How To Find and Choose a Heating and Air Conditioning Contractor

Taking some time up front to learn more about air conditioning and heating will save you time, frustration, and money when you choose a local company to repair or replace your HVAC system. When buying a new air conditioning and heating system, the contractor you select can affect on your satisfaction more than the brand of equipment you choose. Choosing a contractor when you have adequate time to do so systematically gives the best results—much better than picking one out of the phone book to respond to a heating or cooling emergency.

This page gives a quick overview on how to select a local contractor. After this, you can go to the city list on the right with contact information on air conditioning and heating companies in your city or to more details on related topics. Print out our cost comparison organizer to help you compare “apples to apples” on contractor bids.

(1) Licensed, insured, longevity, and physical address
State or other required licenses. Make sure the HVAC contractor’s license is current, and see if the governing agency publishes a history of disciplinary actions or complaints you can see. The state licensing boards for heating and air conditioning can be found here.

When considering a HVAC contractor, ask to see recent verification that they carry general liability to protect your property as well as worker’s compensation insurance on their employees. A small number of states (Texas, for example) do not require all employers to carry worker’s comp. Lack of adequate insurance could be a major headache for you if anyone gets hurt at your property.

Before you meet with potential contractors, you should check with your home/building insurance agent to ask if there are any other insurance considerations for the type of work you are considering.

Be sure to find out how long the contractor has been operating in the same city under the same name, and if the company has any additional operating names. Longer, of course, is better. The contractor should be provide a physical address, or some way to contact them other than a mobile phone number.

(2) Qualified, experienced And up-to-date
As heating and air equipment increases in efficiency and features, it gets more complex and requires better technicians. Select a HVAC contractor whose technicians are certified and have hands-on experience. Due to rapid advances in the industry, technician updates on equipment are essential. Four organizations that provide technical certifications and/or training are:

– HVAC Excellence
– NATE – North American Technician Excellence
– RSES – Refrigeration Service Engineers Society
– UA Star

Professional associations are another good way to screen for high quality local heating and A/C service companies. This can have a big influence on the caliber of technician that arrives at your home or business, how well your system works, and your overall experience. The three major professional HVAC associations include:

ACCA – Air Conditioning Contractors of America
ASHRAE – American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
RSES – Refrigeration Service Engineers Society

(3) Comfortable to you
Ideally, the HVAC contractor you choose will install, maintain and repair your heating and air conditioning system for many years. You should pick one that has the kind of employees you will feel comfortable having in your home.

(4) Easy to reach by telephone and 24 hour emergency service available
The local air conditioning and heating company you rely on should be easy to reach by telephone. They should also have a reliable system for reaching them after regular office hours, on weekends and holidays. Although not needed very often, when you do need emergency heating or cooling service, it helps to have it available from a company with whom you are already familiar.

(5) Relying on referrals
Generally regarding referrals, it’s best to get a consensus or have a selection process of your own. Why? If you rely on the experience of one neighbor, this may not be enough data. Although well intentioned, your neighbor may have a different situation in their home or different selection criteria than you do. If a lot of people recommend the same company, that is usually a very good sign.

Most HVAC contractors can provide a list of recent references from satisfied customers. If not, then you should cross them off your list and keep looking. Having knowledge of any unresolved complaints also provides a useful measure of contractor reliability. For general business performance, the Better Business Bureau provides useful information on both member and non-member companies. On their website, they provide a quick way to search a company’s basic history and complaints-resolved and un-resolved–using just the telephone number or the name of the business.

(6) Number of bids and price ranking
Get the number of bids that allows you to feel confident to move forward with your decision. For some owners, getting up to three bids on a long term, substantial purchase can be worth the time and effort.

Regarding price, most experienced owners recommend accepting the bid that offers the best value–combination of product, service, and price. If one bid comes in far below the others, dig deeper before accepting it based on price alone. Don’t hesitate to ask about any details that seem unclear, or even why their bid is lower than others you have. Ideally, this is the beginning of your relationship with the company you select, not a one-time event.

(7) Get the details in writing
Make sure you receive a detailed written description before work begins. Some of the main points include:

  • start and end dates
  • maximum number of days you could be without heating or cooling
  • costs for specifics of all known equipment, supplies, and labor
  • costs for any variables, contingencies, or upgrades that could arise while replacing equipment (highest possible, plus increments below that)
  • change order policy, if any (make sure any changes are in writing also)
  • final payment due after work is complete, and if there will be interim draws needed. Preferably no up front costs. If so, no more than 1/3.
  • insurance documents as listed above

Especially if dealing with new construction, another item you might ask for is to have a copy of the “load” calculations (ACCA Manual J® is the industry standard) that the HVAC contractor uses to determine the size of and type of equipment to install for you. If, for example, you have heating and air conditioning installed during cool or cold weather, this could prove useful if you were to discover a problem when you turn on your air conditioning the next summer.

Be sure to address on your bid and contract whether they include new ductwork. If any ductwork needs must be discovered during installation, specify what type and how much per linear foot or, preferably, a fixed price for all. If the possible use of all or part of your existing ductwork or your other equipment creates a variable or contingency, then get a figure that the maximum the work would cost if all the existing equipment needs to be replaced along with increments below that.

Pay particular attention to warranty periods, including the manufacturer’s parts and labor warranty on the compressor(s), condenser and evaporator coils, furnace heat exchanger(s), and fans plus any additional warranty the contractor provides.

Read the agreement front and back before signing it.

If you choose your contractor carefully, you are not likely to need the next few tips. Just in case, however….

(8) Release of lien
If you are getting new equipment installed, read your agreement to see what assurances your contractor gives that the equipment they install and you pay for has been paid for by the contractor to their supplier. In some states, if you pay your contractor but they fail to pay their equipment supplier, the equipment supplier might be able to seek additional payment from you. The clause to prevent this is called, among other phrases, a “release of lien” provision in your contract.

(9) Smartest way to pay
Most local air conditioning and heating companies will go to great lengths to see that you are satisfied with the system they install. Still, for any major purchase, it can help to pay with a credit card. If an unexpected complaint were to arise that you cannot solve directly by working with your contractor, you can ask the credit card company to help you until the work is completed or the problem corrected to your satisfaction. Be sure to understand your contract terms plus requirements in your county and state regarding this topic before taking any action.

Warning: in some states or local governments, stopping payment on a check for a product or service (even due to a dispute) can get a lien put on your property or land you in jail.