Buying HVAC Equipment Without a Middleman
By Chris Brooks and Gary Sprague
Buying new HVAC equipment – whether an air conditioner, boiler, furnace or similar product – directly from an online HVAC retailer represents a substantial cost-saving opportunity for homeowners. HVAC contractors often build a substantial markup into the price that they quote consumers to compensate for the costs of running their business (i.e. sales calls, running load calculations, etc.). There are a number of companies that offer 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, such as:
- How do you determine what size equipment to buy?
- How do you choose which brand and model of equipment to buy?
- How do you have equipment delivered to your house?
- How do you keep your equipment warranty intact?
- How can you find a qualified contractor willing to install the equipment you purchased?
- How much will it cost to buy and install the equipment?
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 possible to save a substantial amount of money if you are willing to take on some additional legwork yourself. Read on to learn more about the factors involved in buying your equipment from a consumer-direct retailer.
Determining what Size Equipment (i.e. AC or Furnace) to Buy
Equipment sizing affects the comfort of your home as well as the ongoing costs to operate your new furnace or air conditioner. If the equipment is too small, it won't adequately heat or cool your 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. 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 who 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.
Determining which Brand or Model to Buy
People often choose which furnace or air conditioner to buy based on the brand names with which they are comfortable. An alternative 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.
An additional approach is to examine the lists of the most highly rated series of HVAC equipment. FurnaceCompare generates these lists from the thousands of reviews that homeowners and contractors submit to the site:
HVAC equipment is heavy and bulky, not the sort of thing you can just throw into the trunk of your car and bring home. Unless you have access to a heavy-duty truck with a lift gate, you’ll need to have your equipment delivered. Luckily, most online consumer-direct retailers provide free delivery. They also bear responsibility for any damage incurred during shipping. While this sounds great, the delivery will likely be left outside the home, with you as the homeowner bearing the responsibility of moving the equipment into the garage, basement, or wherever it will be installed. If it is damaged while being moved inside, you are responsible.
A few companies offer different delivery options for HVAC equipment. For instance, for a fee of $55 the equipment will be delivered to your front door, but for $115 it will be delivered to the room of choice and unpacked. When purchasing something as large and heavy as a furnace, it’s usually worth paying the extra amount to have it brought inside.
Keeping 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. Also, Rheem states that “Rheem published warranties are not applicable for any equipment manufactured by Rheem that has been sold direct to the consumer via the internet or auction websites without an in-person site visit, inspection, and installation by a qualified, trained HVAC professional.”
In general, HVAC manufacturers appear to oppose consumer-direct purchases for several reasons:
- First, the manufacturers 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 qualified HVAC contractor install this type of equipment. This is one do-it-yourself project that could literally kill you if done incorrectly.
- 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. After speaking with representatives from six of the major brands, we have determined that as long as you meet these criteria, you should not have a problem with your warranty. Even with Goodman, which 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 on the internet.
Of course, this is not a guarantee that you will not have problems. If you have any questions about your warranty, you should direct them to the retailer from whom you buy your equipment, or to your brand's customer support phone number.
Finding a Qualified Contractor
A number of consumers have reported finding that HVAC companies are reluctant to work with them when they have purchased equipment direct from an online distributor. You are much better off finding a contractor to work with you before you have purchased your equipment, so that they can guide you in getting appropriately sized and configured equipment. You have a few options in terms of finding a qualified contractor to install your purchase. In order of convenience, they are:
- If you have worked with an HVAC contractor previously, give them a call, explain what you want to do, and see if they are interested in working with you again.
- Ask your friends and neighbors if they have an HVAC contractor that they recommend. Call this contractor, tell them that a friend or neighbor referred you, and see if they are willing to work with you.
- If you purchase your equipment from a big box store, they may offer an installation service. These contractors are typically independent companies that pay the big box store a marketing fee to provide them with homeowners looking for a contractor.
- 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.
If using the latter options, be sure to refer to our tips on how to select a contractor.
Determining the Cost of Buying and Installing your Equipment
You can't simply find a "Blue Book" or price list for central heating and cooling equipment. The price of installation varies between different brands of equipment, and based on how much work is involved in configuring and installing the unit. However, the following articles will help give you a ballpark price, and understand how HVAC contractors set prices: