Are HVAC contractors trustworthy? A recent undercover investigation conducted by NBC News’ “Today” show suggests that residential HVACR technicians are after one thing: a homeowner’s money. But some industry individuals who helped participate in the investigation are skeptical about the results.

NBC’s Investigation

On July 10, the show’s Jeff Rossen narrated a seven-minute investigation on air conditioning technicians. The segment focused on a central air conditioning unit attached to a suburban home in New Jersey.

Prior to the investigation, numerous industry experts, including Warren Lupson, director of education, AHRI, and Andre Bernard, service technician, Meyer & Depew Co. Inc., Kenilworth, N.J., examined the system and noted that it was in “very, very good shape,” and in “perfect working order.”

Bobby Ring, president and CEO, Meyer & Depew Co. Inc., and senior vice chairman, Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), served as an expert commentator for the snippet. Prior to the “sting,” Ring broke a wire in the condensing unit between the contactor and the thermostat, immediately disengaging the system. Ring said any competent contractor should be able to quickly locate and address the malfunction. With minimal action required, Ring said his company would charge less than $200 to repair the connection.

NBC then affixed eight hidden cameras on the air conditioner and secretly filmed as six contractors responded to a service call to diagnose and fix the issue. Each responding contractor was able to quickly identify the problem, but, as they confronted an adult female actress posing as the homeowner, each reported additional issues and attempted to charge the woman much more than experts felt was necessary to resolve the predicament.

One repairman claimed the problem was caused by a faulty capacitor, and requested $395 for the repair. Another told the homeowner that the unit was leaking combustible fluid and requested $692 to repair the nonexistent problem. Yet another handyman wanted $850 for several unnecessary parts, and a fourth contractor demanded $950 for three parts including a time delay that wasn’t even in the unit.

A Few Bad Apples?

Upon a deeper look at the six responding contractors, it appears as if Rossen and the NBC crew may have “carefully” selected the companies they included in the segment.

While the broadcast did not name the responding contractors, at least three of the contractors’ vans were shown on camera. A Google search revealed that two of the companies, All Week Plumbing & Heating Inc., Garfield, N.J., and Mustang Heating and Cooling, Clifton, N.J., were given “F” grades by the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Ring said that neither he nor ACCA had any involvement in the selection of the contractors that were called to the home. “We had no idea who was coming to the home prior to their arrival. As each contractor showed up, the producers would flip through some paperwork, and that is when we discovered that these companies all had very low Better Business Bureau ratings,” he said. “Many of the contractors scored very low with the Better Business Bureau.

“When we were preparing for the recording, my service manager and I said ‘I hope they actually find someone that does the wrong thing, or the viewers are going to think this whole thing was rigged,’” he explained, stating that they assumed everyone was going to quickly find the problem and make the necessary repairs without demonstrating any incompetency or dishonesty. “I’m very disappointed with the results and strongly believe these companies weren’t randomly selected by producers. We all know that the majority of the contractors in our industry are honest and perform their work with integrity”

ACCA’s Involvement

Paul Stalknecht, president and CEO, ACCA, said “Today” contacted ACCA directly regarding their intentions of filming the investigation. Stalknecht said ACCA was willing to provide as much support as possible, and suggested chairman Laura DiFilippo, vice president of DiFilippo Service Co., Paoli, Pa., and Ring, to positively represent the HVACR industry.

“They were going to record the segment whether we were involved or not. Imagine what they would have said on air if we rejected their request. They would have stated: ‘We contacted the industry’s trade association, ACCA, but they refused to comment.’ Not just ACCA, but the entire industry would look even worse. The audience perception would have been — guilty as charged.

“When it comes to dealing with national producers for shows like ‘Today’ or ‘Dateline,’ you’re always in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. We know the story they produce is going to be sensational and we know they won’t put anything on the air unless it proves the point they want to make — which is that buyers should always beware, but the lesser of all evils was to participate and do the best we could to bring balance to the story.”

After viewing the segment, Stalknecht said he is sure that NBC selected contractors that they believed would best fit their side of the story.

“I suspect they may have surfed the internet, Craigslist, and other such consumer sites looking at unsatisfactory reports that identified contractors,” he said. “Because, let’s face it, the producers’ goal was to produce an interesting story, and the news media is not interested in stories where everybody does things right.”

A Learning Tool

Ring said that while the snippet casts a negative light on the industry, he intends to use the recording as a learning mechanism. “I’ve talked to quite a few people who say this is a constant reminder of just how careful we have to be in this industry. I’m encouraging companies to share this video with employees to stress the importance of doing the right thing,” he said. “Many of the contractors in this report would have looked like heroes had they repaired the low-voltage wiring problem, and then made recommendations regarding other repairs.

“It is important to let customers know that you do abide by the rules and that you are one of the good guys. If communicated in the right way, this video can be a very positive tool for our industry.”

DiFilippo said it infuriates her when a sensationalistic story, such as this one, reinforces a false perception that contractors are crooks or are incompetent. “It’s easier just to assume that there are hidden cameras whenever you go into a home. The best thing is, as long as you just do the right thing by your customers and your employees, you should never have to worry about what the cameras might see,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have to be honest and admit that, yes, there are untrained and/or unscrupulous contractors out there; just like there are unscrupulous lawyers, stock brokers, doctors, insurance agents, and … well, pretty much every profession and industry imaginable.

“I think this is an important reminder to all of us contractors about the importance of integrity to business. I know I’m using it with my employees to hammer home the importance of being completely upfront and honest with our customers. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s just plain good business.”

Publication date: 7/30/2012