these are problems that a service tech in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area should address.

Air Unit Shuts On and Off Repeatedly

This is another problem that can happen with a dirty or blocked condenser unit, as well as a dirty evaporator. Most of the time, giving the entire unit a good cleaning and removing any obstructions will eliminate the problem.

HVAC Contractor pt. 6: Rookie Mistakes

If your home is cool in the summer, toasty in the winter, and your cooling and heating bills are not astronomical, chances are your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor has your system well cared for and calibrated just right.

There are, however, a minority of fly-by-night contractors in business for a quick buck, thinking that most people pay little attention to their equipment once installed, unless it stops working.
As part of the Home Cooling (and now Heating) 101 series, here are a few common mistakes poorly trained HVAC service and repair technicians make when replacing or repairing aging equipment.

Common Mistakes Made By Inexperienced Contractors

Poorly Designed Airflow Systems

It’s understandable that in older Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas homes there may be decades of ductwork modifications and messy add-ons that have, over the years, reduced efficiency and cost you more money on monthly utility bills.

Unfortunately, even newer homes can display inadequate air distribution systems with ductwork that is too restrictive or is not properly balanced throughout the home.

Inadequate air distribution systems and restrictive ductwork is a common mistake made by inexperienced contractors and installation or service techs.

If you are considering buying a new home in the Arlington, Ft. Worth, and Dallas area, have your contractor — if you have one — inspect the home’s HVAC infrastructure to make sure make sure it is properly sized and delivers conditioned air efficiently. You don’t want to turn around and drop 10 grand for new equipment two years after moving in.

Know What Kind of Equipment You Need

If you are considering installing a new HVAC system, make sure the Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas-area contractor you use actually takes time to understand your specific needs.
Some contractors have been known to base equipment needs on similar installations, even ordering a system without taking the time to review the detailed needs of your home or, in the case of businesses, the needs of the commercial building and occupants.

Make sure the salesman, installation, or service representative spends time assessing ceilings, outer walls, windows and doors, insulation, fans, and the home’s energy envelope before recommending equipment and quoting a price.

Get at least three bids from Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas area contractors, representing low, middle, and high options. Apple to apple consistency, when possible, is important when trying to understand the best options to fit your budget and circumstances. Apples-to-oranges doesn’t do you any good.

Bidding a Job Too Low

Experienced contractors in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas know that everybody loses if he bids too low on a project. The company is stuck trying to do a job for less, which forces it to use low cost labor, skimp on materials, and take shortcuts.

You, the customer, lose because you get a second-rate installation. When problems inevitably arise, the contractor or service and repair techs are going to be reluctant to respond in a quick, supportive manner because they simply can’t afford to spend any more time and money on the installation.

Reputable contractors will lose a job before they “race to the bottom” with a lowball bid. Inexperienced HVAC owners may be desperate for work and will submit bids that seem too good to be true.
When choosing an HVAC contractor, it’s good to go with a known name. That doesn’t mean, however, you can’t use a lesser-known, up-and-coming company.

If you are interested in a smaller company’s bid, make sure you check up on references. If the owner is reluctant to give you more than one or two names, find somebody else to do business with.

Make Sure You Have Appropriate Ductwork

In purchasing new HVAC equipment, it’s best — and cheaper — to use existing ductwork. However, when considering what company in Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas to use, make sure it thoroughly examines the ductwork for any potential problems or issues.

Not having the right duct size for the system you’re considering can cause air leaks, resulting in higher energy bills to make up for the loss.

Inefficient ductwork causes the system to be overworked, which can lead to increased condensation (and therefore a mold risk) and early equipment failure.

An experienced installation or service technician will explain how a properly sized and placed duct system works. And while looking over the existing ductwork, he should keep an eye out for any possible water damage (from plumbing leaks or exterior damage), along with any gaps that pests can enter the system.

If there are issues with existing ductwork, make sure the installation or service rep informs you immediately how it impacts his bid.

Install an Emergency Overflow Pan

It should be a no-brainer. The homeowner either doesn’t know an emergency overflow pan exists or is needed. Inexperienced HVAC installers have been known to leave an overflow pan out of the system or it’s poorly, quickly installed.

If a clog was ever to happen, and you didn’t have a properly set up overflow pan, water may leak onto a ceiling or seep into walls, resulting in significant water damage.

It happens more than you think, especially in slightly older homes — the 20-year-old range.

Monitor Refrigerant

A reputable HVAC contractor will hire experienced service and repair technicians, who will look for refrigerant leaks during semi-annual checkups and inspections.

Air conditioners work extremely hard in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summers and refrigerant can leak. It’s hazardous to handle and can wear out a cooling system more rapidly if it’s leaking.

Always request that your service tech check for low refrigerant levels, particularly on equipment more than 10 years old.

Shop Around for the Best Service Tech

Often when buying new HVAC equipment you will deal with sales representatives, not the actual installation and service folks. Be aware of a company’s reputation and check references yourself, don’t just rely on online comments.

There are plenty of contractors who have no problem taking shortcuts when installing inferior equipment, which will cause you more harm in the long run.

Knowing the system you plan to have installed, knowing something about the service company you plan to use, will help you better understand what’s being done. You don’t want to pull out your wallet to pay for unnecessary, avoidable mistakes by a lesser experienced contractor.

Safety Related Mistakes

You assume your furnace is operating safely, but how do you know? Many new homes in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas have carbon monoxide alarms installed that provide a level of safety that hasn’t always been available.

Safety issues can pop up when a carbon monoxide alarm goes off and the root cause isn’t properly diagnosed. An inexperienced or poorly trained service tech will probably check the combustion chamber of the furnace for cracks and, if none are evident, will assume the battery on the tester is low and needs replacement.

What an inexperienced tech may not understand is that there are other causes of excess carbon monoxide such as backdrafts. Even worse, they probably don’t have the equipment or training to test for escaping flue gases.

Safety is too important to leave to amateurs. Make sure the contractor you use is trained and licensed in all facets of the trade.

HVAC Contractor pt. 5: Evolving Mindsets | Dallas/Fort Worth, Arlington

During a recent home visit, an air conditioning service tech was overheard saying, “For most of us, the days of selling boxes alone or over.”

Interesting comment. Go on.

“You, the homeowner, are looking for real solutions now,” Jim S. said. Jim is a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor with more than 20 years experience in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas.

“You want to save energy. You want to save money. You want improved comfort. You want to use the Internet. You have smart phones. If I am not providing these solutions, I am leaving the door open for my competitors.”

Well said.

This Home Cooling 101 post takes a look at some different HVAC topics like understanding air flow, new energy efficiency opportunities, the importance of ventilation, and evolving rules of thumb.

Understanding Air Flow

HVAC contractors focus on the “box” and the proper installation of equipment — a very good thing, indeed.

But these contractors may not pay much attention to air flow and how cooled or heated air moves throughout the home. Bunching a series of ducts together, creating what is known as a “ductopus,” isn’t quality work or air-flow efficient.

If you’re having a new system installed, make sure the HVAC contractor gives more than “lip service” to existing airflow in the home. How’s the conditioned air moving throughout the home? Through a series of messy, twisty, inefficient ducts? Or through a series of well-routed, carefully planned ducts that move air efficiently?

For most homeowners, the cost involved in replacing an entire duct system is prohibitive and out of the question. It is, however, possible to remedy the problems with Aeroseal, a new technology that works from the inside of ducts to seal leaks without having to tear into walls or rip up insulation.

New Energy Efficiency Opportunities

In the residential market, HVAC contractors go into people’s Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas-area homes every day on service and repair calls. They inspect the outside unit(s) and look over the furnace(s). They may glance over the ducts and check out the insulation in the attic, but are they really considering the home’s entire “energy envelope?”

Chances are, no.

It’s a fine line for HVAC professionals to walk. If the service tech says something to the homeowner, he may feel like the company hired is trying to push additional, costlier services that he may or may not want to spend money on at the time.

The service tech, and the company he works for, is more than just heating, ventilation, and air conditioning experts. They are becoming energy efficiency consultants who advise homeowners on what can be done to improve overall performance, save wear and tear on heating and cooling equipment, and save money.

HVAC companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas are becoming experts to turn to for energy-saving assistance and advice, even if they are not the ones you choose to do the air duct or insulation work.

Remembering the V in HVAC

New homes are “tighter” than ever before due to energy codes that require improved levels of air sealing and, in some cases, even blower door tests to verify air tightness.

These new homes, and ones recently built in the Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas area, need mechanical ventilation, including spot ventilation in kitchen and bathrooms.

Your service tech should understand the three strategies for providing mechanical ventilation, including positive pressure, negative pressure, and balanced pressure.

New Rules of Thumb

HVAC contractors often favor what’s known as rules of thumb.

It’s worked this way in the past.

Or You have X number of square feet, you will need an air conditioner with this amount of tonnage.

Yeah, anybody that says something like, This is the way we’ve always done it and we’ve been in business for all these years, you might want to look elsewhere for a company to handle your service and repair needs.

Heating and cooling systems aren’t the same as they were 25 years ago, or even 10. Nor are the homes. The old rules of thumb don’t apply because every house and every environment and circumstance is different. Yes, there are similarities and probabilities, but that doesn’t mean a contractor shouldn’t check the math and think out of the HVAC box.

HVAC systems are complex. If your contractor is relying on the old rules of thumb then he’s not servicing your needs well at all.

Whole House Approach

This is akin to rules of thumb. In the past HVAC equipment was installed into a home and it was largely forgotten unless service or repair was needed.

Today, all sorts of advances in technology demand a “whole house” or “house-as-a-system” thinking — from improvements in HVAC equipment, to understanding building science and indoor air quality, to the integration of the Internet into everything.

Smart HVAC contractors know what’s happening beyond metal boxes outside the house and in the attic.

Understanding Combustion Safety

An HVAC contractor may get a call from an Arlington, Fort Worth, or Dallas homeowner regarding carbon monoxide. The service tech often heads to the furnace and looks for cracks in the heat exchanger. So far, so good.

When the service tech finds that the heat exchanger isn’t cracked, he may assume that it was a false alarm and changes the batteries in the carbon monoxide alarm.

Be aware that many HVAC contractors do not know much about backdrafting of combustion appliances and they don’t often test for flue gases and worst-case depressurization.

During the service call, ask about backdrafting and testing for flue gasses, depressurization, and other possibilities.

Beware the Low Bidder

It’s not that we want you to overspend when installing a new HVAC system or when paying for service and repair. The most expensive isn’t always the best, but neither is the least expensive.
The race to the low bidder results in everyone being a loser. The ones who don’t get the contract lose. The one who gets the contract can’t do the work properly because he has to scrimp on labor and materials due to his low bid. The homeowner loses because, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

When contractors low-bid work, they have to keep their costs as low as possible. They hire poorly trained service techs and then don’t do enough to get them trained properly and keep them updated. They use equipment that won’t last. They do the least work possible on the distribution system.

Make sure you hire a smart contractor who comes in and does things right, for a fair price, and is aware of the changing HVAC landscape. The days of being the low bidder, the days of selling and servicing boxes, is over.

Bottom Line

The times are definitely changing, and what worked before may not work now.

Specification and building codes are becoming more stringent, new technologies are providing improved solutions, and homeowners are demanding higher performance, higher energy efficiency solutions, at a reasonable cost.

HVAC Contractor Pt. 4: What Makes a Good Contractor — Fort Worth

We’re not here to beat up on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas. No, we love those guys.

Contractors, service and repair techs, they keep us cool in the hot summers, warm in the cold winters, and make sure our cooling and heating equipment runs efficiently all year long.

But, we realize, not all contractors are the same, so in this Home Cooling 101 post we’re taking a slightly different perspective (loosely based on research at the Comfort Institute) to illustrate what makes a good contractor.

Not All Contractors are the Same

In 20+ years of working in home comfort and closely with contractors, the researchers at the Comfort Institute (CI) have “witnessed an enormous variation in heating and air contractor competence and ethics.” They contend a small minority are “downright dishonest.”

A few years ago, TV investigative news magazines Dateline (NBC) and 48 Hours (CBS, YouTube clip) aired hidden-camera reports that exposed fraudulent HVAC contractors, who bent the facts (watch out for this one) or committed outright fraud.

In most cases, homeowners did not accompany the technicians outside during the equipment examination. If they did, the homeowners didn’t pay close enough attention.

We always recommend homeowners accompany technicians during inspection of any equipment and to ask questions, not in an annoying I-don’t-trust-you manner but in an I’m-interested-to-learn way. Make it a conversation. If the tech gets too techie, slow him down, ask him to put it in “plain English” so you can understand what’s actually happening. If he doesn’t do a good job with this, if you have time, find somebody else.

The Better Business Bureau also ranks HVAC as one of the highest-complaint industries.

The Comfort Institute insists “the great majority of contractors are honest. They work hard and mean well.” However, CI notes that most contractors “simply don’t have the business systems in place to properly serve the consumer.

This includes:

  • Staff Training. Most companies don’t invest enough in initial or ongoing staff training. When considering a contractor, ask about training for service, repair, and installation technicians and, if in doubt, request proof. This is surprisingly important because diagnosing problems, properly “sizing” homes, and designing cost-effective, energy-saving systems is getting more complicated as technology continues to improve. Do the techs have the updated technical know-how?
  • Staff Support. In addition to training, most residential companies don’t pay high enough wages to attract the best service and repair technicians and don’t supply them with state-of-the-art tools and diagnostic equipment. Look for the companies that treat their employees well and support them with the needed tools and equipment to do the job right.

Don’t Choose “Fly-by-Night” Contractors

We’ve covered this in the past but it’s worth repeating:

  • How many years has the company been in business in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas or surrounding cities?
  • Is it properly licensed, registered? Does it carry general liability or workman’s compensation (not required in some states)? Is the company a member of a national trade association? The service and repair techs? Can it provide names and numbers of customers? And so on.

“Name Brand” Dealers are not an Automatic Choice

Just because a contractor may “rep” a name brand that doesn’t automatically mean he is up to speed with the latest and greatest. Does the company send its service and repair techs to ongoing training provided by the manufacturers?

Don’t Ask if the Contractor Performs Diagnostics

At least not immediately. Comfort Institute says wait to see if the contractors you are considering bring up the importance of diagnostic testing for “right sizing” a home, infiltration (blower door test), or duct system air flow and leakage.

This approach allows a homeowner to see if the service, repair, or installation technician has been “trained about the problems that are likely lurking in your home and duct system and the importance of fixing them, or he doesn’t care.” Be wary of salesmen selling you a metal box and not truly solving heating, cooling, and home comfort issues.

Don’t Be Misled by Contractors Who Only Offer to Replace Equipment

Comfort Institute says “most contractors will only offer to replace your old equipment with the same size (or a bigger one), without performing any measurements, inspections or diagnostic tests” and insist that, while advanced industry training is now available, “relatively few contractors take advantage of it.”

We’ve discussed “wrong sizing” and the importance of “right sizing” at length, but CI’s belief that few contractors are taking advantage of advanced training is alarming. Comfort Institute thinks homeowners may interview 10 to even 20 companies before finding the right match. That’s not a difficult with the number of companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and surrounding cities, but it can be time consuming and confusing. It’s worth the effort — now that you know what’s going on.

Be Wary of Online Search Services

In your search for the right contractor, there are lots of online search services that claim to put homeowners in touch with licensed HVAC contractors. Plug in your zip code and — presto! — here are 30 companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas that match your needs.

Most of these online services make money by charging contractors for “leads” generated by your clicks on their links and filling out a form. At best these search services give you additional names to research. The best contractors, CI says, don’t need these services.

Don’t Choose a Contractor Who Doesn’t Ask Lots of Questions

We’ve discussed the importance of homeowners asking questions and have touched on the service and repair technicians and salesmen asking questions, but Comfort Institute offers this perspective as a reminder.

“A good contractor is committed to 100 percent customer satisfaction. But to achieve this, he needs information. He knows that you and your family are the best source of information about these problems.” The company rep should start meetings by asking questions about “areas that have been hard to heat or cool, air that is either too dry or too humid, about how the old system worked (or didn’t work), and about what you are looking for in a new system.”

They interview you as much as you interview them.

“The typical contractor is only interested in swapping the metal boxes, and won’t try to help you take full advantage of this unique opportunity,” the CI says.

A Few More Pieces of Advice

  • Don’t put the burden of a new system on one spouse’s shoulder. Everyone in the home should participate in determining heating and cooling needs and goals.
  • Don’t make a rushed decision, which may be difficult when your air conditioner dies in the middle of a hot Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas summer. Good contractors will work with you (some have even been known to install temporary units).
  • Don’t focus on initial costs. It’s tempting to spend as little as possible, but try to fully understand what your opportunities are for whole house comfort, energy conservation, and utility savings.
  • Don’t assume the lowest-priced company is the one you should hire. Price matters, but CI’s experience notes that the “low priced contractor is rarely the best value. It usually ends up costing more in terms of unreliable operation, an uncomfortable home, repeated (service) visits to get problems resolved, higher utility bills, and even unsafe operation.”
  • Don’t put up with high pressure salespeople. Nobody likes them anyway.
  • Don’t choose a contractor who wants you to pay cash.
    In the end, the Comfort Institute reminds homeowners that hiring the right contractor to put in the appropriate HVAC system to meet the home’s heating and cooling, energy conservation, and energy savings goals is a unique opportunity. “Don’t waste it.”

Next Up

Keeping an eye out for homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas: The biggest mistakes contractors make.

HVAC Contractors Pt. 3 – Designing a Home Air Conditioning System | Arlington

HVAC Contractors pt 3: wearing many hats

Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors wear many hats . . .

  • salesman
  • installer
  • problem solver
  • service and repair tech
  • trusted advisor
  • designer

Designer?

What does an HVAC contractor need to design?

This Home Cooling 101 post takes a look at one of the contractor’s most important jobs, something that many homeowners in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas simply overlook because designer doesn’t seem to fit with installer and service and repair tech.

Contractor as Designer

Think about this for a moment: More than half of the heating and air conditioning systems installed in the U.S. are the wrong size.

This surprising tidbit not only comes from a bunch of national surveys but from the mighty Department of Energy.

Surveys contends that more than half of HVAC contractors do not properly “size” heating and cooling systems, which means homeowners:

  • are paying for over-sized equipment (and associated installation costs) they might not need
  • believe their HVAC is operating efficiently when it’s actually inefficient, costing more to operate and impacting comfort
  • may be experiencing a “clammy” feeling in their homes and/or unseen and unhealthy mold growth
  • may be experiencing uncomfortable and large temperature swings
  • may have equipment that “short cycles” without realizing it
  • may have equipment that requires more-than-usual maintenance and/or service and repair

The surveys do not single out HVAC contractors in any specific state such as Texas or cities such as Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas, but they do call attention to an issue homeowners should be aware of, especially when calling a contractor to install new heating and cooling equipment.

Brief Background

“Wrong-sizing” isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon, but it’s one that shouldn’t be happening as frequently today because of all the technology and knowledge available to prevent it.
HVAC equipment has been under- or over-sized for decades, but contractors and builders were doing the best they could with the technology and knowledge available at the time.

But, over the past 30 years, homes have dramatically increased in size through renovation and large-scale new construction, which can easily be seen in Arlington, Fort Worth, Dallas, and neighboring communities.

In 1975 the average home was 1,645 square feet. Today it’s 2,434 and it’s not uncommon to see homes (sometimes called McMansions) 3,000 to 5,000 square feet. There’s also been a shift from single-story to two-story homes, which necessitates additional equipment to handle the upstairs living area.

The increased square footage and architectural complexity of homes today also makes it more difficult for service, repair, and installation specialists to properly “size” the equipment.

This does not mean HVAC contractors are crooks or incompetent. Not at all. But if you encounter companies that offer to install heating and cooling equipment without performing load calculations, based on current industry standards and practice, then find another service.

”Wrong Sizing”

Here are a few scenarios to understand.

“Nameplate”

This is where a service technician, installation specialist, or salesman reviews the metal tag on existing equipment. The tag lists Btu per hour output, among other things, and that information is used to sell you “one just like it” or, worse, a bigger unit.

This approach doesn’t take into account any improvements made to the home since the HVAC’s original installation or any worsening conditions or mistakes make during the previous install.
You may also hear from contractors this approach works because of their experience upgrading systems over years of operation.

“Square Footage”

Similar to “nameplate.” In this scenario a service technician, installation specialist, or salesman asks you for the living-space square footage. He bases his recommendation on a typical value like one ton (12,000 Btu/hour) is needed per 500 square feet.

This approach does not take into account the differences in home orientation, design, construction, energy efficiency, or intended use.

“Rule of Thumb”

Similar to “square footage,” “rule of thumb” involves adjusting the square-foot rule so whatever equipment the contractor has in the warehouse becomes the “right size” for your needs. “Rule of thumb” calculations, which are actually illegal, are based on outdated information and performance specs using high, medium, and low guesses. They often translate into a one-size-fits-all solution.

It’s not that HVAC contractors in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas reply on “rule of thumb” calculations, but homeowners should be aware of the practice regardless.

”Right Sizing”

“Right sizing” requires much more information (see below) and is offered by conscientious contractors. It’s particularly important to “right size” in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas because of the brutally hot summers. Insist on “right sizing.”

If “right sizing” is not offered by a contractor, find another one. Or, in some cases, it’s possible, that the company works with gas and electric utility companies in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas (who will do the right-sizing assessment and calculations) or even major HVAC manufacturers in the area. Also check with nearby home improvement centers for recommendations.

Manual J

Manual J, published by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, is the most common standard used to calculate residential load requirements.

There are so-called user-friendly (that’s debatable) computer software packages available to consumers who want to calculate load requirements themselves, but you’ll still need a good understanding of HVAC terminology and systems and know something about construction and math.

Insist the contractor not only “right size” but use the Manual J specification.

The Process

The service technician or installation specialist (not the salesman, unless he’s a certified tech) will . . .

  • Measure walls, ceilings, floor space, and windows in each room for accurate dimensions and volume. Room by room assessments allow “estimators,” as the service techs and installation specialists are also known, to understand the “air tightness” of the space and to better estimate air flow requirements.
  • Take into account the R-value of the home’s insulation, the solar-heat ratings of windows, and other building materials.
  • Perform blower-door tests, if applicable, for air leakage.
  • Take into account other variables like skylights, fireplaces, ceiling heights, and how many people live in the home, among other things.
  • Review ducts and ductwork (and seal, if needed) and design solutions with distribution in mind.
  • Test for performance, including duct tightness, room-to-room pressure, delivered air flow, and the a/c system charge.
  • Benefits

“Right-sizing” according to Manual J standards benefits the homeowners in several ways.

  • Peace of Mind. The equipment, including brand, model, and SEER rating (among other features and functions), has been properly sized and may be smaller and less expensive.
    Efficiency. Right-sized equipment operates more efficiently because it’s been designed specifically for your home’s environment and characteristics, not on “nameplates” and guesstimates, saving on energy costs.
  • Fewer Repairs. Right-sized equipment requires fewer repairs and lasts longer, assuming basic service and maintenance check-ups are made.
  • Healthier Home. By reducing cyclic losses, humidity control is improved and, with proper duct design, you will have a much healthier and comfortable home.

Next Up

Next, we’ll look at the evolving mindset of HVAC contractors in Arlington, Fort Worth, and Dallas. It’s not just installing air conditioners and providing service and repair anymore. Homeowners are beginning to demand integrated solutions to save energy and money, and to take advantage of the Internet.