Beware of HVAC Technicians

In the fall of 2015, I did something which I felt was for my own good:  I quit my job as a local truck driver, and pursued a residential HVAC maintenance position at a Portland area company.  My view then, for which I still stand by, was that the sensible thing to do was to work in a field or related field that could teach me a valuable skill, and for the first time provide an opportunity to really use my head, rather than only my back.  I have long considered HVAC as a trade, but was too cautious to throw my hat in the ring, since the vast majority of the fellas I’ve met doing HVAC or refrigeration were ego driven, pig-headed, stubborn assholes with a god complex.  Also, by its very nature, HVAC techs works a lot when it is really hot or cold, and not always in the most favorable of environments generally.  I want to be in this to hone my brazing skills, get plenty of trouble shooting experience, and hopefully make a little money to fund my personal refrigeration projects.

In nine months or so at this company, I went from curiosity and excitement, to boredom and cynicism.  That part is hardly new; I always get bored.  The strange part came from an initial image of ongoing education, and good honest work.

Starting in installations, I was impressed to see the quality which the journeymen strove to achieve.  This work could be pretty labor intensive, especially if anything needs run through the attic or crawl space.  I’m not as nimble and flexible as I once was.  Leave that labor to the younger guys.  I was moved to the maintenance program within 6 weeks.  After all, I was hired to eventually do repairs.  On this side of things, I saw that good old god complex attitude in more than one technician, but there were two good technicians for every one bad, so I can live with that.  The part that bugs me, is the amount of sales we are expected to achieve.

I’ll try to lay out the general scheme here.  This program is practiced around the country (US) in various forms, but this is how mine worked.  The company strictly does residential HVAC installations, preventative maintenance, repairs, and duct cleaning.  We do not do new construction anymore.  Preventative maintenance programs are sold for an annual fee, or by the month, and generally include one visit a year per piece of equipment.  These PMs are usually quite comprehensive and include a thorough cleaning.  Any other issues the homeowner may be having can be addressed at this time, or scheduled for another visit.  With any luck, the customer never has to call for a repair tech, because problems are caught during the PM.  That’s the sell anyway.

The quality and low cost puts these PMs in an above average category for this area, in my opinion.  I have seen a lot of spotty work from other companies, and find that homeowners are often pretty ignorant when it comes to their system, so it is our job to educate.  I believe that was my favorite part of the job; most people in my area are pretty cool, and they all have a story if you are good at coaxing it out.  As I gained technical experience, and was better able to satisfy the customer’s needs in my capacity to keep them comfortable at a low cost, I was constantly butting up against the goals of the company which were of course, sell, sell, SELL!

First example is stuff like blower wheel cleanings, duct cleanings, AC covers, condensate pan tablets, and the rest of the over priced bullshit.  Some of these are necessary at times, others not so much.  But hey, when you’re wages are based on your sales, that could quickly affect the conditions of your “professional opinion”.

Say a furnace and AC tune-up costs $200 and takes about three hours, so in that time your system is cleaned up like new, any potential problems are noted or fixed, any questions you might have are answered, and I make $42- before taxes.  Yep!  I make $14 per hour.  Not the lowest wage, but to represent a company and be expected to apply technical knowledge to varying conditions– I think it a bit cheap.

Then if you need some parts replaced, that’s going to be at least $160 over the original visit cost, even if the part only costs $9, and it takes two minutes to install; you’re paying for someone that knows why and how to put it in, and he or she makes a tiny fraction of that cost.  Other things might cost $30 or $40, take five minutes to install, and cost you $260.  I don’t make any commission for installing this part, and nor should I, but it does raise my ranking against the other employees.  Yep, we’re ranked.

Next, we have club memberships.  This is common around the country, I gather.  For a few dollars less than our regular visit price, you can pre-pay for next year, and we’ll come out to do it all again.  Very sensible for some folks that want that peace of mind, but for most it is overkill to have maintenance every year.  By being a member, you get various discounts on services, parts, repair calls, and priority service for emergency calls.  It is in my best interest to see you join this club, and continue annually, as my wages are affected by this.  I make an extra $10 per piece of equipment that is signed up.  That can easily bump hourly wages up a few dollars an hour when you’re good at selling them, and I was, for a while…

Then there are “opportunities”.  Any equipment being serviced which is more than 12 years old is an opportunity for replacement.  This is the part that really grinds my gears.  I have had a few sales, but not many.  Some folks have systems with serious problems, and the repair is so expensive that it does not justify the cost, so they replace.  As I look through a customer’s history, I see reminder after reminder, year after year, that your equipment is getting old, and needs replaced very soon.  Know why?  I make $20 just by getting you to set up an appointment with a salesman, $40 more for a sale, or $80 more for a system sale.  That is quite the incentive.  Duct cleanings are %10, which can be pretty large.

Until the end of it, my sales were in the toilet, and I liked it that way.  Those big juicy incentive checks are nice, but it feels like dirty money.  The last few weeks have been the most rewarding, as I have found it best to be absolutely honest with people, and provide sound advice, or at least an educated opinion from someone that does this everyday.  In a world saturated with thick clouds of bullshit, people are surprised when they’re told NOT TO BUY SOMETHING.  It is much easier to be honest.  I shouldn’t have to say that, but this was my experience.

The fact of the matter is, unless you’re current heating or cooling equipment is notoriously unreliable, it needs a very expensive repair, or the size of the heat load is such that a higher efficiency unit will pay for itself- than replacement is foolish and a waste of money.  The latest and greatest equipment might be more efficient, but you probably aren’t going to see a return on that investment, especially if the damned thing has so many stupid bells and whistles to eek out another one percent of efficiency (defined and tested in some specific conditions, and assumed to be installed in similar).  In my short time there, I saw hundreds of different air conditioners and furnaces.  Some I liked better than others.  Some appear to be more reliable than others, and the unfortunate fact is, the newer higher efficiency models are often trouble.

Let’s not forget the annual maintenance call which costs $200?  That is going to make it hard to see a return on that fancy new equipment.  My suggestion?  Get a preventative tune up every 3 to 5 years, unless you think there are issues.  If the repair is over $800 to $1200, and the equipment is over 20 years old, consider replacement, but only consider it.  If the technician is being straight and appears to be competent, perhaps do the repair.  My general advice: RUN IT!  If it breaks down, we’ll get to you soon.

I am leaving that position, as I felt that my role there was that of a salesman lite.  Regular maintenance was less of the intention, than it was to look for sales opportunities while in the home.  We are there to “butter ’em up”, also known in porn lingo as a “fluffer”.

Don’t get me wrong, even with some healthy sales, there was plenty of chance to really help people, but I spent most of the time cleaning the paint off of ACs that are already clean, and discussing the merits of club membership to people that really don’t need it.  In my capacity as a maintenance technician, I learned a tremendous amount of useful ventilation, gas furnace, air conditioning, and customer service skills.  It was a valuable experience, but I see now that I have no business in that industry, other than doing some odd jobs on the side.

Besides, that much time spent in suburbia was apt to drive a man like me to madness.

-M.C. Pletcher


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6 comments on “Beware of HVAC Technicians
  1. Just….good for you. I’m impressed by your openess and honesty and ability to make the sometimes hard decision to leave what isn’t working for you.

    • mcpletcher says:

      Thank you for the kind words, Parker! I got a Linux laptop up and running, so now it is time to get back into some blog writing. I see you have been quite busy building your home. Looks like you have had some rough road bumps along the way, but it is really coming together! Congrats!

  2. I can relate – I did not like the sales part of being ‘field personnel’ either. Clients do value honest consulting though, and if you dissuade them from investing in something that does not make sense they will return someday for more true consulting in the future. Nothing makes you more trustworthy than renouncing of some low-hanging-fruits-style quick revenue from my experience. But I think it only works out (for you) if you run your own business and don’t have to report ‘leads’ to somebody else.

    • mcpletcher says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I know that is exactly how I operate when doing my own side work. As a company, I see greater long term success through a policy of honesty, than constantly attempting to up-sell.

      There is also a cult of efficiency in that company, and many others to be sure. It is espoused that anything old is inherently inefficient, and therefore must be replaced immediately. The problem is, a return on investment for small residential equipment (especially air conditioners in this climate), is practically non-existent. On top of that, the newer stuff is not as reliable, so any potential savings is destroyed by frequent service calls and our annual maintenance program.

      Do what you know. I’ll be honest and let the sales up to somebody without strong ethics.

  3. HarrN says:

    You don’t have to give up your ethics in order to sell, but I can see how that is a common concern. Don’t let one job experience in the industry drive you away from your interest in refrigeration technology. You have a chance to make some real contributions, both technically and socially.

  4. It is good for you that you have posted it here which is very helpful especially to those who can read it and understand its content well. I admire your openness and honesty and ability to make sometimes difficult decisions that for you will be successful.

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