Most HVAC services push maintenance service contracts. Again: While it’s important to properly maintain heating and cooling systems, we don’t think most systems need annual or semiannual visits, especially if you have been diligent about replacing filters regularly.

One reason many consumers buy HVAC service contracts is that they’re promised priority treatment if they need repairs. Unfortunately, one of the most common complaints we receive from HVAC customers is waiting weeks to get an appointment for repairs from the companies with which they have service contracts. For quick service, you might do just as well without a service contract by not being tied to a single company.

If you’re interested in a service contract, compare the prices and coverage of those offered by top-rated companies. Service contracts fall into three broad categories:

  • Contracts covering only the labor cost usually of either annual or semiannual planned maintenance visits to check, clean, and adjust equipment.
  • Contracts covering the labor costs for planned maintenance visits and for unplanned repairs.
  • Contracts covering labor costs for both maintenance and repair visits plus costs of selected parts.

The plans that cover maintenance and unplanned repairs are usually so expensive and include so many limitations that they’re bad deals. If you get a service contract as a bulwark against expensive repair bills, these contracts often won’t accomplish that—the costliest repairs, such as replacing compressors and heat exchangers, aren’t even covered by most service contracts. You’ll likely do better paying for repairs on your own, as needed.

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 you consider, compare the value of what services are provided—and check for those that aren’t.

The differences in contract prices are striking. For example, among companies we shopped for a maintenance-only agreement, costs for one year ranged from less than $150 to more than $500.

If you need professional maintenance visits annually—if, for instance, you have old equipment, a very large house, or don’t want to perform even the simplest maintenance tasks yourself—a service contract may be right for you. But don’t 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 individually may work; the only reasons to get a service contract would be to get priority service on unscheduled repair calls or as insurance for costly repairs. But, again, these promises probably aren’t worth the price of a service contract.

A final important point: If you want a service contract, choose the company carefully. We get many complaints from consumers who buy service contracts and find that technicians discover something to repair on every service visit—at extra cost. Some contractors seem to use service contracts as twice-a-year opportunities to squeeze customers for unnecessary repairs.

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