Furnace fixes: Repairmen put to the test

Our technician removed one wire in a home's furnace.

The heat is probably already on at your home, but who do you call if the furnace breaks down?

Eyewitness News wanted to see what happened when we called a repairman to fix a furnace. Would they do the right thing? Or would our hidden cameras capture something else?

We had our elderly customer, "Ann," make random calls to dozens of repairmen to put them to the test.

We asked Dave Mejean to help us set up a furnace sting. His company, B&W Plumbing and Heating, has an A-plus rating with Angie's List and the Better Business Bureau. After changing the filter on our three-year-old furnace, Mejean creates a so-called problem by pulling out just one wire.

"If you take this off of there, then it allows the blower to run, but the burners won't come on. If they tell you something different, then it's not true," he said.

The first repairman we called, Alex Rodriguez of El Dominico Heating and Cooling, walked into the garage under the watchful eyes of our three hidden cameras.

"No heat?" he asks Ann.

"No heat, yeah," she replies.

"Let me check it for you," says Alex.

What will he do unsupervised? Six minutes later, he tells Ann there's a problem with her heat pump and points to another problem.

"It's gonna cost how much?" Ann asks.

"$150," Alex answers.

"Okay. I tell you what, let me go talk to my husband right quick," says Ann.

As Ann walks inside, Alex is confronted by Channel 13's consumer advocate reporter Andrea Morehead.

"What if I were to tell you that there's nothing wrong with the unit?" says Morehead.


"No," says Alex.

Morehead says, "It's not broken."

"No?," asks Alex.

"No," Morehead says.

"Why not broken?" Alex asks.

Rodriguez wanted to charge for an unnecessary part. After being told the real problem, Alex still wanted $150 to put the wire back in the socket. Like his BBB rating of "F," he failed our test, too.

The second technician, Joseph Scott and his partner, pull up in a Cadillac. They advertise on Craigslist, claiming they are certified and licensed.

"I went to school in Arizona and I got a license to do it all over the United States," Scott answers the homeowner.

Only problem is, there's no such thing as a national license. In fact, depending on where you live, your county may or may not require technicians to have an HVAC license.

Scott didn't have proof of anything to show, not even insurance. Despite Scott's lack of credentials, he came up with the right fix, but he wanted more money, above the $45 diagnostic fee, he says, for troubleshooting.

"An extra $30, because we had to come in and diagnose it. That's how if you're trained and certified," he said.

"That's kind of questionable. The diagnostic fee should have covered what they found," Mejean said.

Another repairman, Brian, had several postings on Craigslist. One says he's licensed, another post says he's not. But he claims to offer "nearly half of the regular, marked-up prices the big guys charge."

"We hope it's simple, because we don't have a lot of time before the supply houses close," he said.

Brian works unsupervised, except for his sidekick nearby. Eight minutes later, we get a diagnosis.

"We just have a limit switch that's out in it," he says.

"How much is that gonna cost me," Ann says.

"The limit switch is only four dollars," says Brian. "$60 service call fee. And then I charge $60 an hour. So you'll be probably under...under 120 bucks."

While Brian leaves to get a part at a supply store, Mejean checks out the furnace.

"He disabled it right here," he says.

The team of technicians put the original wire back in its proper place, but then says there is a limit sensor that needs replaced.

They returned 30 minutes later.

"The limit switch right here," Brian says.

"Where does it go?" Ann asks.

"It goes right inside. Right inside this, right here," says Brian.

Morehead walks in and surprises Brian.

"How's it going?" she asks.

"How you doing?" Brian says.

"Good. We're from Channel 13. We're conducting an investigation," Morehead says.

"Andrea, Yeah, I met you last time," says Brian.

It turns out, Brian was cited and fined for working without a contractor license in April, during an Eyewitness News sting with the city's Department of Code Enforcement.

"I really don't appreciate that," Brian says.

"So the limit sensor, what happened?" asks Morehead.

"Obviously you know, because you guys disconnected it," says Brian.

"But you went and picked up a part that wasn't necessary," says Morehead.

"The limit switch is bad. If I see a limit switch that has an issue whatsoever I'll replace it with a new one. I'm done speaking to you guys," says Brian.

He never showed us the new part we needed. About five minutes later, he calls Ann back to justify his trouble shooting.

"You just eyeballed it and knew it was wrong? Bad?" Ann asks.

"Yes, either it has current going through it to tell the brain - the brain box is what gives us a code that says it's a bad or open limit switch," says Brian.

"Everything he said was a lie," Mejean says.

But there are a lot of good guys out there. In our sting, two technicians ID'd the problem and only charged for the diagnostic fee, including Kirk Wright with McKneely Heating and Cooling and Plumbing.

Ten-year technician Bill Lohrman also did the right thing. He's with Summers Plumbing, Heating and Cooling, which has an A-plus rating from the BBB.

"There's no real system of weights and balances to make sure people are doing their job right or they're not trying to up-sell something for somebody when they really don't need it. That's why our industry has such a bad name," says Lohrman.

"I just want to say thank you so much," Ann tells Lohrman. "I'm sorry, but like you said, we're trying to help homeowners and I'm so thankful that we have an honest man. Thank you. I appreciate that."


License requirements


License requirements are different for each county. So, before you hire a technician, make sure the company they work for is legitimate. Also, the lowest price doesn't guarantee the best service so make sure you ask for proof of credentials, like insurance.

You can also check with Angie's List and the Better Business Bureau to find reputable companies and technicians.

To get a license in Marion County, contractors must have a surety bond, worker's compensation insurance and general liability insurance, in addition to passing a prometric exam.

Marion County Contractor License Requirements

Angie's List Tips: 8 ways to avoid a scam when hiring an HVAC contractor

1. Get multiple estimates in writing: If a HVAC contractor recommends a new furnace, water heater or air conditioning system, it's a good idea to get confirmation from at least two other contractors that the equipment does in fact need to be replaced. A common complaint we hear from members is being encouraged to replace equipment that doesn't need to be replaced.

2. Check for licensure and insurance: The educational and licensure requirements for professionals are dependent on your state's laws. But some contractors slip under the radar and practice without the proper credentials. Don't hesitate to call your state's licensure board to verify that a license is valid. You should also ask to see proof of insurance.

3. Installing an entirely new system: If you're installing a brand new system, take note of the contractor's questions and calculations. For instance, the contractor should determine the size of the unit based on the number of windows in your home and the number of people residing there. Additionally, he should factor in the type of insulation you have and the direction your home faces.

4. Experience with your system: If your heating or cooling system features cutting-edge energy-efficient design, such as a geothermal system, or relies on an old-school operating system, such as steam-driven radiators, be sure the company your choose has relevant experience with your particular system and/or make/model.

5. Check out the vehicle: Although some legitimate HVAC contractors drive plain vehicles, one that has the company's logo and contact information shows that the company is established.

6. Contractor listings: Don't just grab a name from an ad, or the phone book or hire on price alone. Do your research on Angie's List and other sites, talk to friends and family to find a local contractor.

7. Physical address: You should inquire into the contractor's physical address. If the company doesn't have one, it could mean it isn't an established, local company. There's also no way to track down the company should something go wrong.

8. Get to know your owner's manual: Help protect yourself by becoming familiar with your system's manual. It contains a list of service requirements. If you don't have your manual, most manufacturers make them available online.