Differences Between Rural, Urban Contractors

August 18, 2008
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HVACR contractors set up shop in certain locations for various reasons. Maybe they were born and raised in a community, relocated to the community because of previous work commitments, or because they picked the community for its market appeal. Some choose the urban setting while others prefer the rural setting, which leads to an interesting dynamic “rural versus urban” - or does it?

Is there really a profound difference in how contractors operate their businesses based on the demographics of rural or urban communities and the laws that govern these communities? The NEWS wanted to find out so we asked some readers if they felt there were distinct differences in how businesses in each setting are operated.

Most of the people who contributed to the story acknowledged that there is a gray area where the rural/urban legend is blurred by geographic location and by businesses that do it the way it has always been done. In other words, rural contracting can be perceived as more traditional, and just good ole boy contracting, right or wrong.

PLAYING IT BY THE BOOK

One legend is that the inspection process is different for both markets and that rural inspectors tend to be a little more lenient. Rick Hall of Jefferson Community & Technical College in Louisville, Ky., said, “All HVAC contractors are required to have a license but most of the urban areas have separate inspection processes in place. The difference between each market is perceived as a quality of work issue because the level of inspections across the state in rural areas is non-existent.

“However, I just inspected a home in the largest urban area in the state and found an inspection sticker from both the electric inspector and the HVAC inspector, but the system has a recessed light in the return air path. So poor work can happen even with permits and inspections.”

Brian Leech of Service Legends, Des Moines, Iowa, does see a difference between the two areas. “We are just now going through state licensing requirements,” he said. “Many areas of our state previously did not require permits to be pulled in rural areas. But no matter what the rules, there needs to be accountability in regard to the following of those rules.

“Contractors are required to pull permits in our area, but as with most areas,” those who pull permits are “the only ones who are forced to do the job by the book. If a contractor is not doing it by the book, then they are not pulling permits, most likely.”

Richard Cresi of Aire Serv of Louisville noted that there is an “equal amount of sloppy and non-compliant installations in both rural and urban areas” but he knows that there are perceived differences, too.

“The majority of urban contractors play more by the book because they have no choice,” he said. “There are more inspectors, homes are closer, urban citizens are more likely to turn in non-licensed contractors, or call the Better Business Bureau. Many, but not near all rural contractors, are subscribers to the good ole boy network and really don’t want to be regulated.”

Another Aire Serv franchisee, Jim Smith of Hattiesburg, Miss., said that the [real-world] way of doing business often supersedes the regulated way of doing business.

“The people who install the a/c units in new construction are mostly one or two men operations,” he said. “They are not licensed, trained, insured, or bothered with the small things like paying any form of taxes, including payroll taxes. They also don’t know how to do heat loads, and seem to be afraid to try to learn. The rule of thumb rules.

“They say ‘My daddy taught me how to do this, his daddy taught him, and his daddy before that taught him, so it must be the correct way.’ I believe these are not bad people, they believe in their hearts they are doing a super job for the customer.”

Greg Niemi, president and CEO of Nexstar Inc., said that rural or urban should not be mistaken for right or wrong, especially when it comes to compliance. “We see no differences in compliance,” he said. “We find contractors in rural areas to be just as progressive as suburban or urban contractors. All professional, ethical, and licensed contractors, whether rural or urban, do play it by the book, and even more sometimes. All in our profession dislike those in the minority who cut corners. It ruins the reputation for all in our trade. After all, the business of contracting is a small world. Reputation precedes (and follows) our work.”

PLAYING ONE AGAINST THE OTHER

Another legend is one which pits urban contractors against rural contractors when it comes to agreeing on regulatory issues involving the HVACR trade. If it is really true that contractors from each location have distinct ways of doing business, then it also must be true that they don’t want to abide by the same rules and regulations, making it almost impossible to pass legislation that is fair and equal to everyone.

Myth? Maybe or maybe not.

G. Andrew Smith of Bob Smith Air Conditioning, Inc./Aire Serv of Southeast Texas, Nederland, Texas, emphatically said there is no disagreement. “But it is often the bureaucracy that prevents the changes,” he said.

“The local inspectors like to have the power to interpret the rules and they generally instruct the city councils what needs to be implemented for HVAC inspections, whether relevant to the local climate or not.”

But Hall sees it differently. “The contractors I have spoken with say the rurals don’t want major change or enforcement because the pool of licensed journeymen is smaller than for urban areas - and they can’t find enough help,” he said. “When I do CEU classes around the state, the rural guys think there is too much input by the urban areas because the highest number of contractors and associations are centered in the urban areas. They don’t think urban areas understand what they go through to get licensed employees.”

G. Andrew Smith noted that the legislative process in Mississippi is “tilted” toward one geographic area. “For some reason the governing body in the state of Mississippi is controlled by the northern part of the state, which is rural,” he said. “So nothing is likely to happen to change the situation.”

“As a rural contractor, I do find it easier to get to decision makers than in urban areas, with less red tape and faster action,” said Alan Misale of Aire Serv of Manasota, Bradenton, Fla. “But I have always found that legislation is more influenced by manufacturers than contractors. I see no conflict between the urban and rural contractors. Our objectives are the same regardless of the location: market share, profits, and quality.”

One contractor noted that bigger differences could be seen in union and non-union contractors, regardless of their location.

“In Connecticut, the non-union contractors struggle because the union has such a presence at the capitol,” said Jeff Leone of Air Temp Mechanical Services Inc., Southington, Conn. “They have legislators and senators in their back pocket. I have personally been fighting issues with our trade for the past five years at the capitol. Most of the issues have to do with apprenticeship and hiring. As a contractor, I can only hire one apprentice for every three licensed journeymen. The non-union contractors make up 85 percent of all the business in the state yet labor has all the power.”

Niemi sees how there can be perceived differences but is quick to note that the real issue does not involve geography. “I’m sure one could contrive a feud here,” he said. “Perhaps contractors who are located closer to government centers may have more influence or impact, whether positive or negative, on standards, laws, etc. Since most state government centers are generally located in cities, one could speculate that consumers or contractors in those cities may have more influence or impact than rural.

“However, this is only speculation and conjecture. To generalize whether rural versus urban contractors are better or worse than each other incites unnecessary dispute. We see more similarities than differences. As an industry, we are all inextricably tied together.”

BETTER REGULATION EQUALS BETTER CONTRACTORS

Most people interviewed for this story agreed that better regulations and higher quality work supersede any geographical differences, including Cresi who noted, “This industry needs more regulation and more inspections if we are to raise the quality and safety across the board. It would be nice if the inspectors were better trained and probably better paid, but since I believe most government agencies see inspections and permits as a profit center instead of protecting the public health, this would be an unlikely change.”

Jim Smith has seen both sides of the fence, literally. “We do live and work in both urban and rural areas,” he said. “I don’t see a huge difference in the quality of work in either location. The code inspectors in the urban areas are not proficient in HVAC system design or installations, and are concerned with things like walkways in attics, and electrical outlets at the condensing units. They do inspect cosmetic things, but have no idea about the issues that affect system performance. That being the case, nothing prohibits an urban contractor from improper design and installations.

“After all of that is said, none of this amounts to a hill of beans. Often the codes are used to exclude some competitors, and not to improve the quality of design or installation of HVAC systems. Some contractors expect the codes to be the saving grace of the industry. If a contractor, urban or rural, wants to work around any regulation, he can.”

Leech said that ultimately, the consumer will benefit from quality work, whether he or she lives in a rural or urban setting. “The quality of work as displayed in either rural or urban should boil down to an inner sense of pride in doing things right,” he said.

“I find excellent quality and poor quality in both areas. I feel that if the consumer is made aware of the differences in quality, they will not choose the less than desirable quality contractor.”

Publication date: 08/18/2008

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