One of the most glaring inconsistencies in the HVAC contracting trade is the array of licensing requirements across the 50 U.S. states. The disparity is evidenced by the number of states that have no licensing requirements at all - 22. Of the other 28 states, some merely require a business to be registered or to work on projects in excess of $50,000.
The HVAC trade isn’t alone among the many service trades when it comes to license requirements, but the lack of uniformity has made the HVAC contracting trade an easy target for criticism over the years - by the mainstream media and consumers who believe that HVAC contractors are less than scrupulous – thanks to publicized stings and media “hazing.”
The service that one customer gets may be totally different from the same service another gets in a neighboring community. For example, an HVAC contractor in Michigan must be licensed but drive a few feet over the border into Indiana and an HVAC contractor doing the same work does not need a license. The same could be true within states where no licenses are required but local towns or cities may have their own licensing requirements. It leads to confusion and ultimately to distrust by customers who have been “done wrong” by unlicensed contractors who notoriously offer lower pricing and lower quality work - not all, but many.
And some of these unlicensed contractors don’t care about the licensing laws in their own states. Ohio requires contractors to be licensed, but according to Dr. Roseann Cyngier of Cyngier Heating & Air Conditioning, Cleveland, that doesn’t stop people in her area.
“Any person with a truck and tools can buy the equipment and install it,” she said. “It happens every day here in northeast Ohio. We lose sales to the neighbor’s son, the guy at work, the maintenance man from the church, etc.”
In states where no license is required, it is like a Wild West shootout. “In Mississippi, there are two dozen cities that actually have exams,” said Steve Nunes of Noon-Air Heating & A/C Service, Purvis, Miss. “Most of the ticket book/truck folks are not licensed and figure that the EPA card is their “license.” They are not insured or have a state sales tax certificate either.”
Colorado requires no state license but localities may have their own requirements. But that is a burden to some contractors. “Licensing is a burden more due to the home rule nature of Colorado cities than anything else,” said Alex Walter of Alex Walter Furnaces, A/C & More, Aurora, Colo. “Each jurisdiction has its own way of interpreting code issues. Most of the time when I have a licensing issue it is a code issue. The codes are often not related to real world situations. They are written by people on the code committees who have special interests.”
A REASON FOR DISPARITYIn some communities, licensing requirements are too lenient to have enough teeth in them, while in others the stricter the requirements are, the more the illegal activity. One contractor definitely thinks the laws are too lax in his community.
“I gave the state the name of an unlicensed company and their phone number,” said Paul Sammataro of Samm’s Heating & Air, Plano, Texas. “I later received a letter asking if I took a picture.”
Enforcement of each requirement is a unique problem in and of itself, with interpretation of the law varying between inspectors.
“The laws are good but there are improvements that need to be made,” said Stephen Hardesty of The Hardesty Team, Oklahoma City, Okla. “Our state is under one code with state inspectors but an inspector for a city can interpret the code in any way he or she wants. We have to do each installation different depending on the inspector for that area. There is not enough consistency with their inspections.”
Terry Boone of Perfect Air of Abingdon, Va., said enforcement is the real problem. “By the time we know someone is working without a license and report him, the job is over and the inspector can’t do anything about it,” he said. “It’s the same old story. Besides, there aren’t enough inspectors to keep up with the legitimate contractors, much less unlicensed ones.”
Todd B. McAlister, ACCA-Texas executive director, said that enforcement is the main problem he sees, too. “Most contractors in ACCA don’t have an issue with the licensing procedures, but they would like to see much greater enforcement when it comes to those operating without a license,” he said.
Other contractors would prefer to see some enforcement put into the hands of the businesses that service the HVAC contracting trade - the distributors.
“I would like to see all distributors only sell to state licensed contractors,” said Cyngier. “If the EPA requires certification to handle refrigerant, why on earth do they sell air conditioning condensers and coils to anyone with cash at the counter? If the equipment is only sold to state licensed contractors, then the enforcement of existing laws becomes much easier.”
“The counter people at the distributor level need to be a little more involved in checking licenses for who they are selling over the counter to for weekend work,” said Robert Hutchinson of Accu-Temp Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Howell, Mich.
GETTING IT RIGHTHaving licensing requirements for every state would be one way to bring more uniformity to the HVAC trade, but as exemplified by some of these comments, even a uniform code would be hard to enforce. Still, there are ways to improve the current situation.
Hardesty said it is all about consistency. “We need consistency in inspections - consistency in not charging for each employee that you have working in a municipality,” he said. “Only the contractor and permit fees for work being done should be charged to the contractor.
“Once you have a state license, you have to register and pay additional fees to each city that you do work in. Then each employee that you have must either have a State Journeyman license or State Apprentice license to work in the field. Some cities require that each employee that you have working under your mechanical license also register with that city, including additional fees attached for each employee. We have approximately 30 municipalities that we do work in, and it becomes very difficult to keep track of all the employees and all the cities and their requirements.”
McAlister said, “We need to strengthen the standards that are required to get a license, more time ‘in service’ if you will, and have a greater emphasis on really double checking work history.”
Boone wants to see more local enforcement to “weed out the moonlighters,” something Hutchinson would like to see, too. “I would like to see enforcement of unlicensed side jobbers, but I don’t really know how to prove they did it,” he said.
Karl Roth of A.N. Roth Co., Louisville, Ky., has a different take on improving the licensing laws. “I am not sure the law has really improved the industry in Kentucky,” he said. “The moonlighters are still a problem. We still have companies that practice questionable sales tactics. And in many ways, the licensing requirements have made entry into the industry more difficult.
“Because of the way the law works, it is making it very difficult to season our service techs. In the past, we would hire techs and train them to do system maintenance; some would end up as demand service techs and others in install or sales. Now a person in this position must be licensed if working alone. Running two-man service trucks just doesn’t work.”
Boone believes that things will get better but only when the economy improves. “As soon as the economy gets tough, companies lay off the worst people they have and all of them are beating the bushes trying to take work from the legitimate companies,” he said.
More uniformity? Better enforcement? A better economy? Those are ways to see that licensing laws can legitimize the HVAC contracting trade.
But for Nunes, the best way to uphold the image of the HVAC trade - in spite of the varying licensing requirements - is to do everything right.
“I am licensed through the city of Hattiesburg, bonded, and carry $1 million liability insurance,” he said. “I carry in my truck copies of all that plus my state sales tax certificate, city business license, and letters of certification for Master Tech, as well as Master Contractor. My company is incorporated, my logo is a registered trademark, and all that jazz. I just try to do the right things right.”