Ask an Expert: Interview with an HVAC Contractor

HVAC installation

Cyprus Air Heating and Air Conditioning is based in Lorton, VA and services the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region. The company has been in business since 1967 and provides the full range of heating and cooling services, including installation of new systems and maintenance and repair of existing systems. We recently interviewed Brian Downs, Cyprus’ installation manager, for some expert advice on all your HVAC questions.

What are the most important steps a homeowner can take to maintain the HVAC system, especially to maximize energy efficiency?

The most important thing is to change the air filter on your system. Your HVAC system needs to “breathe” air to operate as efficiently and cleanly as possible. The filter traps anything that could get into the system and clog up the motor. Without proper filtration, particles can accumulate on the motor coils and make it much harder for the system to work properly.

How often should the filter be changed or cleaned?

Most manufacturers say three months, but I clean mine once a month whether it needs it or not. If you can’t see light passing through the filter, that’s when you know it’s time to clean or change it. Not only does that help the system operate more efficiently day-to-day, but it extends the life of the system overall. A washable filter is just fine. Just remember, the cleaner the air filter, the longer the motor will last.

What can or should a contractor do that a homeowner can’t or shouldn’t?

You should definitely let a contractor recharge the refrigerant for the air conditioning. You can buy AC recharge canisters to hook up to your AC and spray in to recharge the refrigerant and supposedly fix leaks. But those do-it-yourself sprays deteriorate the system so much, they often ruin them—so leave recharging the refrigerant to the professional.

It’s easy to keep your outdoor AC unit clean by washing it off occasionally with a garden hose, keeping it free of debris, and removing plants that might climb up over it. But you shouldn’t try to scrape dirt and grime off the unit with a brush, because you might damage the system. And if your unit gets really crusted over, the contractor may need to use a cleaning chemical to get the unit cleaned up.

Some other jobs that you should leave to the contractor include:

  • Testing all electrical components of a heating system, whether it’s powered by gas, electricity, heating oil, or propane.
  • Checking the connections, electrical components, and safety devices, like the switches that may turn off the system if it overheats.
  • Taking a look at the flue—if there is one—to make sure gas is being exhausted properly.

Woman Female HVAC Repair

What are the most common or typical mistakes a homeowner makes that require the services of an HVAC contractor?

Not cleaning the filter regularly is probably the number one mistake!

Another is not being aware of whether or not there are dampers on the duct system. If you have little handles on the ducts, they need to be switched for summer and winter. The dampers redirect air upstairs in summer to maximize cooling, and downstairs when heating in colder months. Redirecting the ducts optimizes the comfort level of the air on each level of the home—and it’s an easy way to fix heating and cooling problems—so check to see if your ducts are being directed properly before you replace the entire system.

The third is getting rid of gunk buildup—and this will happen any place there’s water. For an easy fix, dilute bleach with 3/4 cup of warm water and 1/4 cup of bleach and pour it into the condensate container to keep the condensate moving smoothly out of the system. Otherwise, your contractor may need to replace the container at some point. They’ll check this when they do maintenance on your system, but you can help keep it gunk-free in between maintenance visits.

How can a homeowner find the right contractor for the job? Should a homeowner choose an independent contractor or work with an HVAC company?

Good online reviews are not always an accurate indicator of good service. A smaller company that’s just getting started may have asked friends to leave reviews. It’s important to look at how many years a company has been in business. Also, word of mouth is still probably one of the most reliable ways to pick a contractor, so trust your friends and neighbors for any services they rave about.

How often should the HVAC system be maintained?

Many people skip maintenance because they don’t want to spend the money or don’t think it’s necessary. But it’s crucial in order to keep your system running for a long time.

We recommend looking at your system at least once a year—though twice a year is preferable. Since your contractor should check both the AC and the furnace, make sure to schedule it at a temperate time of year. If it’s too cold outside, you won’t get a good analysis of the AC. And if it’s too hot outside, the same goes for the furnace.

HVAC Repair

How much should a homeowner be prepared to pay for a contractor’s services? Are there fees for service calls, plus parts and labor?

Fees are going to depend on the service being performed. Many companies discount fees on services for customers that have a maintenance contract. Some companies also give preferential treatment to their contract customers.

Keep in mind that the more you spend on your maintenance contract, the more likely it will include high-value services like coil cleanings, blower wheel cleanings, and other checks that might be charged separately without a contract.

Service calls can be very competitive in a region. Generally, the more you pay for a service call, the less likely they’ll come out and try to sell you something. If the service call charge is low—say fifty dollars—the guy will probably try to persuade you that you need to buy something or get an accessory that you don’t necessarily need.

In addition to repairing, maintaining, or replacing an HVAC system, what other services might an HVAC contractor provide?

 They can also replace your thermostat and install an air purification system. New smart thermostats that are Wi-fi capable can be set so they’ll program themselves for you personally. They can turn themselves on when they know you’re on your way home, monitor your energy usage patterns, and get the house ready for you so it’s comfortable. You can control some systems with your smart phone, while others others can pick up signals from your smart phone when you’re getting close to your home, and use those signals to kick on. We can help you figure out what thermostat to get and wire it in.

What should a homeowner expect during an HVAC replacement?

Since every system is different, they all require a different approach. New equipment will most likely be physically bigger and take up more space than the equipment being replaced, since energy efficiency standards have increased. If the new equipment can be put into the existing space available and a lot of new duct work is not needed, chances are the system can be replaced in one day. If walls need to come down to accommodate larger units—and if duct work needs to be revised—replacement could take two days.

We always recommend that homeowners get in-home estimates before purchasing a new system. It’s never a good idea to get an estimate over the phone, since it’s important for the contractor to have a physical look at your system—otherwise, a contractor might end up overpromising and underdelivering.

Energy Efficient AC Unit Thermostat

What should a homeowner look for after an HVAC repair or replacement (e.g. lower energy bills, improved efficiency, signs it wasn’t fixed?)

Lower energy bills are a given, especially on AC units which are more efficient than what they’re replacing. You get what you pay for, so the more efficient the equipment you buy, the bigger the impact on your utility bill.

If a system is not properly installed, it might look a little askew or cockeyed. Check places where pipes are welded together, for example. Are they tight? Loose? Is there any kind of oil leaking? Those might be indications that the system wasn’t installed properly. Does it look untidy? If someone is doing the laundry and looking at their unit, we want it to look good aesthetically, not sloppy or disjointed. Are things level? Is piping orderly, not going at a lot of weird angles?

If doesn’t look right, it might not be right. Take a picture and email it to the company. Let them know you don’t think it looks right, and ask them what they think. I like it when customers do this! Sometimes I’ll agree with them and send my guy back to fix something. Other times, I can tell them why it’s supposed to look like that.

What should a consumer take into account when buying a new HVAC system?

You get what you pay for. There are countless brands of equipment—some have names you might’ve heard of, while others will be unfamiliar. I’ve always believed the units are virtually identical. The components are made by various manufacturers, since very few HVAC companies make their own equipment—they just put together the components. When it comes to picking a system, the most important things to consider are quality control in the factory where they were made, availability of parts, and the warranty the manufacturer provides. Carrier and Train excel at that.

Availability of parts is big issue, too. Components will fail. Whether that part is readily available from the manufacturer depends on what is available to them. Smaller manufacturers might have a harder time providing a part.

The warranty offered is based on how long the system is expected to last. Most manufacturers offer a 10 year warranty, because companies want their systems to last as long as you do. The labor warranty should be a consideration, as well. Many companies only offer a one-year labor warranty. If a company is offering a labor warranty longer than a year, the company believes in its service.

Some companies hire third parties to fulfill their labor warranties. But those parties might not treat homeowners fairly. For example, they might demand to see a customer’s maintenance records, or deny covered service because the customer didn’t maintain their system regularly. In other words, they look for reasons to deny a claim. It’s better to have the warranty fulfilled by the contractor that installs the system.

 Any last words of advice?

You’re going to have your HVAC system for a long time. Understand that the better you maintain your system, the longer it will last and the more it will save you on your utility bills. Develop a relationship with your contractor. They’re going to want to take care of you and look for anything that’s inhibiting maximum performance.

2 Responses

  1. Jalu Sakti

    I like the tip in here about the service warranty and how if a company offers a warranty for more than a year, they believe in their product. I think that is a really helpful tip for finding the right kind of HVAC company to work with. Now that I know this, I will definitely look for companies that have longer warranties and hope that they really believe in their units.

  2. Good. I’m glad you find the article helpful.

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