Picking a Contractor
A viewer once asked us to recommend a contractor in the Tallahassee area; we
didn't know anyone, but that brought to mind some things to look for, and more
importantly, some things to see. Here are some thoughts ("He" and "his" being
generic to describe the company):
1. Calculates H&C requirements using Manual J (or similar method) - that can
mean spending considerable time at the site measuring windows, etc. - and he
must understand Manual J the book in order to properly use Manual j software.
This is HUGELY important - Why pay for more equipment and ductwork than you
need? Avoid anyone who uses SF/Ton or "experience" to select the size -
They're focused on selling tons at your expense.
2. Knows about ductwork
     a. Installs sheet metal ductwork, does not use "board", does not promote
"Flexible Duct Systems"; having a sheet metal fabrication shop is a plus -
having a "Plasma" machine is a REAL plus. Yes, you can save money on board
and flex, but do you really want to take a chance?
     b. Keeps the flex runs short (8 feet or less), understands the penalty for
improperly installed flex is NSF airflow.
     c. Uses several different sizes of air outlets.
     d. Uses ducted returns, as opposed to building cavities (stud and joist
spaces - see
Filtration).
     e. Consider asking to see some of his installations; you should always ask
for references, but what's that going to tell you about his ductwork?
3. Installers are hourly employees, as opposed to independent contractors paid
by the job. Another HUGELY important one.
4. Service technicians are hourly employees who do NOT receive commissions
for parts or replacement equipment (Really!). Again, HUGELY important.
5. Understands airflow; he measures airflow using a "hood", or air velocity
using a "velometer" or "pitot tube"; if you find someone who also measures
"static pressure", that's a huge plus - he has a real clue.
6. Organized - You can eat off the floor of his shop, and everything in the shop
and in his trucks is where it should be. Seriously, do visit the shop and do look
in the backs of some trucks; try to meet the owner.
7. When it becomes necessary to replace old equipment
     a. Refuses to replace an outdoor unit without replacing the indoor coil or unit
too ("Mismatches" waste energy and don't deliver rated capacity, and your new
compressor's factory warranty will probably be voided).
     b. Refuses to replace R22 equipment with R410A equipment without
replacing the old refrigerant tubing too (cleaning the old tubing can be
successful, but you're entirely at the mercy of the tech - and there's nothing
worse than having to replace a nearly new compressor).
8. The license holder is a full time employee of the company (Really!).
9. Doesn't push high SEER equipment, or backs off immediately when you say
you're not interested.
10. Not absolutely necessary, but good indicators
     a. Uniformed employees.
     b. Some old timers in the crew (and an old timer in the sheet metal shop is
to die for).
     c. A live human answers the phone promptly and courteously; if you have to
leave a message with a service or machine, your call is returned promptly.
     d. The owner works with the tools (You'll probably get better pricing from a
small operation, but it can mean trouble when they're busy and you're in a hurry).
     e. Salaried sales person, who visits the job during installation (sales people
are not necessary, but we're leery of commissioned salespeople - having said
that, one of the best operations in our area depends on a commissioned
salesman, and he's quite good at what he does).
     f. Owner and/or license holder visits the job before or at completion.
     g. Owner provides his cell number, and answers when you call.
11. Obviously, you're not going to find someone with all of these attributes; we've
tried to prioritize the list, with #1 being the most important.

Who to Avoid

Kick this guy to the curb if he:
1. Uses "experience" to decide how many tons to sell you.
2. Promotes "Flexible Duct Systems" - Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just
get away with all possible haste.
3. Promotes board
     a. Do you really want to spend the time arguing over the
NAIMA checklist,
making sure your ducts won't begin to fall apart after he finishes?
     b. Do you really want to worry whether or not it's possible and/or safe to
inhale fiberglass?
4. Says "I've always done it this way and I never have a problem".

The "Business Arrangements"

1. Find out whether there's an "AHJ" (Authority Having Jurisdiction - a permitting
and/or licensing branch of your local municipal, county or state government) and
whether permits are required. If so, get the license holder's name and number
(State license info preferred). This is IMPERATIVE - It gives you real leverage
when problems arise if you can complain to a higher authority; the BBB is good,
but the threat of taking away a guy's livelihood may command just a little more
attention.  Try to have the license holder look at the completed job (this may not
be feasible in a large operation, but it doesn't hurt to ask).
2. Resist requests for a large initial payment - Why sign over 25% or 50% and
hope the guy shows up on time?
3. Negotiate a relatively large final payment (25% or more) and always withhold
it until required inspections have been performed; insist on a "certificate",
"sticker" or other written record of those inspections.
4. Don't place too much faith on extended labor warranties - who's to say if the
guy'll be in business when you need that free service? Think about today's
economy - many contractors are going OB as we speak.
5. Be very careful negotiating the price - the absolute last thing you need is
someone who makes up a price cut by short changing workmanship.
6. Carefully evaluate all proposals and ask questions - Nobody wants to spend
more than necessary, BUT you do get what you pay for.

Thanks

to the good guys who've inspired these comments (in alphabetical order): Bill,
Brian, Chris, Chuck, Dave, Del, George, Greg, Ken, Luke, Paul, Steve, Tim, Tom;
there are many more, please forgive omissions.

Thanks too to the liars and thieves who've schooled this old guy over the years.
You know who you are.
Quick Tips

If he won't perform
an accurate Manual
J (or similar method),
KICK HIM TO THE
CURB!

If he performs a
Manual J, but doesn't
know Manual J is a
book,
DUMP HIM!

Look for someone
who provides metal
duct systems and
has a sheet metal
fabrication shop.

Checking references
and/or calling the
BBB is fine - BUT
what does that tell
you about his work,
especially his
ductwork?

You'd be better off
spending the time
looking at a couple
of his jobs.

And make a point to
visit his shop - If you
can eat off the floor,
he might be your guy.
"Business
Arrangements"

Pay the absolute
minimum you can up
front.

Insist on a permit if
one is required.

Get the contractor's
state license number
for future reference:
The risk of losing his
license if things go
south commands
much more attention
than the BBB.

Hold as much as you
can until the job has
been completed to
your satisfaction AND
required inspections
have been
performed and
documented.