Have you ever stopped to inspect the mounds of advertising pieces that appear on a regular basis in your household mail? While many pieces are annoying clumps of banal and useless information for people with little or no time to read, let alone read sale circulars, they do provide a source of entertainment.

Stuffed into a #10 envelope are upwards of 40 to 50 ads, with at least a half-dozen from hvacr contractors touting $200 discounts on central air or $25 off an annual clean and inspect if you order their "gold" service.

Ah yes, the clean and inspect carousel.

What are the most common prices we see for this type of service -- $79.95, $49.95, $29.95? Better yet, at what price point do contractors break even or actually see a profit? Some contractors say that they make no profit on clean and inspects; it's just a way to get their foot in the door and offer other repair or installation services.

I remember one contractor telling me that for $29.95 he couldn't even afford to send a truck out. Another said he could probably send a truck past a customer's house and wave to them.

So who are these people who offer $29.95 (or less) for a clean and inspect? Are these the people who work part-time, moonlight, or keep a "fluid" address?

You know the type: They do the work in the same neighborhood over a short period of time and move on to another community -- with no forwarding address. They're not quite gypsies, but they come close. Or maybe they are legitimate contractors who live on the edge, making a profit only when their unsuspecting customer is asked to pay for additional parts or labor when a "problem" is detected during inspection.

These are the contractors you are likely to see during sting operations on Dateline or your local news channel.

Doesn't it make you wonder how the $29.95 guys get the notoriety while the legitimate, quality contractors who charge a fair price go unnoticed and unappreciated (except by their satisfied customers, that is)?

I'd like to hear from any contractor on what s/he thinks is a fair and reasonable price for a basic furnace or a/c unit clean and inspect. I'd also like to hear from the $29.95 guys, find out how they can make a profit from such a seemingly low rate. Don't worry; I won't give away any trade secrets.

I have a sneaking suspicion that these guys won't be dropping me a line -- probably because they haven't stayed in the same place long enough to subscribe to The News.

Fax or e-mail me and don't include your company name or address; or, participate at The News' website, www.achrnew.com. I'll give you the results of this unscientific poll next month.

To take the poll online, click here.