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Commentary: Uncovering a dirty, little secret about HVAC repair

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William Carter, columnist

William Carter is a retired longtime Franklin city employee and published author. He may be contacted at wcarterfranklin@aol.com.

Love Weasel stands radiant — facing the rising moon — in an ankle-length, diaphanous gown.  

In her hair she wears a garland of multicolored electrical wiring interlaced with duct tape and in each cupped hand — both raised shoulder high in front of her, palms up — she holds tiny lengths of copper tubing and needle-tipped machine screws.  

Kneeling beside her, I — enshrouded in a hooded, black robe rummaged from the Halloween box in the attic and smelling vaguely of squirrel pee — light the circle of 13 used Glade Christmas candles that surround and protect us.  

Standing with the aid of my 6-foot staff of one-inch PVC pipe crowned by a new 50-amp breaker, I breathe deep of the thick night air, now redolent of Peppermint Heaven, Cinnamon Apple Pie, Holiday Breeze and Arctic Pine. I glance over at Love Weasel. She closes her eyes and nods. It is time.

“O, Great Sprit of HVAC Reliability and Maintenance,” I intone, raising my staff before me, “hear our plea and grant us at least one more season — in this year of trying to save up for either a riding mower or a vacation to Gatlinburg — free of hot, sleepless nights and that sticky dampness that blooms around the parts of our bodies of which we dare not speak. You know, Great HVAC Spirit, it is not really the heat so much as it is the humidity! Hear us, O, Great Spirit, and accept this offering!”

Love Weasel tilts her hands and the offering of copper and screws spills into the circle, winking and glittering in the moonlight. As one, we turn to face the hulking silhouette of our ancient, rusted HVAC unit; dead a week and a half now.

We wait, breathless, but…nothing happens.

Dejected, Love Weasel goes inside to sit in front of the fan with a cool, wet cloth around her neck. She leaves me alone to snuff the candles and face the realization that all attempts to fix the unit myself — including standing in front of it with my hands on my hips and staring really hard at it — had failed and that I must now begin the dreaded journey of, of, (shudder) calling someone.

“Do you know what size this is?” the first HVAC professional to show up asks a day later as we stand together beside the corpse of my air conditioner. He has a lap-top computer with him and his knit shirt and pressed khakis are spotless.

“Um, no?” I reply.

“OK, we’ll figure it out. Let’s go inside.”

Thirty minutes later, as bits of my brain leak from my ears, tears trickle from the corners of my eyes, forced out by the price the guy quotes me.

“I know that sounds like a lot,” he tells me “but you have to realize — and I really, really hate to talk about any of these other companies — but …”

After thirty minutes of talking about the other companies, the guy leaves me with a refrigerator magnet and the offer, which includes a $1,500 discount, but only if I call him back within the next 24 hours.

The next clean-cut, well-dressed guy doesn’t take one look at the old unit but measures the rooms in my house and counts the windows then asks if I have a Diet Coke.

“Look,” he says, sitting at the kitchen table and opening his lap-top, “I don’t like talking about the other companies, but …”

Twenty minutes after talking about the other companies, he gives me a price only slightly lower than the guy before but reminds me — several times — that his price includes a talking, programmable thermostat.

“Why the hell would I want to talk to my thermostat?” I ask. “All I want to do is mash a button and be cool in the summer and warm in the winter, not get its opinion on anything.”

He leaves me with a refrigerator magnet and a pen with his company’s name on it.

Two more salesmen show up that day with two more refrigerator magnets as well as horrifying stories about how I could even control my air conditioner, without being at home, with my phone. And neither of them so much as glance at our old unit. 

That night I have nightmares about SEER ratings and BTUs and parts/labor warranties.

Finally, a friend tells me to call his brother-in-law, a man who’s been in the HVAC business for years.

“He’ll do you right,” he tells me. “He works for himself.”  

“Uh-huh,” I reply.

That afternoon the brother-in-law shows up in a service truck that has his name and number on the side. He and his partner are wearing dusty work clothes and are tired after a day’s work. Neither has a lap-top, and I don’t see any magnets. The partner, a man 10 years my senior, immediately slithers beneath the house to check out the duct-work. The brother-in-law takes the cover off the old unit to take a look and asks me a few questions. Neither asks for a Diet Coke or talks about the other companies.

They leave and call back two hours later and quote, almost apologetically, a price almost four thousand dollars less on the exact same package the first guy quoted me. I give him the go-ahead and then hang up the phone, relieved.

And then I thank the Great Spirit for everybody out there just trying to make an honest living.

William Carter is a retired longtime Franklin city employee and published author. He may be contacted at wcarterfranklin@aol.com.

 

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