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Two HVAC Professionals inspecting a central air conditioning unit.

HVAC Contractors

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A pro specializing in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) knows how to design, install, and maintain the major mechanical systems in your home that provide climate control—keeping you warm in winter and cool in summer. But finding the right pro is about more than comfort. Heating and cooling costs account for about half of your utility bills every year. So the energy efficiency of these systems has a lasting impact on your expenses. The advice here goes beyond getting multiple estimates from licensed and insured contractors, though that’s still important. Our guide will help you find a knowledgeable HVAC pro you can trust.

1

Know your energy source—fuel oil, natural gas, electricity, etc. Then use this chart at Energy.gov to look into the variety of heating and cooling systems appropriate for your climate, so you’re prepared to discuss their pros and cons with the contractor.

In the Northeast, a lot of homes still run on fuel-oil boilers that send steam or hot water through radiators. In the Midwest, you’ll typically find gas or electric forced-air furnaces and air-conditioning units that share ductwork running throughout the house. In the hot and humid Southeast, you might run into something called a desiccant enhanced evaporative air conditioner. Heat pumps are a tempting option in areas without wide temperature swings and moderate heating and cooling needs. An extremely efficient option for any climate is radiant heat, but only for new construction or gut remodels. And thanks to recent technological advances, ductless heat-pump systems (often called mini-splits), which allow room-by-room zoning, are an increasingly popular retrofit option for handling heating and cooling in warm and cold climates alike. Find out which systems your HVAC pro typically installs and why.

Be knowledgeable about Energy Star appliances and units. Read up on the most reliable air conditioning systems, our advice on furnaces, boilers, heat pumps, and the pros and cons of various climate systems. And check social media and the Better Business Bureau for reviews of your local contractors.

2

Know the model of your current system and its maintenance history. It’s also a good idea to make note of any problem areas in the house—rooms that are always uncomfortably hot or cold relative to the others. This will help potential contractors better understand your heating needs. The contractor should inspect your current system to assess its performance, determine whether it meets your home’s needs, and pinpoint any measures that can immediately improve its efficiency. Those steps may include sealing leaky ductwork, insulating attics, or even simple DIY projects such as weather-stripping windows, doors, and outlets to stop air leaks.

3

Insist that your contractor conducts a heat load calculation, known as a “Manual J,” before installing a new system. A good contractor won't need convincing, as this is the industry standard methodology for sizing a system, which takes into account the volume of your house, level of insulation, number and type of windows and doors, and local climate. It’s an important step to avoid ending up with more heating and cooling capacity than you need—an oversized system will saddle you with a needlessly inflated utility bill for the life of the system.

4

Take advantage of the off-season. While many HVAC contractors handle both heating and cooling, some specialize in one or the other. Take advantage of the lull these specialists experience to get a better deal by calling heating contractors in the summer and cooling contractors in the winter, when they’re hungry for work. They’re more likely to return your calls and arrive on time for estimates. They also may be more eager to schedule work and may offer better deals as they consider the quiet months ahead of them before their busy season starts.

5

Know how to deal with asbestos. Inexpensive and very heat-resistant, asbestos was used to wrap heating equipment and pipes until it was banned for this use in the 1970s, though that ban was later overturned in 1991. When ingested, asbestos is known to cause cancer. But the presence of asbestos in your HVAC system is not cause for instant alarm. If the insulating and piping are in secure, contained condition, the asbestos likely does not pose you harm.

However, if the asbestos is torn, cut, or water-damaged, or if upgrading your system is going to require cutting, removing, sanding, or otherwise disturbing the asbestos in any way, your HVAC pro should have someone on their team who is trained and accredited in handling the material. If they don’t, then you should hire someone to do this before work is started on your HVAC system. State agencies have the most current listings of accredited professionals in your area.  

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