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Buying Heating and Air Conditioning Systems Online

Buying Items Online is Great for Many Things...
Your Home's Heating and Air Conditioning
System May Not be One of Them.
picture of owner, c. andrew john

By C. Andrew John

Recently, I've had people asking me what I thought about buying heating and cooling equipment online. To be frank, I'm more than a little leery. As a contractor familiar with equipment and labor costs and the day to day realities of my industry, I thought I'd take a few minutes to explain why I'm concerned.

My First Concern is that Buying HVAC Systems Online Puts the Cart Before the Horse...

The seller collects up front for a system an uneducated buyer (the homeowner) has chosen according to very limited and, quite possibly, faulty criteria. In most cases, the companies that are offering the ability to order a system online use the system that is currently in the home to determine which new system is the correct fit. This is not a good idea - and here's why:

According to a statement posted by Energy Star... "...nearly half of all HVAC systems are incorrectly installed." Additional studies by industry professionals state that the majority of systems are not installed correctly. They state the following:

  • 72% of installed systems are improperly sized
  • 68% of AC Systems were not charged correctly
  • 70% of new systems installed do not have proper airflow to support system performance
  • 91% did not get tested for combustion safety and efficiency
Judging from my experience in Mesa, AZ and the surrounding areas we serve... it is quite common to find improperly sized equipment in homes (over- or under-sized).

Selecting a new heating and air conditioning system based on the capacity of your existing equipment is not a good idea. If your existing system needs to be replaced - because it failed, your utility costs are high, or it is inefficient and doesn't keep your home comfortable, having an over- or under-sized unit is likely the culprit!

There are good reasons heating and cooling manufacturers have traditionally opposed or forbidden selling equipment direct to the end user, online or otherwise.

There is liability, but also the dynamics of heating and cooling mechanics and efficiency are complex, especially with today's systems. Complications can range from being outright dangerous to higher than expected operating costs, failures, and reduced equipment life. For all of the reasons mentioned, manufacturers require that installation of their equipment be done by a licensed contractor in order to validate the warranty on new equipment. The online process requires this and offers you a couple choices, however, the quality of work done by licensed contractors runs the gamut.

That Leads to My Second Concern: Are You Free to Choose a Licensed HVAC Contractor You Can Trust When You Buy Online?

Or, are you forced to choose from only contractors who have agreed to do installations at minimal profit in exchange, it seems, for the promise of a steady stream of leads? With installation being critical to the life and performance of a system, cutting corners on installation is looking for trouble. Understand, the quality of the heating and cooling system is not the problem.

The equipment is exactly the same whether you buy it online or through a HVAC contractor. The issue has everything to do with the quality of installation and the related buyer's protections. Any manufacturer will tell you that whether their equipment actually performs as advertised will overwhelmingly depend on the quality of the installation including whether all factors that will affect performance have been identified and optimized.

That's why we perform a complete In-Home Evaluation before we recommend a system. This includes looking at your current system, but we also look at the structural needs of your home, ductwork, insulation, improvements you may have made (like adding on a room or changing the layout of rooms in your home that the system was not originally designed around), and a host of other things. We even consider your lifestyle... do you live in your home year round? Do you travel a lot? Do you have kids and pets running in and out? Do you have a theater room, gaming rooms, or the like? Finally, we consider local building codes and manufacturer-recommended installation requirements.

All of this information is used to determine which system fits your needs. It's the ONLY way for us to ensure that it will be installed correctly to meet or exceed manufacturer and local code requirements. This can't be done without being in your home.

My Third Concern is Somewhat Related to My Second: Cost and Quality are Typically Related.

In terms of buying online, the broker's profit in this arrangement is considerably better than the installing contractor's margin, which is much slimmer and more variable, both in terms of profit and risk. The installing contractor makes much less profit for the more critical, labor-intensive job of providing fulfillment. Unless they are able to get the buyer to agree to purchase additional products or services at a more sustainable margin, the contractor's meager profit on the base installation rate can only be significantly improved by reducing man hours on the job or using lower-paid workers. It's a bad set up.

These things concern me and, likely, many other contractors, which is perhaps why the list of contractors agreeing to participate and do installations under such terms is limited.
Finally, There is the Question of Who is Responsible for Your Satisfaction When You Buy a Heating or Air Conditioning System Online - is it You, the Seller, the Manufacturer, or the Installer?
In any other situation you can think of, does involving three or more parties clarify who is ultimately responsible or does it muddy the waters? If you've ever contracted work on your home and ended up with problems, you fully understand the importance of getting each party's responsibilities and your recourse in writing. Bad experiences tend to create smarter consumers.

These are good questions to ask up front and to get in writing:
  • Is the equipment warranty through the online broker or the installing contractor? Which party supports the warranty?
  • What if issues arise that are traced to installation, does the installing contractor offer any guarantees on their work? Will they make it right at their cost? For how long?
  • Do they offer a money-back satisfaction guarantee? If so, for how long? Who do you collect from?
  • If a customer wants to exit the arrangement after they have paid for the system, but before it is installed, what are their obligations? Will they get a full refund?
This new frontier has several cautionary flags. Manufacturers are surely monitoring it closely for their own reasons. From a consumer standpoint, consider that you can buy the finest bay window made, but if it's installed wrong, you'll hate it. It's no different with your home's heating and cooling system. The quality of your installation, and the protections that back it, assure your ongoing enjoyment of the end result. Few people argue with paying a fair price for good value, but rarely is good value attained at the lowest possible cost, particularly when craftsmanship is key. If you have questions please give us a call - and by the way we offer No-Cost, No Obligations quotes for heating and AC replacements! Click here to schedule.