As experienced workers age and retire, finding quality technicians is becoming extremely difficult. Industry leaders are struggling to promote careers in HVAC and draw new people into trade school programs; however, footing the bill for more than $1,000 worth of tools on top of education costs may very well be a deterrent. While some contractors are willing to equip technicians with the necessary tools, others require workers to purchase their own, which can be yet another burden for someone just starting out in the field.
According to Jim Hughes, manager of technical training, Service Experts Heating and Air Conditioning, Richardson, Texas, it really depends on the contractor’s policies and the tool as to whether the equipment is supplied to technicians or not. Most often, technicians are required to supply their own hand tools, at the very least, Hughes noted.
“When you get into tools like electric meters, clamp ons, multimeters, and things like that, usually the technician provides those,” he said. “When you get into higher diagnostic tools like combustion analyzers, a lot of times, that goes half and half. Some companies provide them, and some ask the technician to provide them. The really expensive things like recovery machines, and things of that nature, typically are provided by the company. It’s really kind of a mix.”
Some contractors prefer technicians provide their own tools because they “tend to take care of things they pay for themselves a little bit better than things that are given to them,” Hughes added.
However, contractors will also run the risk of having technicians buy the most inexpensive tool they can to lower the cost.
“Sometimes that tool is not designed to perform the same task that the company needs it to perform, or it doesn’t do it as quickly,” Hughes said. “An example would be a vacuum pump. If the technician is really cost-conscious, he or she will buy a vacuum pump that works just fine but has a low capacity, so it won’t evacuate a system as quickly. And the company, which is concerned with the amount of time on the job, will get a vacuum pump that has greater capacity and will pump a system much more quickly.”
Additionally, some contractors like to ensure all technicians have the same equipment, so they provide a standard list of tools.
Green Bay, Wisconsin-based Tweet/Garot Mechanical Inc. is a union contractor and thereby provides all tools — hand, power, and specialty — for its service technicians, according to Greg Wierzba, service department manager.
“Tweet/Garot currently has 28 service techs,” he explained. “We spend more than $20,000, on average, for all the tools, equipment, and technology, including iPads/iPhones on their vans [not including parts]. We are constantly improving and upgrading our tools to keep a competitive edge with the newest technology — iPads, iManifolds, Laser aligners, etc.”
Wierzba uses Viewpoint Construction software to account for tools and equipment through its Equipment Manger tracking system. “This, in combination with MSI mobile solutions for work tickets and invoicing, allows us to select and capture tools and specialty tools and track them for inventory and use charge.”
Tim Kraus, service operations manager, Crockett Facilities Services Inc., said the Bowie, Maryland-based commercial contractor is also under a union agreement to supply tools for its technicians. Crockett Facilities Services has a standardized list of tools all technicians receive.
According to Kraus, it costs $3,500-$4,000 on average per truck for tools just to get a new technician on the road. Additionally, the contractor supplies Milwaukee Tool-brand equipment, though some prefer other tool brands.
“Quite frankly, certain people like their own tools,” he said. “It becomes a very personal thing for some technicians. They like their own tools, or they want to only use a particular name-brand tool they favor.”
Crockett’s technicians are allowed to use their own tools, if they prefer, but they must still sign off on the tool list that they received from the contractor. “If they’re going to use their own tools, they understand they are responsible for those tools. It becomes their choice.”
Kraus said the majority of his technicians have an assortment of their own tools on their vehicles.
“A really popular one is the digital multimeter. Everyone has their own brand that they like. Some people like Fluke, and some like something else. For whatever reason, with multimeters, everyone seems to have a personal preference.”
Crockett will also replace all tools, unless there are signs of obvious neglect. “If it’s just normal wear and tear or if it breaks, we will give them a new tool,” Kraus said. “I’ve got to tell you, even though we pay for the tools, and the technicians know we pay for the tools, these tools are their instruments, so they treat them very well because they know that’s what they need to get their job done. I haven’t really had any cases of abuse with the tools.”
Ken Goodrich, owner and CEO of Goettl Air Conditioning, Tempe, Arizona; Sonoran Air Conditioning, Phoenix; and Honeybee Air Conditioning Experts, Las Vegas, said he requires technicians provide their own hand tools and basic diagnostic equipment, such as gauges and meters, but his companies provide the larger, more expensive tools, such as recovery machines.
Goodrich also has a policy in place to help technicians with the initial cost of tools. “When a technician is in need of an upgrade or wants to purchase a new tool, we allow them to pay us back over time, usually through three to five paychecks, to help them out with cost,” Goodrich said.
Additionally, Goodrich’s companies are constantly giving away free tools during weekly meetings, offering them through drawings, and awarding them as contest prizes. “We’re constantly gifting tools because we know if they have good tools, they’re going to be more effective and efficient in the field and create a better customer experience.”
Goodrich is also taking initiative and installing tracking chips into larger tools that connect to a GPS system so he can track them.
“If you’re not controlling the larger tools, they seem to find themselves new homes,” he explained. “With the technology today, that’s much easier. We’ve been tracking our tools this way for the last six months. It’s been very effective. We have routinely found some of our larger, more expensive cameras and things — especially from our plumbing businesses — in pawn shops.”
Tool Costs Decreasing
According to Hughes, while tools are not cheap, the overall cost seems to be on the decline.
“Tools are an interesting thing,” he said. “There are so many out there — so many different choices — and, despite what people may think, the cost is actually dropping. You have an opportunity now to get tools with a lot more capacity, boasting many more capabilities, than you ever had in the past.”
Hughes said his first electric meter cost him $138. However, meters now run about $75.
“That was a big chunk of my pay back then. The new meter was digital instead of analog and had much more capability. It wasn’t the best meter I could get, but it had much more functionality at a much lower cost, and it was a 30-year difference. So, inflation doesn’t play as much of a role in the cost of tools as people think. They’re not cheap, by any means, but, in comparison to what they were, the cost is really starting to drop off. There’s no reason nowadays a technician shouldn’t have quality tools to do their jobs. Most technicians are tool nuts, anyways; we tend to want to buy the next coolest thing. My wife can testify to that.”
Publication date: 6/1/2015