HomeTown Heating Nickeling & Diming

For five decades of my life, I was either an engineer, learning to be one, or getting over it.  But being an engineer did not automatically make me an expert in plumbing, electricity or residential heating and cooling — all of which I’ve had to deal with as a homeowner.

Which brings me to the not-long-ago day that our downstairs gas furnace began making a loud rattle when the heat came on.  I responded like the dyed-in-the-wool engineer I was:  (a) I turned off the furnace; (b) I did a lot of internet searches; and (c) I decided that what I didn’t know about furnaces — and my general wariness about gas, explosions and such — warranted a call to the HVAC outfit that originally installed our system.

The soonest we could get a tech to diagnose our problem was that Friday, four days out.  Lucky us that this was the downstairs system, where our guest rooms are, and that we didn’t have guests who needed to be warm.  So anyway, Friday, the repairman shows up (I’ll call him Jimmy, since he was a guy, of course — we’ve never had a female plumber, electrician or HVAC person) and he proceeds to go about his work as I dutifully stand by, ready to serve by holding a flashlight or offering troubleshooting advice.  Jimmy politely declined all help.

Now, even before Jimmy arrived, I’d figured that the source of the noise was the gas valve.  In a furnace, there are only three things that can move and so could possibly make noise: the gas valve, the blower fan, and the air passing through the ducts.  I knew it wasn’t the fan or the ducts, because there was no noise when only the fan was on.  What I didn’t know was what would cause the gas valve to rattle — a worn-out part (easy to replace), or a bad control board (expensive, perhaps prohibitively so) or some connection between the two.

Jimmy, bless his heart and abundantly-tattooed arms, was a competent troubleshooter.  He methodically ruled out one cause after the next until the only remaining suspect was the gas valve itself.  So I asked Jimmy, what’s the ballpark cost to replace a gas valve, and he said he didn’t know, but it could be $700 to $800 (wow, I thought to myself) and the service department would get back to me on Monday with an estimate.

The service department had forewarned me, when I made the appointment, that I would have to give Jimmy a check for $110 when he was done.  Maybe they figured I was one of those people who summons furnace repairmen for frivolous reasons, like my house has no heat and we’re all freezing and I can’t afford to pay you, for example.  But forewarned is forearmed as they say, and so my forearm wrote a check for $110 and handed it to Jimmy as he departed.

I was now down $110 without a fix, but the prospect of another $800-plus bill called my inner engineer to attention.  How much could a gas valve really cost?  It’s not like I had a nuclear reactor in my crawl space.  I guessed a new valve might go for $100-$150 — but after a few minutes on the internet, I found that a replacement for the replacement for the original (2005 vintage) gas valve could be in my hands in 3 days for about $80.  Not $800.

Thus forearmed, I waited for the call from the service department.  It came late Monday. The service rep told me that my repair would cost $485.  I asked her for a parts-and-labor breakdown, as I wanted to make sure they had not figured a $250 valve into the equation.  She said she did not have a breakdown at hand and would get back to me.

I gave them until Wednesday to respond but I finally had to chase after them.  Even then, it took two more days to finally connect with Phil in the service department, who still was unable to give me a parts-and-labor breakdown.  It seems they just have their price for a gas valve replacement, as if this was the menu price for a double-scoop ice cream cone.  Phil and I discussed the situation, and we agreed that I would order the $80 valve myself, Jimmy would install it, and I would pay for the labor without any guarantee on the valve.  Fine, I said.

So, two weeks after my first phone call (during which time our guests were just chilling), Jimmy showed up again, this time to replace the valve and get our system back in service.  I didn’t bother to stand around and watch.  It took Jimmy about 40 minutes, after which he went out to his truck to “write it up,” figuratively speaking.

Jimmy came back and announced the total – $160 – but he couldn’t hand me an invoice because he had figured it out on his tablet.  He told me the office would email me a copy.  All right, fine.  I wrote Jimmy a check for $160, happy to have at least “saved” about $240 compared to their original quote.

But this is not quite the end of the story.  I was curious why this service call cost more than the first one, and I got the answer when the invoice arrived a couple of days later:

Not only did this sub-one-hour visit cost $15 more (perhaps to cover the depreciation on Jimmy’s wrench?) but it included a spurious $25 “environmental fee” — which was taxed as well.  To be clear, this environmental fee had nothing to do with any methane gas that escaped when Jimmy replaced the valve — after all, this is North Carolina, not California.

I did a search for “HVAC environmental fee” and learned that heating/cooling firms will, to the annoyance of their customers, charge them an “environmental fee” whenever they have to dispose of something.  (Or, all the time.)  In my case, the item subject to disposal was the old valve, a block of metal that would fit in the palm of your hand.  I could have disposed of the valve myself for less than $25 (about $25 less than $25 in fact, plus tax) but I wasn’t asked.  That’s because the service department preferred to toss my old valve into their scrap-metal bin and inflate my bill by 20%.

The HVAC company we used obviously doesn’t read the online forum “HVAC-TALK” for heating/cooling professionals.  One pro on the forum summed up their consensus attitude toward environmental fees and the like: 

Don’t nickle and dime the customer with little fees, everybody hates that. Leave that to the cable, utility and telephone companies, everyone already hates them.

Figure out how much you need to charge to cover all the miscellaneous BS and roll it into your flat rates.

Exactly.  And while you’re at it, don’t pretend that your “service guarantee” on a repair is worth charging double what the work would cost without one, as it would have in my case.

The bottom line: I saved $240 on my repair but still wound up feeling like I was taken to the cleaners, or shall I say, the heaters.  I can safely say that, due to their pricing practices, this company will not be among those I call if my system needs to be repaired or replaced.  Thank you.

Share your thoughts about this post (below).
More in Life | Subscribe.

4 Responses to HomeTown Heating Nickeling & Diming

  1. Rob says:

    A well-told tale.
    It would make a great Scottish ballad.

  2. Gavin Larsen says:

    Can I hire you to be my consumer advocate/negotiator next time something goes wrong in my house?

  3. Eric says:

    Overall, very well done. Would that outfit still have charged the “Environmental Fee” had you mentioned that you wanted to keep the old valve to add your collection? ;~)

  4. Enrique says:

    Next, do commercial aviation!

Leave a Reply