Contractors Tackle the Licensing Debate

May 22, 2000
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During a recent visit to the great Northwest, a Portland, OR, hvacr contractor told me that all it took to be licensed to sell and service hvacr equipment in that state was $55. For a $55 licensing fee, anyone could set up shop and compete with you in Oregon. That doesn’t seem right.

What’s even worse is that some states require no licensing at all. Should contractors be forced to compete against unlicensed and untrained technicians for a slice of the hvacr market?

Maybe the answer is too obvious, but The News Contractor Consultant panel tackled it anyway.

I asked our panel, “Does your state require a license to be an hvacr contractor?”

California — Yes. Contractors must pass a test or show documented work in the category in which the license will apply, provide bond, certificate of insurance, and proper fees.

Florida — Yes. Testing includes math, accounting, electrical-refrigeration-mechanical troubleshooting, codes, duct sizing, etc. Contractors must substantiate “sufficient” work history at various levels of expertise.

Iowa — No.

Louisiana — No, if jobs are under $50,000.

Massachusetts — No. The state only requires a license for servicing, but there are no requirements for heating and air conditioning.

Michigan — Yes. The law covers hydronic heating-cleaning-process piping, hvac equipment, ductwork, unlimited heating service, unlimited refrigeration and a/c service, and fire suppression.

Missouri — No.

Nebraska — No.

Nevada — Yes; $600 in fees, full-disclosure financial report and bank verification, résumé of experience, passing of state exam, etc. (See accompanying article, page 12.)

New Jersey — No.

Ohio — Yes. State tests are taken every three months. Testing is needed in refrigeration, hydronics, hvac, and business law in order to install hvac equipment. Ten hours of continuing education classes are required per year to keep the license.

The math shows that six out of 11 states that our panel members work in do not require state licensing to be an hvacr contractor. However, some municipalities pick up the slack and require local licensing.

Ball Of Confusion

“Our community, St. Charles [MO], does require licensing,” said Steve Miles of Jerry Kelley Heating & Cooling. “Applicants must apply to the Building Department and take a Mechanical Licensing Test. In St. Charles County, the company holds all licenses.”

In the Cleveland, OH suburb of Mentor, Hank Bloom at Environ-mental Conditioning Systems said there is another reason why not all communities require licensing. “Not all municipalities require a state license to work. I think the program is to keep a level of responsible contractors under some type of control.”

On the other hand, there is one community that veers away from strict state licensing laws. “All cities within the state of Michigan, with the exception of Detroit, adopted the state law,” said Mary Marble of J.A. Marble Co. “The City of Detroit handles all service and installation of hvacr equipment within the city limits with their own licensing and permit requirements.”

Some communities may not require licensing, but they do place some requirements on contractors doing work in their locality. Scott Getzschman of Getzschman Heating & Sheet Metal, Fremont, NE, works on jobs in his home state and neighboring Iowa.

“Communities in Iowa have a block test that all cities honor,” he explained. “However, you need to post a bond and show your proper insurance.”

Is it possible to sell hvac equipment without a state license? It is, according to Harry Friedman of N&M Air Conditioning, Sarasota, FL. “You may subcontract the actual installation or service to a licensed contractor.”

In one state, there is a division between who should or should not be licensed.

“New Jersey does not require specific licensing of hvacr contractors, but we do require licensing of plumbers and electricians,” said Jeff Somers of Monsen Engineer-ing. “I am studying for my electrician’s license and if our industry could have the same requirements that electricians do, I’m sure it would clean up some of the substandard work that is done.”

And then there are the licensing laws that affect what technicians can or cannot do. Massachusetts is one good example.

“To perform service, technicians must pass a service-oriented test,” said Climate Design Systems, Inc.’s Tom DiPietro. “An EPA license is necessary to touch refrigerant, and a refrigeration license is necessary to work with any type of a/c or refrigeration equipment.

“Gas equipment requires no licensing, but gas piping does,” he added.

How Do You Sum This Up?

With all of the differing laws and regulations (and this sampling covers just over one-fifth of the United States), there are bound to be some cracks in the pavement. The News’ consultants had some opinions about that.

“The intent of the law [in California] is meant to be protective of the consumer yet it has become self-serving,” said Bob Dobrowski of Ideal Service Co. “We, as licensed contractors, must display our contractors’ license number on all paperwork, business cards, vehicles, advertising, and Yellow Pages ads.

“The state has recourse to fine, punish, or revoke our license if we fail to comply. Yet the state has little or no manpower, finances, or persistence to go after nonlicensed contractors.”

“A neighboring community is in the process of enacting licensing regulation,” said Miles. “It appears to be a power grab, sponsored by the local pipefitters, whereby if you are a pipefitter you are qualified to do all aspects of hvac work, but all other trades may be qualified to do only their specialty — and that’s if, and only if, they are determined to be qualified by the pipefitters.”

“The flaws are that each jurisdiction has different rulings and uses different code books,” said Getzschman. “They need to get standardized on those procedures. A statewide test would be best, and higher insurance rates might prohibit the ‘garage mechanic’ from entering our business.”

“The ACE-NATE testing is the first step to licensing, but it is voluntary,” said Somers. “Until it is mandatory, only true professionals wishing to enhance their knowledge and credibility will take it.”

One contractor pointed out an industry that is rising in the popularity ranks, yet remains unlicensed.

“If there is a flaw in the system, it probably lies in the unregulated duct-cleaning industry,” said Friedman. “We see everyone from carpet-cleaning companies to department stores advertising and performing hvac system cleanings with a wide degree of competency.”

So are there any states or organizations working toward uniform licensing? Louisiana is trying to take that step.

“The Louisiana Heat Pump Association and ACCA-North Louisiana are currently working together to have state licensing adopted,” said Tom Lawson of Advanced Air Conditioning. “The local ACCA has a legislative night where we have already introduced this to our state senators and legislators. I would like to see this happen by 2002.”

“There are many good, credible contractors out there, and they have a good work ethic and commitment to deliver a quality product to the consumer,” said Somers. “Licensing would enhance this.”

“I have not seen ABC or Nightline air a sting operation on electricians or plumbers, but I have seen a few on hvacr contractors. I believe that codes and licensing have a lot to do with it.”

Will uniform licensing laws improve the quality of the hvacr industry and the perception it has in the eyes of consumers? Send your comments to Business Management Editor John Hall at halljr@bnp.com (e-mail).

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