Buying HVAC Equipment Without a Middleman
By Chris Brooks
Buying your new HVAC Equipment (like an air conditioner, boiler or furnace) directly from an HVAC retailer represents one of your most substantial cost-savings opportunities. HVAC contractors often build a substantial markup into the price that they quote consumers to compensate for some of the costs of running their business (i.e. sales calls, running load calculations, etc.) There are a number of companies that can offer you substantially lower prices if you purchase your equipment directly, without having a contractor purchase it for you.
However, buying consumer-direct equipment can also present a set of potential problems:
- How do you determine what size equipment to buy?
- How do you determine which brand / model of equipment to buy?
- How do you keep your equipment warranty intact?
- How can you find a qualifed contractor willing to install the equipment you purchased?
In some situations consumers may be best-served by getting competitive bids from several contractors, and having the winning contractor purchase and install the unit. However, it is usually possible to save a substantial amount of money if you are willing to take on some additional legwork yourself. This article outlines the issues you should consider if you are thinking about buying your equipment from a consumer-direct retailer.
How to determine what size equipment (i.e. AC or Furnace) to buy
Equipment sizing affects both the comfort of your home, and your ongoing costs to operate your new furnace or air conditioner. If the equipment is too small, it won't adequately heat or cool you house. If it is too large, it will cycle on and off more often than necessary. This cycling is inefficient and will unnecessarily increase the cost of running the unit. You want to make sure that your furnace or air conditioner is the right size. The only accurate way to determine the appropriate size is to perform a load calculation.
If you choose to purchase from a consumer-direct retailer, you have several options:
- You can hire an HVAC contractor to perform a load calculation for you. This is an excellent solution, providing you know a contractor that is willing to work piecemeal with you on this project.
- You can purchase load calculation software and perform the calculation yourself.
- You can rely on an estimate of the appropriate load (i.e. buy a unit the same size as the unit you are replacing, or use a load calculation "rule of thumb". FurnaceCompare recommends that you do a full load calculation -- rules of thumb often provide poor results.
How to determine which brand or model to buy
People often choose which furnace or air conditioner to buy based on brand names with which they are comfortable. An alternate approach is to look at the warranties offered by the different brands. (You can find a summary of warranty information on each brand profile in the left toolbar.) The brands that provide longer standard warranties typically do so because they know that their risk of costly repairs is minimal.
How to keep your warranty intact
HVAC equipment brands have varying policies on whether they will honor warranties on equipment purchased online. Goodman, for example, says that the warranty of any furnace purchased online is null and void.
HVAC manufacturers appear to oppose consumer-direct purchases for several reasons.
- First, they have a valid concern that consumers should not install HVAC equipment by themselves. FurnaceCompare would like to reiterate this concern -- you really need to have a qualifed HVAC contractor install this equipment. This is one do-it-yourself project that could literally kill you if you do it wrong.
- Second, some brands have found that the return rate is higher on products purchased online -- presumably because unqualified people have installed the product, and damaged the unit in the process.
- Third, although the brands typically sell to regional distributors, their bread and butter depends on HVAC contractors recommending their brands to buyers. Thus, they tend to favor policies that keep their contractors happy.
However, most brands focus primarily on whether you purchased your equipment through a licensed distributor and had it installed by a licensed HVAC contractor. As long as you meet these criteria, you should not have a problem with your warranty. (Note: this conclusion was reached after speaking with representatives from six of the major brands. However, this is not a guarantee that you will not have problems. If you have any questions about your warranty, please direct them to the retailer from whom you buy your equipment, or to your brand's customer support phone number.) Even with Goodman, (who has a policy of invalidating the warranty of any equipment purchased online), the warranty remains valid if you purchase your equipment from a consumer-direct retailer over the phone, rather than placing the order online.
How to find a qualified contractor
A number of consumers have reported finding that HVAC companies are reluctant to work with them on an hourly basis. You have a few options in terms of finding a qualified contractor to install your purchase. In order of convenience, they are:
- If you already have an HVAC contractor who has done work for you in the past, give them a call, explain what you want to do, and see if they are interested in working with you.
- Ask your friends and neighbors who they have used for HVAC work. Give them a call, tell them that a friend or neighbor referred you, and see if they are interested in working with you.
- If you have oil or propane delivered to your house for your furnace, call the company, and see if they have an HVAC contractor on staff. They may be willing to work with you, since you have an ongoing relationship with them.
- Pick up the yellow pages, turn to the section on HVAC and start calling.