Better Business Bureau advice on buying and maintaining your HVAC system

From the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia:

As the weather changes, you may be thinking about buying or maintaining your existing heating and air conditioning system. The total cost of any appliance, including heating and cooling systems, has three components: the purchase price, the cost of repairs and maintenance, and the cost of operation. And with heating and cooling among the largest energy expenditures in a typical home, it’s crucial that you maintain your system to ensure efficiency.

Many things to consider when hiring an HVAC contractor are consistent with what to consider when hiring a contractor. There are also specific heating and cooling considerations.

Purchase and installation

Before buying, do an energy audit. This will help you detect energy waste, gauge the efficiency of your current heating and cooling systems, and determine if the air conditioning is moving properly. Your utility company may offer free or low-cost energy audits or a DIY kit. You can also hire a specialist to perform a more comprehensive energy audit (although this will likely cost you more).

You should also take steps to weatherproof your home. Check caulking, weatherstripping and insulation and make any necessary repairs. This may allow you to install a smaller, less expensive heating or cooling system to achieve the same results.

Compare the performance of different brands and models. Study the product documentation. Will the product do the trick? What is its repair history? Will it meet your needs today? Ten years from now? Does it fit your budget? What is its energy efficiency?

Think about energy efficiency right from the start. All products must meet minimum energy efficiency standards set by the US Department of Energy and Natural Resources Canada. But many products exceed the norm, consume even less energy and cost less to operate. Ask your builder, installer, or home power outlet about the EnergyGuide label and product information sheets or directories for each system you are considering. Compare the fuel efficiencies and operating costs of competing models. Consider both the purchase price and estimated operating costs when deciding what to buy. Sometimes you may qualify for cash rebates or tax breaks from your energy provider for the purchase and use of energy-efficient products. Be sure to check with your energy supplier for more information.

Make sure that any contractor you hire to install your system is an authorized, manufacturer-approved dealer. If they are approved, it means they meet the requirements and the manufacturer trusts them to install and represent the product.

Compare more than cost. Check the size and efficiency rating of the equipment recommended by each contractor. Ask each contractor to explain how the estimate of heating capacity and required equipment was determined. Make sure that the contractor service and products you use will provide the maximum benefit in terms of comfort and value.

The contractor you choose should provide at least one free call-back after installation to check the system. See that this is in the written agreement. Many contractors also offer service contracts where they will inspect and service your equipment once a year and provide emergency repair service. Before purchasing a service contract, be sure to weigh its cost and coverage against the cost and likelihood of future repairs. If your system is new, it probably comes with a warranty, which is included in the purchase price of the system. If you sign a service contract, make sure it specifies what parts and service are provided and that it doesn’t duplicate any warranty coverage you already have. Since service contracts vary widely in coverage, compare the coverage offered by several different companies.

Is the warranty or warranty disclosed? Is the whole work under warranty or only certain materials? Is labor included in the warranty? Who will pay the warranty: the dealer or the manufacturer? Of course, remember that the warranty is only as good as the company offering it.

Maintenance and repair

Keeping your system well maintained will extend system life and save you money. So be sure to have it checked annually by a qualified technician. Spring or early summer are the best times for servicing cooling systems, while summer or fall are ideal times for servicing your furnace. You can also perform routine maintenance yourself, replacing disposable filters as needed or cleaning permanent filters.

Before calling a heating or air conditioning contractor, check the model of system you have and the service history of the system. Understand the licensing and insurance requirements for contractors in your state or province. Make sure the contractor meets all the requirements.

During a typical check of your cooling system, the technician should:

  • Inspect and/or clean condenser and evaporator coils.
  • Check motor voltage and amperage.
  • Check pressures for proper refrigerant charge.
  • Inspect and adjust fan components.
  • Inspect the condensate drain, clean if necessary.
  • Inspect the air filters.
  • Check thermostat calibration.
  • Lubricate moving parts if necessary.
  • Inspect security controls, if applicable.
  • Check the airflow.
  • Inspect the proper electrical connections.
  • Start and operate the unit.

During a typical check of your heating system, the technician should:

  • Inspect the thermostat.
  • Check the filters.
  • Check the furnace for a cracked heat exchanger.
  • Inspect burners and heat for rust.
  • Check for gas leaks at the furnace.
  • Check vent pipe and draft hood.
  • Check vent clearance.
  • Inspect for obstructions and proper clearance at the roof jack.
  • Clean and adjust pilot assembly.
  • Check and clean the fan, if necessary.
  • Check belt and adjust tension.
  • Lubricate the bearings.
  • Check flame deployment.
  • Check manifold pressure if necessary and adjust.
  • Check burner efficiency and adjust if necessary
  • Clean and adjust all safety cutouts.
  • Check the high temperature safety cut-out.
  • Check that the fan control is set correctly.
  • Check the complete cycle of the furnace.

When cleaning your furnace, you should also ask the contractor to do a carbon monoxide test. This odorless gas can be deadly, so you should also consider installing a carbon monoxide detector to protect yourself between service visits.

If you need repairs, be sure to get several written estimates for the job. If you need to replace your system, the estimate should include a full description of the additional work required to install ductwork, dampers, electrical wiring, and any other work needed.

Energetic efficiency

Being an energy efficient consumer means getting the most out of the energy you use.

  • Protect your room air conditioner from direct sunlight. This will reduce his workload. Clean the filters monthly and replace them when necessary to save energy and reduce dust and pollen in the air. Lower the setting when going out to reduce operating costs.
  • Vacuum air vents, baseboard heaters and radiators regularly to remove dust that reduces heating efficiency. Move furniture, rugs or curtains that limit their operation. If your baseboard heaters have movable baffles or vents, open them in the winter and close them in the summer.
  • Schedule annual tune-ups for your heat pump, furnace or boiler. Check to see if your utility company provides this service.
  • Hire a professional to seal and insulate leaky ductwork and ensure that the airflow distribution system serving your heating or cooling equipment is operating at peak efficiency.
  • Check your attic, attic stairs, attached garage walls, and basement to make sure you have proper insulation between air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned spaces.
  • Open your foundation vents each spring if your home has a crawl space below. Close vents in winter.
  • Prune shrubs that may be blocking airflow to your air conditioner or heat pump.
  • Consider installing ceiling fans. Air circulation promotes cooling in the summer and efficient heating in the winter.
  • Consider investing in a programmable thermostat. This will create a comfortable temperature while you’re home and help you save money while you’re away.

Find trusted and approved HVAC contractors near you and get a quote.

See BBB’s Home HQ for more tips.

Always look for companies that meet BBB accreditation standards and BBB standards for trust.

About the BBB serving Central Virginia:
BBB serving Central Virginia serves Richmond, the Tri-Cities, Charlottesville and Fredericksburg, as well as 42 surrounding counties from Fauquier to Mecklenburg and Northumberland to Amherst. The non-profit organization was established in 1954 to promote responsible, honest and ethical business practices and to promote customer confidence through corporate self-regulation. BBB’s core services include business profiles, dispute resolution, truthful advertising, scam warnings, consumer and business education, and charity review.

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