Be a Better Bargain Hunter, Know Your Low Bidder

I got it for cheap
This is not the approach that you should take for your HVAC equipment! Your HVAC equipment is a very hard worker. It shows up every day, works all day and night and will be around for 15, 20, even 40 years. Invest wisely!

When I found out the Patriots were going to be in the Super Bowl this year, I ran out to my nearest giant box store discount retailer to buy fan gear – t-shirt, hat, some really silly plastic beads, etc. – so that I could support my team. I know, I’m THAT person. The fair weather fan. Ick. I’m there for the nachos and generally fall asleep by half-time. That’s me. But since I am admittedly that type of fan, I’m not interested in expensive jerseys and designer tees. So I chose to go cheapo, discount box store style. I only need the shirt to show up for that one game, just like me. Well, as predicted, the shirt literally fell apart at the seams the minute I washed it. But you know what? It did the job and was so cheap, it didn’t owe me a thing. I got exactly what I paid for and that’s OK with me. This brings me to my point, which is: this is not the approach that you’d want to take for your HVAC equipment. Your HVAC equipment is a very hard worker. It shows up every day, works all day and night and will be around for 15, 20, even 40 years! This is not where you’d want to go discount, cheapo or low-end – with equipment or your contractor.

In HVAC, taking the lowest bid, regardless of the bidder’s experience, competency and quality, is a decision that can end up costing you far more in the long run. Sometimes the cost will be obvious – like a major system malfunction or complete failure – but sometimes not so obvious. Systems that should be operating at high efficiency may not if they are not installed correctly. A mistake like that bleeds your money away over years, maybe without you even knowing it.

One particularly painful example of a low bid gone bad happened recently. Well, it actually started with a poor install five years ago but frustrations finally came to a head a few weeks ago. Here’s the sad story…

We’ve been the trusted service company for a property manager for several very nice retail properties in the Southeastern MA, Cape Cod and RI for many years. Like many, their corporate policy is to get three bids for unit replacements. We were asked to bid, but it turned out that we were the second lowest bidder. The lowest bidder was selected for the job.

About one year after the unit was installed, we were called by the property manager because the unit wasn’t cooling and the original contractor had stopped returning phone calls. Here’s what we found:

  1.  A 3-Ton condenser paired with a 5-Ton evaporator (Not recommended. Sizes should match. And neither was the RIGHT size for the space).
  2. The piping that was used between evaporator and condenser was the wrong size and the wrong size metering device was installed, so refrigerant wasn’t flowing properly.
  3. The 5-Ton evaporator was not supported properly when it was installed, so after just one year, it was terribly bowed, bent and damaged.
  4. Lastly, the type of ductwork that was used was improperly installed fiberboard, not the best option to begin with and simply unworkable when not installed properly. The trunk was assembled without proper overlap or fasteners, allowing for many air leaks. The smaller duct branches off the trunk were never screwed on as they should have been. The strips of duct tape that were holding them on had let go after a year and many were just hanging disconnected, so the AC was dumping into the basement crawlspace.

Since the install was done only one short year ago, the customer was understandably not willing to start over with a proper install, so they asked us to do what we could to “patch” the existing installation with the least amount of additional cost. Understanding that given the challenges of the original installation, it would not operate ideally, we decided to try to help. Surprisingly, our “patches and band-aids” did enough to limp the tenant through four more years of heating and cooling (it was a heat pump style unit) until they’d finally had enough of the “good enough” and wanted the system done properly. So, now, five years after the original installation, we’re re-bidding the project again. Only this time, we are the only bidder.

We all want to save money, get the bargain, maybe we are even constrained by law or corporate policy to get the lowest price. But that doesn’t mean you should take bids blindly. I knew what I was getting with my cheap Patriots t-shirt and I was OK with that. It’s a little harder to know what you’re getting from your HVAC contractor, but it’s worth the effort. Check them out. Talk to their existing customers. See how they do business. If they follow up their installs with service, like we do, the relationship, not the sale, is the most important thing.

Even the finest contractors have things go wrong. Equipment gets delivered incorrectly, has manufacturing defects, or someone just has a bad day. It happens. But contractors who want a long term relationship won’t walk away if something goes south. They’ll stay and make things right. So, go ahead and take the lowest bidder, but make sure you can trust the contractors you’re getting bids from, or your low bid project may end up just like my cheap throw-away t-shirt, only a heck of a lot more expensive.