Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc. - Specializing in Older Buildings in Chicago
Adventures in Old House Wiring....

Your HVAC guy is NOT your electrician!

Old wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideOld wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideOld wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideOld wire Chicago Electrician Hyde Park south sideI have a long list of topics I would like  to study and master. I have an even longer list of things I would like to study and gain at least a fundamental understanding of. HVAC is one of them. Yes, I had a Heating and Air Conditioning class in trade school as an apprentice. That was in 1980. A lot of things have changed since then, my capacity to retain information chief among them. I would like to learn the basics of furnaces, AC units, condensers, freon, and so forth. To have a little understanding. If nothing else, just to know what I don't know.

But after doing this work for a long time, there are a few things I do know . One of them is that there are HVAC technicians who are dumb, others who are lazy, and still others that are kind of crooked. Now don't get me wrong, we all make mistakes, including me. I try my best to do things right and pay attention to the details, but like everyone I have mental slips from time to time. However I do endeavor to be honest with people, and admit that I may be wrong, and re-examine or double-check things to be sure what I thought was certain the first time around still is. Even then, at times I make a mistake. Being adamant about "I know I'm right because I have been doing this for 25 years!" is both foolhardy and arrogant. We ALL make mistakes.

The above notwithstanding, I have come to notice that during the first week of really hot weather, HVAC technicians are prone to make a lot of mistakes. To be fair, when you have 100 calls a day, are overbooked and way overheated, concentration can be a problem. So I give everybody the benefit of the doubt. But one thing that drives me nuts is when an HVAC tech gives a client total misinformation, and does it (perhaps) because he knows the client has no technical background with which to evaluate it.

About 10 days ago, when we had our first blush of hot weather, folks all over were firing up the central AC for the first time this year. I got a call from a friend and client whose kids go my my daughter's school. " The AC doesn't work, and the HVAC guy says its an electrical problem. How soon can you get over to look at it?" Now this puts me in a bit of a jam, because my time is pretty tight. But these are good friends, and a sweltering Victorian house is no fun. So I jump and say I can't be there today, but can be there in the morning.

I already know there are only a few ways it can truly be "an electrical problem," and based on the info he gave me it did not sound likely. ( I can elaborate on the technical details later if you wish) But long story short, I was pretty certain it would not be "an electrical problem." I started to explain the tests they can run themselves to verify it is not "an electrical problem," thinking I could save me time and them the money. But her husband had already left for work, and it was going to be another hot day, and what they really needed, and what was "good customer service," was for me to come over asap and test things. It may be too strong to say my customers have "emotional needs" that are as important as electrical ones. But to some degree that is true. Being told "I can't get there, I'm too busy right now" or "You can try these 3 tests yourself" does not send the message that "you are important to me." So I made it my business to be right over in the morning and push everything else on the schedule back.

When I got there, it did not take me very long to determine the problem was not "electrical" as the man said. Sure, every time they tried to operate the AC it would trip the breaker. Many clients see the breaker as indicative of the electrical system. I don't know if this guy made a mistaken diagnosis or just knew he could easily pawn this off and get out. But when the breaker trips every time you try to run the machine, then you disconnect the machine from the premises wiring and then reset the breaker. Viola! With no condenser connected to it, the breaker no longer trips! So much for "It"s an electrical problem"  One could take it a step further and reconnect the AC condenser, but BE SURE to turn the thermostat to "heat" rather then "cool", so you know after power is restored, the machine will not be immediately connected to the live power feed. In fact, it won't be connected until the thermostat tells it to "turn on."  At that point, the premises wiring will again be connected to the internal wiring of the AC condenser. and guess what? The breaker will trip again!

I opened the machine up, did all these tests, and verified that the 240V from the house premises wiring was perfectly fine. Note the pictures of my "wiggy," the voltage tester we commonly use, reading 240v with the little red indicator line settled in at 240V mark, the lower of the two sets of numbers on the green background. No problem, the electricity is just fine. I then showed my client all of this and explained it to her. The HVAC guy was just wrong. After I re-make the connections and put all the covers back, she asked how much she owes me. Our company's normal service call charge is 150.00 for the first hour of labor. This covers the travel and so forth. But it always feels very philistine of me to demand my full fee when I have not really "done anything."  Of course, I have "done something,"  and the knowledge I brought to the situation and the correct diagnosis is very valuable. But I always feel like a client will feel "Oh, great, first I pay this HVAC guy to come out and tell me I have an electrical problem, and  now I have to pay this guy to tell me I don't."  It often boils down to a "he said/she said" situation and the client usually lacks the technical understanding to see that I am right and the other guy is wrong. That is why I try to give demonstrations and explanations.Hopefully my reputation as honest and competent, along with them, will lend credence to my point of view. I still could probably use to be a bit more hard-nosed in business, because I said "You don't owe me anything."  They are good friends, and nice people, and it was really on my way from dropping Sarah at school anyway. I just don't feel right about asking people for their money in those situations. But she absolutely insisted, and I said OK, 75.00 is half. I'll send you a bill. 

So my lesson is to try to  reconcile the emotional and human side of my operation with the financial and business side of it. It is mandatory to be fair with people and fine to be a little generous, but I have to remember I have bills to pay and a business to run too. This particular client is a very good friend, so I'm happy with how it worked out.

But I do recommend that when your AC goes out the first hot week of the year, and you call for service, you inquire as much as you can about the terms your service people will apply. If possible, ask what their refund policy if they turn out to be wrong in their diagnosis. It couldn't hurt. Maybe that's "pie-in-the-sky" thinking on my part. If its 93 degrees out the HVAC company may just say "NO SOUP FOR YOU! NEXT!!!"  But it might be worth a try. It just bugs me to know they probably paid good money for useless information.

BTW....One of the things I want to study and master? How to work my computer, my photo program, and all that so when a photo that is vertical on my desktop shows up as horizontal when I upload it to my blog, I have some understanding of how to fix it....ah,, some day....
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