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The Slow Death of the Honest Technician
I was sitting in a session at the HVAC Excellence educators conference (which was excellent, by the way), and my phone buzzed. So, like a typical punk kid, I looked down at it to see that my friend Josh had sent me a Facebook message asking if we served the east side of Orlando because he wanted an A/C maintenance procedure on his home. I told him that we did not serve that part of town, and I didn't think anything else about it.
Then yesterday, I see this post:
So, we go out to look at it, and sure enough, something's wrong. The system is BARELY low, like 3 degrees of subcooling low, and we added 1/2 lb of R22 (weighed in) and did a leak detection. Yes, there was a TINY leak in the evaporator coil, so Josh will probably end up getting a new system at some point. However, the other tech did not do maintenance at all. He did not quote a coil or anything other than a system. He literally showed up, saw that the unit was 14 years old, pulled out his leak detector, found a hit, and wrote up a proposal for $5,400.00. He tried to close the “deal” right on site. No load calculations, no looking at the ducts—just a leak detection, a proposal, and run.
How many 14-year-old units have zero leaks?
He didn't clean the drain or the condenser coil; he hardly even checked the charge. Heck, Josh has a UV light that wasn't even working due to a simple loose connection, and he didn't look at that.
Unfortunately for this company, my friend Josh is a local consumer advocate who goes on local TV news REGULARLY to talk about ways to save money and EXPOSE SCAMS.
When I contacted the owner of this business to try and reason with them, they wrote me back that they were going to report me to the EPA because we recharged the unit. When I explained that recharging R22 on systems under 50 lbs is perfectly allowable, they responded with more threats and emotional rantings. (If you want to know more about the legality of recharging systems with R22, check out this article and its included video.)
The standard narrative is that there are just a bunch of greedy scammers out there trying to take advantage of people. Clearly, this is sometimes true, but the story is often longer and sadder than that. This type of thing often happens when well-meaning people get worn down.
Tell me if this sounds about right.
A new technician gets hired into the trade. Maybe he has some schooling, maybe he doesn't, but either way, he gets his EPA license and starts riding around with another tech. The tech he rides with spends most of the day complaining about his boss, dispatch, other techs, customers, and politics but does almost no ACTUAL training. When they arrive at the job, there are two main objectives:
#1 – Get in and out as quickly as possible with as little work as possible.
#2 – Sell as much as possible during that short time. These can be hard start kits, capacitors, and surge protectors in some places, IAQ products in others, and for some, it's always finding a way to push a new system. For many, it's all three.
Usually, this makes the new tech feel at least a little uncomfortable, but this starts to fade as the days of riding around whining broken by short stints of selling continue.
After a few months, the new tech is put into a van with some parts, pamphlets, invoices, and proposal forms and set loose on the world. If he is smart, he realizes pretty quickly that when his bosses talk about customer service, what they really mean is making as much money as possible in a day with few customer complaints and callbacks. Usually, the easiest way to do that is to condemn everything; when a system is replaced, nobody ever knows if your diagnosis was correct or not. When you do a PM, there is always something you can point to as a major issue that gives you an easy out. Cleaning, after all, does not ring the register.
Techs justify their behavior
When I was still in trade school back in 1999, I participated in a skills challenge against other students from schools across Florida. There was another guy who was already working in the field, and I remember him saying, “I never just change one part. I change as many as I can, and the customers never know the difference, and their unit will last longer.” I was as appalled by this type of thinking then as I am now, but I'm pretty sure he honestly believed he was doing the right thing. He had been brainwashed into thinking that this was what being a technician meant.
So, this all begs the question: who is to blame, and what can be done about it?
The Root Cause
It is just easier to make money when you focus on selling instead of technical excellence. You can be great at what you do and STILL not make a profit, but when you FOCUS on profit at every level, you will usually make more of it—for a while.
I actually blame the quality techs and companies who don't charge enough for what they do as one reason this happens.
I have been one of these contractors for years. We squeaked out a meager profit every year, driving used vans, using cheap tools, trying to make ends meet, and praying that the vans don't break down. All the while, the sales-focused businesses have new trucks and spiffy, clean uniforms.
The good guys need to stand up and stop apologizing for what we charge and what we do. We need to CHARGE for the high-quality maintenance we do so that we actually make a profit on it. We need to diagnose the whole system and make quality recommendations to our customers based on the solid and complete diagnosis we perform. There is no reason we shouldn't be able to afford quality tools and a well-stocked van if we are the ones WHO ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO USE THEM.
Instead, we beat each other up on pricing and undercut one another, calling another good, quality company that charges more a “rip-off” or a “scam” just because they have their pricing figured out to where they can actually make a profit.
The company that went out to my friend Josh's house was going to charge $5,400.00 for a 3.5-ton 14 SEER heat pump system. That isn't a crazy price, but to some, it may be seen as a “ripoff” because they would charge $4,500.00. We might charge $6,000.00 for the same system… with a new return liner and line set, installed with nitrogen flowing, evacuated to 300 microns, with a proper load calculation, permits, and a perfectly weighed-in charge confirmed by manufacturers' specs to a proper subcool.
The “rip-off” is the one who doesn't deliver on their promise, not the one who charges more.
What to do about it
If you are a manager or owner of a company, make sure you support your techs to get more TECHNICALLY sound and support them to use those legitimate technical skills to translate into profitable repairs and quality workmanship. Communication skills are key in a residential tech; a tech who understands IAQ like the back of his hand will naturally sell more IAQ products. A tech who understands airflow and duct design will sell more duct upgrades, and the tech who understands complete system performance will make more needed repairs. This is a long road, and there are no shortcuts.
R22 isn't illegal. Not every customer needs a UV light. A hard start kit doesn't magically extend the life of all compressors. Not every PM is an opportunity to sell something. Not every system out of warranty NEEDS to be replaced.
If you are one of the good guys, let's band together, keep our heads up, and charge enough to have a good life.