April means Opening Day for baseball fans, but it also marks “spring training” for many condensing units. While most outdoor units will have survived another winter intact, nearly all will need some routine (or added) TLC to get into game shape for another cooling season.
How contractors market themselves for that work — and how they do the actual work — varies more than one might think.
Attracting and Booking The Work
President DiFilippo’s Service
Paoli, Pennsylvania’s DiFilippo’s Service still uses “old school postcards” to encourage scheduling pre-summer tune-ups, said company president Laura DiFilippo.
Over the last couple of years, her team has also started to encourage the customer to schedule their next tune-up while the technician is on-site performing the current tune-up.
At AirAce Heating & Cooling in East Peoria, Illinois, owner Joel Nieman plans a marketing push for overall maintenance at the beginning of air conditioning and heating seasons. That said, Nieman finds the best tool is an honest conversation with the customer about the importance of proper maintenance.
“We found doing this gives us more sales than offering a rock bottom, loss-leader price,” he explained. “Doing that devalued the service and actually gave the impression that the service was not truly needed.”
Ricky Orta wholeheartedly concurs with that assessment. Based in the Tampa / St. Petersburg area, Orta’s M&R Air Conditioning & Electrical works in a hotbed of advertisements for tune-ups at attention-getting prices. Orta takes those competitors head-on.
“I tell my customers, ‘You’re a smart person, and you know by the time they pull up in your driveway, they’ve already lost money,’” he said, listing labor, vehicle cost, insurance, and everything that quickly takes up an advertised $39.99 tune-up price.
“So how do you think they’re going to recoup that money? They’re going to hard sell you.”
Orta says his customers understand, and like him, most of them don’t care for that strategy very much.
“So my company’s approach is we charge more for our tune-ups than anybody else,” he said. M&L conducts a thorough maintenance visit and lets the rest reveal itself.
If the system, for example, is one year old and there’s nothing wrong, then “at least I’ve gone in and made money on that PM and I’m not taking a loss, and I don’t have to hard sell anybody,” he said.
In Orta’s experience, his company makes more money this way and finds more legitimate problems than those taking a loss leader attitude.
One other distinctive aspect of M&L’s tune-up strategy: They don’t market their tune-ups. At all. Orta finds that most advertisements are geared toward maintenance, and people see plenty of them. The idea, apart from lower expenses, is that other companies’ tune-up advertising tends to mostly remind his existing customers to schedule his team to come out.
Of course, once a contractor starts booking this work and general interest picks up, the need to manage limited resources wisely kicks in. DiFilippo has a tip for that.
“We strategically schedule technicians by zones so they stay in the same area, and pre-book all multiple-unit customers on our schedule early so we have plenty of time to take care of them,” DiFilippo said.
Preparation and Problem Spots
Most of the ingredients that make a successful tune-up and outdoor unit service visit break down to doing the usual things well and efficiently and/or finding little things to do that distinguish the company’s service. Given the integrated nature of this maintenance visit, some advice extends beyond the outdoor unit.
For Josh Matney, operations manager at Fayette Heating & Air in Lexington, Kentucky, that starts with showing up completely ready and not needing to go make a run for parts or refrigerant.
“We feel leaving our client’s home to retrieve the appropriate equipment to perform our service is a waste of their valuable time,” said Matney, whose technicians make sure to roll with the needed equipment and chemicals.
Matney and Orta both shared one other tactic.
“Our technicians are prepared and trained never to use a client’s water hoses or vacuum to perform a service,” Matney said. “We would never eat at a five-star restaurant that asked us to bring our own silverware, so why should our client’s experience be different?”
That policy also avoids headaches for contractors.
“Let’s say we’re using a customer’s hose, and it has a leak in the side of it,” Orta said. “Whether it was our fault or not, we’re going to get blamed for it.” Or if a tech dropped a hose and cracked a nozzle, now the contractor is out additional time and $20-$30 to replace it.
Carrying their own hoses also gives technicians consistency from job to job, avoiding a scenario of unexpectedly high water pressure bending part of the equipment. M&L uses their own nozzles and no-kink hoses that Orta likes because they’re easy to store and don’t require rolling out and up at each job.
Once underway, AirAce’s Nieman has his team check for refrigerant leaks at both the outdoor and indoor coil, and they always check external static pressure for the furnace and air handler.
A bio treatment for the indoor evaporator pan is part of the process at DiFilippo’s, as is a standard filter for every tune-up.
“We use digital gauges to read superheat and subcooling, and charging jackets to place true load on a/c in cooler temperatures,” DiFilippo added.
M&L’s Orta noted that making that effort to check superheat and subcooling also opens the door to bill for the necessary adjustment when a unit is slightly under- or overcharged.
“We put our hand meters on everything,” he continued. “I take the tops off all my condensers, we vacuum out the condenser, we use triple D, and we clean the coils, both evaporator and condenser.
“We use pan tablets in the drain pan,” he continued, a holdover from Orta’s commercial HVAC background. “My guys wipe down the drain pan. I mean, we do a thorough cleaning.”
Another key detail for Orta is verifying that the float switches work, and especially that horizontal applications have a float switch in the pan and that they are working properly.
Beyond that, M&L’s visits include checking voltage drop across the contactor and tightening all the electrical connections since that’s an area “where you see a lot of burnt wiring” in cases.
The “how” and the “when” of specific tasks on a call like this can make as much difference as the “what” of the tasks themselves. Fayette’s Matney laid out some logic that drives their outdoor unit maintenance sequence of events.
BACK TO NATURE: “Our method,” said Josh Matney, Fayette Heating and Air’s operations manager, “is to remove the top of the outdoor unit to gain access to the coil’s interior..” (Courtesy of Fayette Heating & Air)
“Just about everyone has walked by an outdoor unit and felt the air blowing out the unit’s top. Common sense would tell you that air passes from outside the coil through the coil and out the top,” he said.
“Although this seems obvious,” Matney continued, “too many companies attempt to clean condensers this same way. Our method is to remove the top of the outdoor unit to gain access to the coil’s interior. After the cleaning chemicals have been applied, the technician can then rinse from the inside, forcing the particles out the same direction they entered.”
When that is finished, the Fayette technician straightens out any folded-over coil fins on the coil.
That condenser cleaning is always the last step for Orta’s team “because we don’t want to hose down the condenser outside and then track in dirt with our wet shoes and everything else,” he explained. So their process goes inside and then outside, allowing them to check out often without having to come back into the home.
In an environment where preventive maintenance margins are tight and online reviews remain influential, eliminating the risk of needlessly irritating the customer — or having to pay to clean someone’s carpet — is the final chance to fuse effective service with good business sense.
Outdoor Units and the DIY Instinct
“We love it when customers take an interest in their home.” Joel Nieman, owner of AirAce Heating & Cooling welcomes this sort of interest and uses it to strengthen his customer relationships.
AirAce has has used videos, its website, and social media to offer advice to educate consumers on what they can do to safely promote their system’s efficiency. Customer interest in some cases may extend as far as cleaning coils themselves.
AirAce’s technicians may share those tips during home visits as well.
“We have found communication with our customers is key in customer retention,” Nieman said.
AirAce’s embrace represents one end of the spectrum for contractor attitudes toward this dynamic.
At Fayette Heating & Air, operation manager Josh Matney tries to channel that DIY impulse into two areas: filters and drain lines. His team does take the in-person opportunity to talk about the financial and performance effects of a dirty coil. However, the company line encourages customers to leave those cleanings to a licensed professional.
M&R Air Conditioning & Electrical’s vice president Ricky Orta does sympathize with the new customer who just spent a significant amount of money on a new system and wants to know what they can do to protect their investment.
“But as far as do-it-yourself, from a homeowner standpoint,” he said, “I’m 100% against it.”
Orta laid out a list of reasons that, like AirAce’s webpage on the topic, begins with safety.
“Most customers are not familiar with how electricity works,” Orta said. Even the ones who know to shut the breaker off for the outdoor unit may “not be aware that the breaker for the air handler, still being on, is still sending low voltage to that condensing unit.”
Newer units that require longer power-down periods and include more advanced controls open the door further to doing accidental damage.
As with other types of appliances and equipment, homeowners who take on DIY outdoor unit cleaning may also take on the risk of voiding their warranty.
Orta does tell homeowners who want to participate that they can clean their drain line with a Shop-Vac from outside the home. In addition, in cases like a new installation including a cleanout, he will tell customers they can pour warm water and vinegar down the cleanout every month or so to help keep it clear.
Encouraging that particular task may also benefit the contractor. For instance, coming out to clean a one-year-old drain line “is not a moneymaker,” said Orta, adding that that often involves a customer who doesn’t understand why a system that might even be relatively new system requires this attention so soon.
So for systems old or new, Orta does encourage that homeowner habit.
DiFilippo’s Service president, Laura DiFilippo, feels that DIY’ers can take the attitude a step too far, and getting into HVAC tune-up work is one of those steps.
“It would be like a dentist sending you a video on how to deep clean your teeth, scrape off the plaque, and check for cavities,” she said.
She feels that her company would “miss an opportunity to be their expert, do the work correctly, and talk to them about, new innovative products to help with safety, comfort, and efficiency.”
DiFilippo’s comment raises the point that while DIY condenser and coil-related cleaning can present a balance of risk and reward for the homeowner, it may also cost the contractor a productive conversation.
While no single stock answer exists, contractors should consider their position and their own service territory before the situation actually comes up. The “right” attitude likely varies from company to company and from customer base to customer base.