We have rated area heating and air-conditioning services on our Ratings Tables. At the time of our last full, published article, 56 of the 221
companies were rated superior for overall performance by 90 percent
or more of their surveyed customers. But 29 scored much lower, receiving
such favorable ratings from only 60 percent or fewer of their surveyed
We also found big price differences. For example, to install a humidifier,
prices quoted by the companies listed on our Ratings Tables ranged
from $408 to $1,225. To replace the blower motor and capacitor for a gas
furnace, prices ranged from $252 to $1,001. Although most consumers, surprisingly,
dont bother to get competitive bids even for costly jobs, obtaining multiple
bids will save homeowners hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars.
If you need new equipment, get several companies to prepare written proposals.
Carefully compare their proposed designs because the quality of the design
might affect how quickly and uniformly your house is heated or cooled,
how much energy it consumes, how much noise it makes, what drafts it produces,
the amount of space the system occupies, maintenance, and other important
aspects of performance.
For installation contracts, ask for performance guarantees that promise
how warm the equipment will keep your houseor, for air-conditioning equipment,
how cooland how uniform the temperature within the house will be when
outside temperatures reach a specified level. Also, make sure your contract
clearly states the companys 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. It is not
clear that such frequent professional service is needed as long as you
are diligent about the most important maintenance task: replacing air filters
whenever they get dirty. The case for frequent professional maintenance
is strongest if your system is old and used heavily and theres a lot of
dust and pollen in the area, it frequently breaks down, or you have a large
house where the energy savings from frequent maintenance would defray the
cost of the contract. Before entering a maintenance contract, get price
quotes from several companies and determine exactly what each contract
covers. For basic maintenancenot including the cost of parts or of labor
for necessary repairswe found prices ranging from less than $100 to more
than $300 per year.
If you are considering buying new equipment, be skeptical about claims
of cost savings from more energy-efficient equipment. There may be substantial
savingsand there are compelling public-interest reasons to install efficient
equipmentbut some companies exaggerate the size of the savings in order
to sell new, or more expensive, equipment. Get several companies to make
proposals, ask for documentation of how much the new equipment will cut
your energy bills, and ask questions. This article lists software that
will let you make your own comparisons and offers examples of the effects
of energy savings for different options. For many area homes, the best
option may include/be a heat pump.
Our Ratings Tables reports ratings on area heating and air-conditioning
services. The ratings on companies service quality come from our surveys
of area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers).
We asked survey recipients to rate companies they had used inferior,
adequate, or superior for several questions: doing work properly on
the first try, starting and completing work promptly, advice on service
options and costs, and overall performance. Our Ratings Tables report
the percent of surveyed customers who rated each company superior (as
opposed to inferior or adequate) on each question. The table also reports
the percent of each companys surveyed customers who rated it adequate
or superior (as opposed to inferior) for overall performance. (Click
here for more information on our customer
survey and other data.)
Many Washington area heating and air-conditioning services consistently
provide high-quality work: 56 of the 221 companies that were evaluated
in our last full, published article were rated superior for overall
performance by 90 percent or more of the customers who rated them. But
our Ratings Tables also reveal that some heating and air-conditioning
customers get burned by shoddy service: 29 companies received superior
ratings from only 60 percent or fewer.
In addition to ratings from customers, for firms that were evaluated in
our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show counts of
complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent
three-year period, the number of complaints on file with local government
consumer protection offices for a recent two-year period, and complaint
rates relative to the volume of work companies do. For more information
on reported complaint counts and rates, click here.
If you need repairs, our ratings on our Ratings Tables will help you
find a good company to perform them.
Call one or more companies rated highly for service quality and describe
the symptomswhat the system is doing and not doing. Companies may tell
you over the phone whats likely to be wrong and quote a price to fix it.
If so, try to get price quotes from several companies.
If your system just doesnt work and you cant determine why, arrange for
a service call; you probably wont get a price quote before you pay a company
to visit your home. Your best bet is to select a company with relatively
high service-quality ratings on our Ratings Tables, a relatively low
price index score, and a relatively low minimum charge for service visits.
For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, the
price index scores on our Ratings Tables show how each companys prices
compare to other companies for four jobs priced by CHECKBOOK mystery shoppers.
Table 1 shows low, average, and high prices quoted for each job, and the
differences are dramatic: To install a humidifier, quotes range from $408
to $1,225, and to replace the blower motor and capacitor for a gas furnace,
quotes range from $252 to $1,001. The price index scores, reported on our
Ratings Tables, range from $56 to $191, which means some companies
charge more than twice as much as their nearby competitors for the same
|Install a Honeywell VisionPro Touchscreen TH8110U1003 programmable thermostat for furnace and air conditioner||$209||$410||$1,049|
|Install a new Aprilaire Whole House Humidifier||$408||$729||$1,225|
|Replace 1/2 - horsepower, direct-drive blower motor and capacitor in gas furnace||$252||$547||$1,001|
|Install new ignitor in gas furnace||$123||$236||$548|
Since you probably wont get price quotes over the phone, shopping for
price will be difficult. What you can do is have one company visit your
home, diagnose the problem, and prepare a written estimate detailing the
work that needs to be done. Then, assuming the diagnosis is correct, you
can call other companies and ask what they would charge for the work.
However, other companies may be reluctant to quote prices based on another
companys diagnosis. Also, if you use a different company youll have to
pay the first ones minimum service call charge, which they might apply
to the repair bill if they do the repair. In addition, getting other quotes
will be less convenient than having the repairperson already in your home
proceed with the work.
If the repair estimate is no more than a few hundred dollars, most homeowners
decide to have the company immediately go ahead with it. If that company
has a low price index score, the price is likely to at least be reasonable.
If the estimate is more than $500 or so, consider getting additional quotes.
We found, for example, that for one repair job with an average price of
about $800, getting three quotes would cost, on average, about $200 less
than going with the first quote. Depending on which company provides the
first price, subsequent quotes might save nothing (if the first quote is
very low) or several hundred dollars (if the first quote is relatively
high). You wont know whether the first quote is low or high unless you
get additional quotes.
If the company that visits your home to make a diagnosis has a relatively
high minimum service call charge, and will apply that charge to the price
of the repair, then you probably wont save much by going with another
company. Give yourself maximum flexibility by choosing a company with a
relatively low minimum charge for the initial service call. Our Ratings Tables show some companies have minimum charges of less than $70, while
others have minimums of $140 or more.
Other tips for getting good repairs at a reasonable cost:
When you call, describe symptoms in as much detail as possible.
Ask the company to explain how it calculates service charges.
Have the company provide a written description of needed work and total
price to do it before it begins work.
Ask to see replaced parts.
Be present, but not in the way, as work proceeds.
Get a detailed invoice, including:
Description of the symptoms that precipitated repair call.
List of all parts replaced.
List of all labor charges and description of labor required.
Temperature at plenum of air-handling equipment and return vent before
and after the repair.
With repairs to air conditioner or heat pump, pressure of refrigerant in
air-conditioning lines and running amperage reading of system before and
Pay with a credit card. If you are dissatisfied with the work, youll have
the option to dispute the charge under the Fair Credit Billing Act.
If your equipment breaks down beyond recovery, youll want the best possible
price on the highest quality replacement. If you want to add central air
conditioning or extend a heating or cooling system, it is even more important
to make the right decisions.
How well a new system performs, and how much it costs, will depend heavily
on how carefully you think through the design. Some of the same issues
also arise if you are only replacing a major component, such as a condenser
Invite several companies to your home to offer written proposals. Ask each
to explain whether having more than one separate heating or cooling system
and more than one thermostat would be desirable, whether youd benefit
greatly from features such as variable speed blowers (see below), how ducts
will be run, where and how a condenser unit and the blower will be mounted,
how youll access equipment for maintenance and filter replacement, and
other design questions.
Good answers to these questions will affect how much noise you hear; how
quickly and uniformly your home is cooled or heated; how troubled youll
be by drafts; energy consumption; how disruptive the installation process
will be; how much closet, attic, or outdoor space the system will require;
how disfiguring the ducts and air supply registers will be; and maintenance.
Ask each company which makes and models of equipment it will use, and their
capacity, energy efficiency, and sound ratings. Most companies can offer
equipment at several different quality levels. Ask them to explain the
pros and cons of the alternatives, and invite them to comment on their
Selecting the Right Size
Make sure that the equipment you buy is the proper size for your home.
Undersized units wont efficiently heat or cool spaces, but bigger is definitely
not always better. Oversized units cost more and cycle on and off constantly,
thus boosting utility bills, making more noise, requiring more frequent
maintenance, and dying sooner.
The size of heating and cooling units is described as their capacity. For
furnaces and heat pumps, capacity is the amount of heat a unit can generate
as measured in British thermal units (BTU). For air conditioners (and heat
pumps operating in cooling modes), capacity is measured in BTU but expressed
as the amount of heat the units can remove. The capacity of cooling units
is usually described in tons, where one ton equals 12,000 BTUfor example,
a 36,000-BTU air conditioner is a three-ton unit.
If you have added on to your home, or finished previously un-air-conditioned
space, or your old equipment didnt sufficiently heat or cool all parts
of your home, companies should perform a load calculation to determine
the right size of equipment to install. (If you are only replacing old
equipment that had adequately heated and cooled your home, new load calculations
probably are unnecessary.)
When calculating equipment size, in addition to taking into account your
homes square footage and the size of the previous equipment, an installers
proposal should consider the areas climate, the homes insulation levels,
air leakage levels, and the energy efficiency of the equipment options.
Companies should perform load calculations using the Air Conditioning Contractors
of Americas Manual J to size equipment and Manual D for significant
Selecting for Energy Efficiency
The energy efficiency of heating and cooling equipment is measured in a
number of ways, depending on the type of equipment and/or its function.
Furnaces (both gas and oil) are rated by annual fuel utilization efficiency
(AFUE). AFUE ratings for new furnaces range from 80 to about 97, higher
being more efficient. The simplest way to explain the AFUE rating is to
say that a furnace with an AFUE rating of 90 uses 90 percent of its fuel
efficiently and wastes 10 percent.
The efficiency of both air conditioners and heat pumps in cooling mode
is measured by seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). For new central
air conditioners and heat pumps, SEER ratings range from 13 to about 21,
higher being more efficient.
The efficiency of air-source heat pumps in heating mode is measured by
heating season performance factor (HSPF). New heat pumps range from 7.7
to about 10, higher being more efficient. The efficiency of heat pumps
falls as outside temperatures fall, and when the outside temperature drops
below 33°F or so, the energy efficiency of most new models is usually low
enough to require another heat source to maintain the desired temperature
inside the home. One solution is to equip the heat pump with a backup electrical
resistance heater, even though this means that when its cold youre heating
your house with, in effect, a very large electric space heater, and your
electricity bill could skyrocket. An alternative is to back up a heat pump
with a furnace. These configurations, referred to as hybrid systems,
rely on a heat pump to heat the home until it can no longer do so efficiently,
at which point a furnace takes over.
The efficiency of ground-source heat pumps (sometimes called geothermal
heat pumps, described below) in heating mode is measured by their coefficient
of performance (CoP), which indicates how much more efficient the heat
pump is than (not very efficient) electrical resistance heat. In cooling
mode, efficiency is measured by energy efficiency ratio (EER), which is
similar to the SEER measure used for conventional heat pumps. For both
the CoP and EER, the higher the number the more energy efficient the unit.
Ground-source heat pumps have CoP ratings ranging from 2.8 to over 5.0
and EER ratings from 13 to over 30.
More efficient equipment costs more money. For many homeowners, concern
for the environment and worries about finite energy sources are sufficient
motivation to lay out extra cash, but for those more concerned with personal
dollar cost three other factors sweeten the pot: lower power bills, utility
rebate programs, and tax incentives.
Since energy prices fluctuate so unpredictably, its difficult to predict
accurately how much energy-efficient heating and cooling systems will save.
But even if you calculate energy savings based on recent energy prices,
youll probably find that you can reduce utility billsespecially heating
costssignificantly by installing more energy-efficient equipment. It makes
sense to calculate whether energy savings will offset the higher price
of more efficient equipment.
Doing this math isnt easy. Every home is different, and any formula has
to take into account the size of the area to be heated and/or cooled, insulation
levels, temperature settings preferred by occupants, whether a programmable
thermostat will be used, and other factors. It is possible to perform these
calculations using available software after entering a lot of detailsmore
work than most contractors providing free installation estimates are willing
Contractors can help by estimating what percent off utility bills youll
save with various types and models of equipment, for example, Furnace A
versus Furnace B. You can then add up your energy bills for the year and
figure out how much youd save with each unit. Ask highly rated companies
to provide these estimates and then compare claims you get, asking for
clarification when they provide conflicting information.
Be wary of salespeople who use calculators to provide on-the-spot dollar-figure
savings: These estimates are often overly rosy. Heating and air-conditioning
manufacturers enthusiastically provide contractors with handy formulas
and devices that dramatically overstate the case for upgrading to more
efficient equipment since doing so means more customers are likely to replace
older equipment with new equipmentthe most expensive new equipmentrather
than repairing what they have or opting for less expensive new models.
If an estimate of annual savings seems too good to be true, it probably
If youre uncomfortable with ballpark estimates and want to know exactly
how much youd save by spending an extra $1,000 on a more efficient unit,
several software tools can estimate these savings. While you practically
need a degree in engineering to operate some of them, others are quite
user-friendly, and some can be downloaded or used online for free.
One free tool is Home Energy Saver (hes.lbl.gov), a program of the
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It should be noted, however, that
Home Energy Saver currently does not calculate costs for hybrid-heat-pump
systems or ground-source heat pumps, an unfortunate gap because for many
area residents these designs may be the most energy-efficient solutions.
Another software program we like is Architectural Energys REM/Design (www.archenergy.com).
The software costs $347 to download, but as of this writing, a full free
90-day demo version was available for download. It was one of the few software
programs we could find that wouldnt require an MIT grad to show you how
to use it that could perform accurate, meaningful analyses.
On Table 2, we show you, for an illustrative home in the Washington area,
the options a homeowner might consider when confronted with a $1,000 furnace
repairfrom repairing the furnace and retaining old air-conditioning equipment
until it requires replacement, to replacing both units with minimally energy-efficient
equipment, to replacing both units with equipment with greater energy efficiency.
We estimated costs under each option for six years, 12 years, and 18 years
(18 years is a typical projected lifespan of most furnaces, air conditioners,
and air-source heat pumps). For each period, the table shows the costs
of new equipment (minus available federal tax credits) plus costs for energy.
The costs for equipment are prorated over an 18-year expected lifespan.
We estimated the energy costs based on recent utility costs, and equipment
costs based on our estimates of what lower price contractors charge. Please
note that cost figures dont take into account inflation or forgone interest
on money invested in equipment.
For each of the assumptions shown on Table 2, we have estimated that the
lowest cost option (other than the very-high-investment ground-source heat
pump option) looking out six years, 12 years, or 18 years would be to replace
the existing furnace and air conditioner with a hybrid system that uses
a high-efficiency air-source heat pump backed by a gas furnace. That would
save this particular household over $2,500 compared to any of the other
options over 18 years and over $700 over six years.
|Option 1: Repair 72 AFUE furnace and keep 9.5 SEER A/C.||$1,000||$0||$0||$1,000||$1,287||$411||$1,698||$11,188|| || |
|Option 2A: Replace furnace with 80 AFUE gas furnace. Keep 9.5 SEER A/C for six years and then replace with 13.0 SEER unit.||$2,250||$0||$0||$2,250||$1,157||$411 for
6 years, then $312||$1,469 to $1,568||$9,528||$20,855||$31,553
|Option 2B: Replace furnace with 95 AFUE gas furnace. Keep 9.5 SEER A/C for six years and then replace with 13.0 SEER unit.||$4,000||$0||$150||$3,850||$969||$411 for
6 years, then $312||$1,281 to $1,380||$9,035||$19,666||$29,769
|Option 3A: Replace furnace with 80 AFUE gas furnace. Replace A/C
with 13.0 SEER unit.||$2,250||$3,400||$0||$5,650||$1,157||$312||$1,469||$10,697||$21,395||$32,092|
|Option 3B: Replace furnace with
80 AFUE gas furnace. Replace A/C
with 17.0 SEER unit.||$2,250||$4,800||$300||$6,750||$1,157||$250||$1,407||$10,692||$21,384||$32,076|
|Option 3C: Replace furnace with
95 AFUE gas furnace. Replace A/C
with 13.0 SEER unit.||$4,000||$3,400||$150||$7,250||$969||$312||$1,281||$10,103||$20,205||$30,308|
|Option 3D: Replace furnace with
95 AFUE gas furnace. Replace A/C
with 17.0 SEER unit.||$4,000||$4,800||$450||$8,350||$969||$250||$1,219||$10,097||$20,195||$30,292|
|Option 4A: Replace furnace and A/C with 8.0 HSPF, 13.0 SEER heat pump.||$0||$3,900||$0||$3,900||$1,091||$231||$1,322||$9,232||$18,464||$27,696|
|Option 4B: Replace furnace and A/C with 9.0 HSPF, 19.0 SEER heat pump.||$0||$5,600||$300||$5,300||$1,003||$231||$1,234||$9,171||$18,341||$27,512|
|Option 5: Replace furnace and A/C with hybrid system with 9.0 HSPF, 19.0 SEER heat pump backed by an 80 AFUE gas furnace.||$2,250||$5,600||$300||$7,550||$753||$211||$964||$8,301||$16,601||$24,902
|Option 6: Replace furnace and A/C with
4.6 CoP, 27 EER ground-source heat pump.||$0||$30,000||$9,000||$21,000||$494||$121||$615||$7,190*||$14,380*||$21,570*|
|Assumptions and Notes|
|Key features of home:Two-story home plus full lived-in basement totaling 2,700 square feet of space to be conditioned. Located in the Washington area. Insulation levels of R-19 in attic and R-11 in walls. Home has 30 double-paned, vinyl windows totaling 270 square feet.
Current heating and cooling equipment:72 AFUE, 80,000 BTU gas furnace; 9.5 SEER, three-ton air conditioner.
|Special considerations:Existing furnace needs $1,000 repair. Repair will give furnace an extra six years of useful life. Assume existing air conditioner has about six more years of useful life. Assume any new air conditioner, furnace, or air-source heat pump will have about 18 years of useful life.
||Notes:Costs were estimated using software package REM/Design. It is important to keep in mind that the cost figures don’t take into account inflation or forgone interest on money invested in equipment. Energy costs used in the estimates came from Department of Energy reports on recent residential energy costs for the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Note that electricity costs in the District and Maryland are considerably higher than those in Virginia; for energy costs, we used a simple average for the region for the three jurisdictions.
* Pro-rated costs to buy new equipment for the ground-source heat pump example assume equipment’s life span is 36 years rather than 18 years.|
Comparing some of the other options, we see
A homeowner who didnt want to invest a lot of money in a new furnace and
heat pump should upgrade the furnace rather than repair the old one. Moving
from an old furnace with a 72 AFUE rating to a new one with a 95 AFUE rating
would save the homeowner about $318 per year, or $1,908 over six years,
in heating bills and avoid the estimated $1,000 cost of repairing the old
furnacea total savings of $2,908, compared to about $3,850 for a new furnace.
And prorated over an expected lifespan of 18 years, the six-year portion
is $1,283. Spending a prorated $1,283 on a new furnace seems like a pretty
good way to save $2,908even given the uncertainties about the various
assumptions in our estimates.
A homeowner who was replacing only heating equipment, and wanted to consider
options other than heat pumps, should think about spending more for a high-efficiency
95 AFUE furnace upgrade rather than the least efficient furnace currently
available (80 AFUE). Including the federal tax credit, the extra cost for
the more efficient furnace would be $1,750. The energy savings from the
more efficient furnace compared to the less efficient one would be $188
per year, or $1,128 over six years, $2,256 over 12 years, and $3,384 over
If replacing only an air conditioner, it doesnt necessarily make sense
to buy a more energy-efficient model than a basic model. In our example,
the homeowner would have to pay $1,100 extra to upgrade to a SEER-17 air
conditioner instead of the minimum available SEER-13. The energy savings
with the more efficient equipment compared to the less expensive equipment
would be $62 per year, or $372 over six years, $744 over 12 years, and
$1,116 over 18 years.
A ground-source heat pump would provide the lowest annual heating and cooling
bills. Total annual energy costs for a typical model were only $615 per
year. Although these systems are extremely expensive to buy and installtypically
$30,000 or more because of the incredible energy savings, hefty tax and
utility company incentives (the federal tax credit is 30 percent of the
cost of the equipment and installation), and estimated lifespans (reflected
in our calculations) about twice those of conventional equipment, it makes
financial sense to consider them.
A few additional but important points:
When comparing models, its important to understand that features such
as variable-speed blowers and two-stage burners that reduce energy usage
wont 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
The problem is that its difficult to assess exactly how much energy these
features save. A reasonable rule of thumb is to assume that two-stage burners
and variable-speed blowers each decrease furnace energy waste by about
10 percent and increase corresponding SEER/HSPF ratings by 1.0 to 1.5.
Investing $5,000 extra 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 months. Before upgrading your equipment, make sure your
attic is well insulated. Our article on home insulation will help get
you started. And consider hiring an energy auditor to help you find and
reduce air leaks. Ultimately, the best way to cut home energy costs is
the most obvious one: Dial down your thermostat, and get and use a programmable
Our estimates on Table 2 take into account potential savings from federal
tax credits for installing energy-efficient equipment. Through 2013, the
credit is $150 for installing a furnace with an AFUE rating of 95 or higher,
and $300 for installing an air conditioner or heat pump with a SEER rating
of 16 or higher. (You cant get the credit if youve used it in previous
tax years on another energy-efficiency improvement.)
You might also be eligible for rebates or incentives from your local government.
Some utility companies offer financial incentives to install high-efficiency
equipment. These programs vary from utility to utility; many are special
loan programs. Most programs keep paperwork to a minimum, but may require
you to deal with a company from the utilitys approved contractor list.
An excellent resource on incentives for all types of energy-efficiency
solutions is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency
(dsireusa.org), an up-to-date database of whats available nationwide.
Selecting Quiet Equipment
The sound rating of equipment is measured in bels or decibels, with lower
ratings being quieter. Compared to equipment made 15 years ago, almost
all new units are astonishingly quiet.
Selecting Dependable Equipment
Neither Consumer Reports nor any other organization systematically rates
the reliability and durability of furnaces, central air-conditioning systems,
or heat pumps (although Consumer Reports does evaluate room air conditioners).
Since so little available data compares the quality of heating and air-conditioning
units, your best bet for getting trouble-free equipment is to solicit bids
from several contractors with good reputations for customer satisfaction.
It is widely agreed in the industry that the quality of equipment is much
less important than the quality of its installation. As one contractor
told us, perhaps with a bit of hubris: It just doesnt matter too much.
If I take the time to install the equipment properly, I can put in the
biggest piece-of-junk furnace and make it hum for 20 years.
Keep in mind that customers arent likely to be satisfied with equipment
that breaks down ofteneven if the companies fix it promptly. And companies
committed to satisfying their customers by making prompt repairs under
installation warranties arent going to continue installing equipment that
requires frequent service visits.
Based on what you learn from discussions with several companies, tell each
company exactly what you want done. Then ask them to revise their proposals
to respond to your exact specifications with quotes for fixed-price contracts.
Getting competitive bids on installation or replacement jobs is a very
easy way to save money. For large installation jobs, with large price variations
between bids, its common to save $2,000 or more on a $10,000 job by getting
second and third bids.
Even for smaller installation jobs, company-to-company price differences
are large. Table 1 shows the difference between the highest and the lowest
price quotes for four jobs we shopped. On all four jobs, the highest price
was more than double the lowest price.
Our consumer surveys indicate that even for jobs that cost more than $2,000,
more than 40 percent of consumers get no competitive bids and only about
25 percent get at least three bids. For $1,000 to $2,000 jobs, nearly 60
percent get no competitive bids. These consumers are passing up some easy
money. (Remember that money saved is better than money earned because you
dont pay taxes on the money you simply avoid spending.)
The price index scores on our Ratings Tables will help you select companies
likely to make reasonable bids. But these price index scores are at best
only a starting point. Many companies that charge relatively high prices
for one job can come in relatively low on others. Dont rule out a company
with a high price index score if it does well on quality measures.
In addition to the price and a description of the equipment to be installed
and the work to be done, each contractors proposal should include other
elements, all of them important in your choice on the best outfit for your
Performance GuaranteeAsk the contractor if it will give you a performance
guarantee. For a complete heating and cooling system, the contract might
say: When the outside temperature is 85°F and six persons are inside,
the inside temperature can be maintained at 78°F or cooler; when the outside
temperature is 40°F, the inside temperature can be maintained at 75°F or
Also request a guarantee covering the uniformity of temperature. On a hot
day, you dont want to lower the temperature of some rooms to 65°F to get
other rooms down to 78°F. If you are having ductwork installed, companies
should be willing to guarantee that all rooms on the same floor can be
maintained within a range of 5°F. Its more difficult to make promises
on floor-to-floor temperature variation unless youre installing a separate
system for each floor.
Installers WarrantyThe installers warranty should say: In case of any
defects in equipment or workmanship, or any failure to meet performance
specifications, we will provide without charge all parts and all labor
to exchange, repair, or adjust any components installed by us for a period
of one year from date of startup. You can try to negotiate for more than
a one-year warranty, but it wont be easy because contractors will insist
that most installation defects show up in the course of one full heating
or cooling season. But one reason to argue for a longer warranty is that
the weather in some years tests a system harder than in others.
Payment ScheduleMake sure you get a contract that requires no payments
until the work is complete, and ask if you can withhold payment until youve
had a chance to run the system for a few weeks (this arrangement is not
If a contractor will accept full payment only after the job is complete,
it tells you several things. First, the company is confident that it can
satisfy you. Second, you will be able to prod the contractor to make things
right if you are not satisfied. Third, the company is not living from hand
to mouthit is at least financially secure enough to procure equipment
and make payroll without needing their customers payments. Finally, youre
protected if the company goes belly up.
If possible, make all payments by credit card. If you are dissatisfied
with the work or the equipment, you can dispute the charge under the Fair
Credit Billing Act.
Insurance CoverageAsk every company you are considering for a certificate
of insurance indicating that it carries workers compensation coverage
for workers injured while working on your property (otherwise you could
be liable). Also, get evidence of liability insurance, so youll know the
company can make good if, for instance, it drops an air-conditioning unit
through your ceiling.
Additional Work SpecificationsGo over the details of exactly what work
is to be donewe have seen excellent contracts running eight pages or longer.
Make sure each companys proposal (and the contract you finally sign) is
explicit about these responsibilities:
Providing needed electrical supply and hooking up your system to your existing
Providing drainage for condensate;
Providing equipment support (a base for an outside condensing unit, for
Securing all required permits;
Enclosing ductwork, finishing, and painting;
Removing trash and old equipment.
Once you have settled on all the terms of an installation job, have them
written up in a firm fixed-price contract. Our consumer surveys found that
for jobs that cost over $2,000 more than 10 percent of customers fail to
get such contracts, and for $1,000 to $2,000 jobs more than 30 percent
fail to document the deal. That is playing with fire.
The most important maintenance task for both heating and cooling systems
is something you can do yourselfreplacing the air filter. With a new system
or one in a home youve just moved into, check your filter monthly until
you see how quickly it gets dirty at different times of the year. You will
probably need to replace it two or three times during the cooling season
and equally often during the heating season. When a filter has a matting
of dirti.e., its difficult to see through when you hold it up to a lightits
time to replace it. If you arent sure how to tell when a filter is too
far gone, ask your technician to show you what to look for during the next
A dirty filter makes your system work harder than it should, reducing performance
and energy efficiency. A dirty filter also makes your system spread dirt
throughout your house. An extremely dirty filter can be especially bad
for heat pumps and air-conditioners, since it can cause evaporator coils
to freeze up and, possibly, cause the compressor to fail.
Air Conditioner/Heat Pump
One task you can do yourself for either an air conditioner or a heat pump
is to clear debris away from the outdoor unit. Keep the units grills free
of grass clippings, leaves, and other debris which can inhibit airflow.
Through the winter months, clear away snow that accumulates around the
outdoor unit of a heat pump. If snow regularly drifts in banks around your
unit, check your owners manual to see if your unit has been installed
to manufacturers specifications. Typically, outdoor units should be installed
atop a platform several inches above ground level. If not, have a contractor
raise your unit. An obstructed outdoor unit overworks the compressor and
can cause a costly premature failure.
Other maintenance tasks are usually performed only by professionals. Condenser
coils need to be checked for surface dirt and dust, and cleaned if necessary;
contractors often use a special chemical bath for the cleaning. Electrical
connections and contacts need to be checked visually, and capacitors should
be tested. Controls designed to protect the compressor from high or low
pressure should also be tested. Finally, the refrigerant level should be
checked, with refrigerant added as necessary.
Under no circumstances add or release refrigerant yourself. As part of
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations written to comply with
the international ban on ozone-depleting substances, all heating and air-conditioning
contractors that handle refrigerant must be trained and certified, and
they must possess equipment that will capture the refrigerant and prevent
it from escaping into the atmosphere.
Proper maintenance enhances your equipments performance, energy efficiency,
and durability. If you do the tasks you can do yourself, however, its
not clear how much benefit professional maintenance service provides.
Contractors will argue in favor of air conditioner maintenance visits each
spring before the cooling season, and heat pump visits each fall. But heating
and air-conditioning contractors have an obvious bias: the more visits
you pay for, the more money they make, and the better their equipment runs.
Best of all from the contractors standpoint, maintenance visits take place
before peak heating and cooling seasons, providing a welcome flow of revenue
and a way to keep technicians busy.
Equipment manufacturers have less reason than contractors to endorse maintenance
visits. Although regular maintenance may make manufacturers look good by
helping equipment achieve maximum lifespan, performance, and efficiency,
a manufacturer can look even better by claiming that its equipment can
do without expensive maintenance. Nonetheless, most manufacturers recommend
annual professional maintenance of air-conditioning and heat pump systems.
Yet there appears to be little hard data indicating that reductions in
energy use or increases in equipment life offset the cost of professional
maintenance. Clearly some systems run well despite forgoing years of professional
maintenance. And contracting for yearly maintenance visits for air-conditioning
equipment, for example, seems rather arbitrary. Why not twice a year, or
once every two or three years? Why not more or less often depending on
conditions? It is clear, for example, that the need for maintenance is
greater if your system is old, heavily used, has much dust and pollen around
it, has aluminum wiring, or frequently breaks down. Also, maintenance is
more justified in large houses where a small percentage improvement in
energy efficiency can produce substantial savings.
In the end, the decision on professional maintenance will be much like
decisions about how often to change your cars oil or have your teeth cleaned:
There is no absolute right answer. As with those decisions, ask the professional
you deal with to explain why a particular maintenance interval is right,
given your individual circumstances.
If you dont plan to have yearly professional air-conditioner or heat pump
service, test your system before the usage season begins. That way, if
there is a problem, you can order a service visit before the peak-season
Gas and Electric Furnaces
Gas and electric furnaces usually need less professional maintenance than
other types of equipment. But it can be worthwhile to have a professional
visit every year or so to clean and adjust your equipment for the sake
of efficiency, and check for existing or potential leaks of fuel or combustion
An oil-burning furnace is the piece of equipment most likely to need regular
preventive maintenance. Replacing nozzles and oil filters, adjusting excess
air levels, and cleaning soot from the firebox can increase heating efficiency
by 10 to 12 percenteven more in badly maintained systems. Find an expert
who has the equipment and knowhow to measure carbon dioxide, flue gas temperature
in the stack, smoke number, and the stack draft to do this maintenance.
Have the expert also check for dangerous smoke leaks and improper safety
If you have a large house, where a few percentage points improvement in
oil furnace efficiency would save the cost of a service visit, arrange
for a professional to visit annually. But if your house is small, you can
skip a year or two between visits.
Getting a Good Price
Its not difficult to compare prices for maintenance-only service visits.
Call companies that rate high for quality on our Ratings Tables and
ask their price for a maintenance-only service visit assuming no repairs
will be needed. Find out exactly what is included in maintenance service.
(Will they clean condenser coils, for instance?) Expect to pay between
$75 and $125 per visit. But bear in mind that maintenance visits sometimes
reveal the need for repairs, so use a high-quality company that charges
If you are installing new equipment, in addition to making choices about
energy efficiency, you will need to decide whether to pay extra for various
features. Below is a summary of the types of add-ons. Were admittedly
scratching the surface of the heating-and-cooling-equipment options world
here, but these are the major do you want this or not? questions youll
Variable-speed blowersIndoor fans (blowers) and/or outdoor fans of central
air conditioners, heat pumps, and furnaces can be equipped to run from
slow to fast depending on need. The units are programmed to keep conditioned
air continually moving at the lowest flow possible. These setups minimize
cycling on and off (which contributes to wear and tear), dramatically help
systems maintain consistent temperatures throughout different areas of
homes, reduce energy usage, and decrease noise.
Variable outputFurnaces with this feature automatically select how much
heat to generate (usually from among two levels); air conditioners and
heat pumps with variable output automatically select how hard their compressors
need to work to deliver conditioned air. Like variable-speed blowers, this
feature lets equipment deliver warm or cool air continuously for longer
periods of time, meaning equipment doesnt have to cycle on and off frequently.
Programmable thermostatsThese devices provide an easy way to save energy,
as long as you actually program them (which most homeowners who have them
dont). If your home is unoccupied during the day, you can save five to
15 percent per year on energy bills by turning down the heat by 10F° to
15F° while you are away. Obviously, youll want to get a model that is
easy to use. A misconception associated with programmable thermostats is
that when it is time to return the temperature to normal, the furnace has
to work so hard and use so much energy little energy is saved. Much research
has shown this to be untrue.
HumidifiersThese can be added to ductwork and supplied with water from
plumbing to make air more humid during dry winter months. Also, at the
same temperatures, humid air feels warmer than dry airwhich means you
can dial down your thermostat by a few degrees and not notice the difference.
Avoiding overly dry air reduces itchy skin, eyes, and throats, and helps
High-efficiency air filtersThese assemblies, which use electrical charges
to attract and trap particulates, can also reduce the amount of dust blown
through systems. But theres little evidence that they actually improve
indoor air quality.
Scroll compressorsThis is a relatively new advance in heat-pump technology
that replaces regular piston-type compressors with two spiral-shaped scrolls.
One scroll remains stationary while the other orbits around it, compressing
the refrigerant by forcing it into the smaller space. The benefits of heat
pumps with scroll compressors include longer operating life, less noise,
and the ability to deliver conditioned air 10° to 15°F warmer than conventional
DesuperheatersSome high-efficiency heat pumps can be equipped with these
devices that capture waste heat generated from heat pumps during cooling
mode and use it to heat water. Desuperheaters heat water two to three times
more efficiently than conventional electric water heaters.
Rather than paying for individual maintenance visits and repair jobs, you
might consider getting a service contract for air-conditioning and/or heating
equipment. Many companies try to persuade customers to enter into such
If you are interested in a service contract, compare the price and coverage
of various contracts. (And stay aware of repair prices because most service
contracts have many coverage gaps.)
Service contracts fall into three broad categories:
Contracts covering only the labor cost of usually either annual or semiannual
planned maintenance visits to check, clean, and adjust equipment.
Contracts covering the labor costs for planned maintenance visits and for
Contracts covering labor costs for both maintenance and repair visits and
costs of selected parts.
Within these categories, coverage varies. First, there are contracts for
furnace only, for air-conditioning equipment only, and for the two combined.
Second, some contracts cover work that others exclude. Among maintenance-only
contracts, the most common exclusion is the cost of cleaning air-conditioning
coils. Among contracts covering labor and/or parts for repairs, exclusions
range from such costly work as replacing a compressor to much less expensive
items like capacitors. Request copies of the contract forms for any company
The differences in contract prices are striking. For example, the cost
of one level of coverage for one year ranged from $100 to $300 among companies
To compare the value individual outfits offer, look at companies that cover
roughly the same items. Also, check what companies do on maintenance visitsdo
they clean the air-conditioning coils, for example? And keep in mind that
some companies may offer 24-hour service while others are hard to reach
outside regular business hours.
Youll probably do better by not buying a service contract and footing
repair and service bills each time you need it. But there are three main
reasons to buy a service contract
To perform preventive maintenance;
To get priority service when your equipment breaks down; and
To insure against the costs of sizable repairs (to the extent that repair
costs are covered).
Some companies swear by these contracts, arguing that they facilitate efficiency
by allowing them to schedule work when demand is low, thus letting them
avoid paying overtime during peak load periods and employing excess personnel
to prepare for peak demand periods. Other companies say contracts are little
more than ploys their competitors use to ring up extra profits at your
expense. They insist that service contracts waste your money and a companys
time by encouraging unneeded maintenance visits and emergency calls. Theres
some truth in both views. The right answer for you depends on your circumstances.
If you need professional maintenance visits every yearif, for instance,
you have a large house or dont want to perform even the simplest maintenance
tasks yourselfa service contract may be right for you. But dont pay more
for the contract than you would pay for the number of visits it includes
at regular labor rates.
If you need maintenance visits less than once a year, paying for them one-at-a-time
may work for you, and the only reasons to get a service contract would
be to get priority service on unscheduled repair calls or as insurance
for costly repairs. (Unfortunately, local services seldom offer these protections
unless you pay for maintenance visits as well.) But these protections may
not be worth the price of a service contract.
Priority treatment on unscheduled repair visits may be especially important
if someone in your home has serious allergies or frail health, if you have
valuable houseplants, or in other special circumstances. Even so, getting
a service contract may not protect you. Furnaces and air conditioners most
often break down when the weather is extreme, and companies simply lack
sufficient staff to handle the demand. Although they do put their technicians
on overtime and send supervisors into the field, sometimes they just cant
keep paceeven for their priority customers.
In fact, one of the most common complaints we receive from readers is waiting
weeks to get an appointment for repairs from companies with which they
have signed service contracts. For quick service, you might do just as
well without a service contract. Whenever you need repairs, call a few
companies and hire the one that will come soonest.
If your objective in getting a service contract is to insure against expensive
repair bills, check the price of any contract that offers that level of
protection. And remember: The most costly repairsreplacing compressors
and heat exchangersare not covered by most service contracts.
A final important point: If you want a service contract, take care in choosing
the company. We get a lot of complaints from consumers who buy service
contracts and find that technicians discover something to repair on every
service visitat extra cost. Some contractors seem to use service contracts
as twice-a-year opportunities to squeeze customers for unnecessary repairs.
Conventional heat pumps work in heating mode by drawing heat from outside
air. During the heating season when air outside is colder than the air
inside the home, heat pumps draw warmth by blowing outside air over refrigerant-filled
coils. The refrigerant in the coils absorbs available heat as it converts
from liquid state into vapor. The vapor is then circulated into another
set of coils inside the house and compressed into a liquid, a process that
makes it hotter. A fan blows air over these relatively hot indoor coils,
thus warming the air and cooling the refrigerant. The warmed air is distributed
through the home. The cooled refrigerant is circulated back outside, the
pressure on the refrigerant is released, and the refrigerant is again vaporized,
drawing warmth from the outside air. The cycle keeps repeating itself.
Air conditioners, or heat pumps working in cooling mode, operate the same
way except the process is reversed.
New heat pumps are remarkably efficient when outdoor temperatures remain
above 33°F or so. In cooler weather, conventional heat pumps cant draw
enough warmth from the outside air to keep the indoor space conditioned.
When this happens, a secondary, less energy-efficient source of heat must
Ground-source heat pumps (also referred to as geothermal heat pumps) employ
the same general technology as air-source heat pumps (conventional units),
but dont rely on sometimes-too-cold outside air as their source of heat.
Instead, they draw upon stable below-ground temperatures to provide the
warmth absorbed by vaporizing refrigerant. If youve ever toured a cavern,
you probably were informed that its temperature stays the same year-round.
The same is true of temperatures just a few feet below the surface. Depending
on the region, temperatures remain a fairly constant 45° to 75°F.
Instead of passing outside air over refrigerant-filled coils, ground-source
heat pumps draw the heat absorbed by vaporizing refrigerant by passing
the refrigerant through coils, or a system of pipes, buried below ground.
Since ground-source heat pumps dont require alternative sources of heat
during cold weather, and can more efficiently create warm air from their
warmer surroundings, they can be incredibly energy efficient. We estimate
that a typical ground-source system used for the illustrative home shown
on Table 2 would cost only $791 per year in energy costs to operateby
far the lowest cost option. According to the EPA, geothermal heat pumps
can reduce energy consumptionand corresponding emissionsup to 44 percent
compared to air-source heat pumps, and up to 72 percent compared to electric
resistance heating with standard air-conditioning equipment.
But youll have to pay a lot more upfront to get these savings: A ground-source
heat pump system can cost $30,000 or more. The reason for the big price
tag isnt so much the equipment (about twice as much as comparable air-source
equipment) as the high cost of installation. The coils for air-source heat
pumps take up relatively little space because fans blow air over the coils.
But in order to draw warmth from below-ground temperatures, ground-source
systems need to send refrigerant long distances, which means coils or pipes
must be buried in a way that requires a lot of labor-intensive digging
The most common setup for a ground-source system is a closed-loop system,
which requires digging horizontal trenches about four feet deep and burying
a series of pipes or coils. Or it can be done by drilling a series of vertical
holes 100 to 300 feet deep and inserting connected pipes. Because installation
costs are so high, even if you could buy and install a ground-source system
for a bargain-rate of, say, $20,000 it would still take a long time to
recoup the upfront costs through energy savings. But there are other factors
to consider in the calculus.
First, Energy Star-certified ground-source systems qualify for a 30 percent
federal tax credit for the entire cost of the project, including installation.
Credits, rebates, and/or incentives may also be available from local governments
Second, ground-source systems are usually equipped with desuperheaters,
which create virtually free hot water during the summer and relatively
inexpensive hot water during the winter (see above for more information
on these devices). This means a ground-source heat pump might save some
households $150 or more per year in energy costs compared to using a gas
water heater, and $300 or more compared to using an electric heater.
Third, ground-source heat pumps require much less maintenance than conventional
equipment and dont need to be replaced nearly as often.
Ground-source systems are well-suited for newly constructed homes for several
reasons: You avoid ruining landscaping by installing horizontal systems;
digging and drilling is cheaper because that work can be coordinated with
other required digging; and you can spread out paying the higher upfront
price by taking out loans. One promising approach to designing new, energy-efficient
homes would be to build underground piping that all the homes in the community
could share. But most developers wont take on the expense of building
homes or entire communities that use ground-source systems. In the future,
more may be compelled to do so.
We wont try to calculate the cost effects of a ground-source system spread
across a 30-year mortgage. But paying monthly across 30 years for the system
immediately begins to generate a positive cash flow, improving affordability.