Story 1:The plug-in, two-door, reach-in cooler the convenience store owner ordered had arrived and was promptly put to use. The only problem was it never got cold. A local contractor was called. The first problem he discovered was the suction line was broken in two. He also noticed the unit had been retrofitted from R-12 and mineral oil to R-134a and POE oil and that the POE had, as he said, “made a mess of the compressor.”
Story 2:The owner of a party store had wanted a glass-door, walk-in cooler. A friend of his who did air conditioning work said he’d track one down. When the unit arrived “it was in complete shambles,” apparently the result of sloppy shipping.
Story 3:The owner of a bakery needed a self-contained refrigerator-freezer and the folks she ordered it from were kind enough to bring it all the way from Iowa to Michigan and get it going. What she didn’t know was that the unit was running on R-12 and R-502, and their days as easy-to-get and cost-effective refrigerants were numbered. “She didn’t know what she was buying,” was the opinion of a local licensed contractor called in to take a look at the machine.
These true stories have been repeated over and over again in the HVACR industry. The problem can often be traced to damage in shipping. Or perhaps it was an older unit that had a good price and the buyer was hoping to get a few more years out of it.
But in these three cases, there is one fairly new twist: All the units were ordered on eBay. The store owners, none with an extensive refrigeration background, had simply surfed the Web, found a piece of equipment that seemed like it could provide cooling and freezing, put in a more than likely pretty low-ball bid - and ended up getting what they paid for.
Almost to a person, those actively involved in the HVACR industry can point to the pitfalls of online third-party buying - the biggest one being no guarantees and no warranties. They will tell you that newer refrigeration equipment coming from manufacturers through conventional ordering and delivery channels have warranties that are honored without question. And they point out that the manufacturing process involves state-of-the-art packaging at the factory and use of reputable carriers for transport. Even then, if a product is damaged in shipping, it can be returned - usually with no questions asked.
Nevertheless, the idea of surfing the Internet from the comfort of home, the excitement of bidding online, and the thrill of being the successful bidder is capturing the attention of those seeking big-ticket refrigeration equipment just as much as it attracts those looking for some rare antique or an actual bottle of Elvis’ sweat.
THE E-BAY REVOLUTIONThe concept of eBay itself arrived in 1995 as an online auction and shopping Website on which bids are placed on products being offered for sale. As with many mail order services, where you can’t literally “kick the tires,” purchases on sites such as eBay have a buyer beware aspect. The major fraud prevention mechanism for users is a feedback system. After every transaction, both buyer and seller have the option of rating each other. But that system is hardly fail-safe say HVACR industry contractors and manufacturers.
CONTRACTOR'S PERSPECTIVE“On eBay you don’t know what the hell you are getting,” said Dean Slowik of Slowik Refrigeration of Benton Harbor, Mich.
He said he preferred contractors - not customers - buy equipment through reputable supply sources. “We contractors have a good idea what a customer needs. The refrigeration business is an applied science.” He said that’s one reason nearly all wholesalers won’t sell to nonlicensed individuals.
But often, he said, customers buy units or components for units online that don’t match. “They may have a freezer, yet buy a condensing unit and coils for a cooler. Then when they call in a contractor, the contractor has got to tell them that it won’t work.”
Contractor Keith Kramp of Double K Enterprises of St. Joseph, Mich., said, “Most people who buy and sell on eBay are honest. They just don’t know what they are selling or getting. A buyer often has no clue what he wants and he is dealing with somebody who has no clue what he has.”
Problems could be many, he noted. In one instance, he was aware the product purchased required three-phase electric, but the buyer lived in the country where such power specifications were not available. “Find out the power you have, find out what gas you have, know what you need before you start to bid,” he said.
An even greater problem, he said, deals with the type of refrigeration equipment most likely to be on eBay and relates to the fact that many original owners seem to keep refrigeration equipment as long as they can.
“Chances are they are selling it because it is too expensive to maintain or it is as old as the hills.”
He added, “I just tell people don’t buy off eBay. Go look at (the equipment). Then ask me (a contractor) questions.”
Then again, he said there are end users who are good and careful eBay shoppers. He noted one end user he knows who does buy and sell on eBay. “But he is knowledgable. He knows what he is going after and he knows what he is going to sell.”
Further, he said, this end user, when he is a buyer, negotiates to pay half the agreed to price until the equipment arrives and he has a chance to check it out.
A MANUFACTURER'S PERSPECTIVE“Sites like eBay are great for people who are looking for toys, collectibles, etc. However, for end users that depend on their commercial refrigeration equipment to operate and perform properly then sites like eBay are not good for them,” said Kevin Chunn, director of marketing for Heat-craft Refrigeration Products LLC.
“For our refrigeration equipment to operate and perform as the end user expects now and in the future, the equipment must be sized, selected, installed, and maintained properly. The best way for an end user to ensure that this will happen is to have their refrigeration equipment purchased in new condition through reliable distribution channels and installed by qualified contractors. To do otherwise is asking for trouble.”
Further, Chunn noted, “If the refrigeration equipment does not operate properly or is not maintained properly, the result could be much more severe than just in-creased equipment operating costs for the end user. Staying in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental regulations and the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety regulations could become a problem.”
Like contractors Slovik and Kramp, Chunn has concerns over how well the equipment purchased has been maintained.
“Equipment that has not been maintained properly and is in poor operating condition is less efficient, less reliable, and will ultimately have a shorter operating life. The result is higher operating costs, increased equipment downtime, and a lower return on their initial investment.
“Second, end users (going through unconventional channels) will not get the same high level of customer service and support before or after the sale as they would through conventional distribution channels. Sellers in unconventional distribution channels like eBay could be individuals or companies looking to make a quick sale with no intentions of providing any customer service and support. Therefore, end users will not get the pre-sale support they need in order to make sure that the equipment about to be purchased is sized correctly and will meet their specific application requirements. Likewise, if problems occur days or months after the sale, the end user will not get the post-sale support required to solve their problem.”
THE WARRANTY ISSUEEven though eBay users try to self-police each other, they more than likely don’t factor warranty issues into the equation. That might be OK when it comes to Elvis’ sweat, but those in the know about refrigeration consider warranties an important part of the equation. “Let’s look at the implications of an end user or other entity that purchases new refrigeration equipment from an unconventional distribution channel like eBay,” said Chunn.
“If a warranty issue occurs during the warranty period, the purchaser of this equipment from eBay could not go directly to, for example, Heatcraft Refrigeration Products (HRP) to file a warranty claim since this refrigeration equipment was not purchased directly from HRP. Instead, the purchaser must go back to the seller from eBay. If the seller’s terms of sale were ‘as is,’ then the purchaser does not have much recourse. If the seller’s terms of sale included a product warranty, then the purchaser has more options, including the possibility of pursuing legal action if the seller does not honor its terms and conditions of sale.”
Sidebar: Special SkillsWhether obtaining refrigeration equipment through eBay or conventional channels, those who install and service such equipment need special skills. Kevin Chunn, director of marketing for Heatcraft Refrigeration Products, said, “We understand that the overall satisfaction of the end user is dependent upon the quality of products and the quality of the contractor’s installation.
“In addition, many contractors are called on to help size and select equipment that will meet the end user’s application requirements. Improper equipment sizing and selection will result in poor equipment performance and end user dissatisfaction, regardless of how well the contractor installs the equipment.”
He noted that his company has Heatcraft University. “For the novice or inexperienced, we offer an introductory training course on commercial refrigeration basics. From this foundation, we offer a wide range of courses that includes how to accurately calculate loads, how to properly size and select refrigeration equipment, and how to properly install, start up, and troubleshoot refrigeration equipment.”