Last updated June 2020
Life happens, even during a pandemic: The washing machine breaks, the sink leaks, the stove stops cooking your homemade cuisine.
For months now, you’ve been limiting the number of people who’ve come into your home. But this is different: You need a service technician to fix the problem. Having someone breach your safe space is not without risk, so it needs to be done carefully.
Six feet is the rule for safe distancing when we’re outside. Inside the home, because there’s not as much air flowing, it’s best to stay “as far away from that individual as you can get,” said Dr. John Swartzberg, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health and an expert on infectious diseases. “I would wear a mask so I wouldn’t infect the serviceperson, and I’d expect them to wear a mask, so they wouldn’t infect me. I’d ask them to be extremely careful about what they touch, and I’d want them to have washed their hands or put hand sanitizer on their hands before they even come into my house.”
Something else you can do: Open the doors and windows. The fresh air will dilute any virus that might have hitched a ride with the service tech. If it’s too warm or cold outside, running a central HVAC system will also help.
If the repair work is done in an enclosed area where you can’t get some air circulating, don’t go in there for a few hours after the job is complete, Swartzberg advised.
Keep in mind that workers are likely worried about their safety, too. By keeping your distance and asking them about precautions, you’ll help put them at ease. Put on a mask before you answer the door, then keep it on the entire time you’re both in your home. Place hand sanitizer near your home’s entrance or in the area where work is being done. If you leave—or stick around but stay in a different part of your house—give the serviceperson your cell number so he or she doesn’t have to hunt you down to get answers to questions.
Home Repair Outfits Are Trying to Adapt
The coronavirus outbreak has created enormous challenges for HVAC contractors, plumbers, electricians, carpet cleaners, and appliance repair pros who need to be inside homes to do their jobs. They know having workers in their homes makes many customers anxious.
Checkbook contacted several top-rated service companies to find out how they’re responding to the new reality.
“It’s kind of stressful for our guys because some people are freaked out,” said Adam Bell, co-owner of Durance Plumbing in Takoma Park, Md. “We have elderly customers or those with newborns who’ve canceled at the last minute or as we’re showing up, which makes the schedule a little crazy.”
Most service companies are eager to get back to business, but some are taking it slowly as they navigate uncharted waters. ALCO Appliance, an appliance repair company in Beltsville, Md., posted this notice on its website:
Please do not schedule an appointment unless it is necessary. We know that you are home from work and now seems like a great time to get the broken ice maker fixed, the light bulb replaced, or the broken stove clock repaired. It’s not worth the unnecessary exposure to us or you. We are only taking appointments for NECESSARY repairs. A necessary repair is when the appliance is no longer doing its MAIN function or something has failed in a manner that is causing or could cause property damage.
Companies are also adapting the way they do their work. The most common changes mentioned:
- Employees are provided with personal protective equipment such as masks, respirators, and gloves.
- New procedures have been instituted to sanitize equipment before and after each home visit.
- Any surfaces touched inside the home are sanitized.
- Employees have been taught about social distancing and how to respect the customer’s concern for safety. Customers are being encouraged to stay far away, in another room or on a different floor, if possible. Some clients, they said, prefer to leave the house while they work.
- Scheduling longer service calls, so the serviceperson can slow down a bit and focus on safety, as well as on the job at hand.
Be an Informed Customer
Many service companies provide safety guidance in advance of visits to help protect their customers and employees.
For example, one electrician posted this notice on its website:
Our Service Standard equipment on the trucks includes: Shoe covers, red carpet barrier, respirator, gloves, cleaning solution and towels. Our employees will not be sent to your home if they are sick. Likewise we will ask if your household is sick or in self quarantine.
Expect to spend more time on the phone when you call to schedule an appointment. Companies we spoke with said they want to find out more about the job before they dispatch someone, as well as explain to the customer what to expect when their employee arrives.
“We talk about how the process is going to go, so that we alleviate fears and set some expectations,” said the owner of one carpet cleaning service. “We want to make sure everything is clear, and to let people know we take safety seriously.”
For a broken appliance, be ready to provide the make and model number and specifics about what’s wrong. By learning more about the problem upfront, the service tech is more likely to have the proper replacement parts in the truck, which could forestall a return trip.
In some cases, the repair service might suggest things you can do to fix the problem yourself, at least temporarily, until you feel more comfortable with having someone come to your house.
Maybe You Should Wait
Some problems—a leaking pipe, a broken stove, an inoperative clothes washer—need prompt attention. The same goes for anything related to safety, such as the smell of smoke coming from a light switch or electrical outlet.
Projects that involve work outside the house, such as a new deck, exterior painting, roof repair, or landscaping, can also be done safely.
But is this the time to have your kitchen or bathroom remodeled? Everyone has their own tolerance for risk, but health experts recommend against it right now.
“If it’s something critical and you have to do it, then you need to take a lot of precautions,” UC Berkeley’s Dr. Swartzberg, told Checkbook. “If it’s not critical, now is not the time to bring people into your home.”
If you must have a longer-term project completed during the pandemic—for example, substantial repairs and renovations to recover from a leak—consider decamping to a hotel or short-term rental for the duration.
Be Wary of COVID-19 Health Claims
We’re seeing ads from carpet- and duct-cleaning companies promoting the health benefits their services provide. Some HVAC companies are claiming UV air filters will kill viruses. Much of this is just marketing hype.
While having your carpet and rugs cleaned will remove pet odors, pollen, dust, and germs, there is no evidence that it provides any meaningful protection from the coronavirus.
And don’t assume cleaning the air ducts for your HVAC system will improve the quality of the air inside your house, as some companies claim. As we’ve reported previously, there is no science to support any health claims for this service, even if your ducts are very dirty.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not recommend routine air duct cleaning. It should be done “only as needed,” if there is “substantial visible mold growth inside hard surface (e.g., sheet metal) ducts or on other components of your heating and cooling system.” An EPA bulletin on indoor air quality states:
Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g., dust) levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts. This is because much of the dirt in air ducts adheres to duct surfaces and does not necessarily enter the living space. It is important to keep in mind that dirty air ducts are only one of many possible sources of particles that are present in homes. Pollutants that enter the home both from outdoors and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning, smoking, or just moving around can cause greater exposure to contaminants than dirty air ducts. Moreover, there is no evidence that a light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts poses any risk to your health.
Similarly, be very skeptical of claims made by HVAC companies that they can install UV filters that will eliminate germs. These devices can kill bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, but no one yet knows whether the units available for home use emit enough of a UV dose to effectively kill coronavirus.
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.