It happened again. I’m sure many of you saw or heard about the June 29 broadcast of NBC’s Dateline. In it, eight Houston-area hvacr contractors were caught in a sting by NBC, who called up businesses that offered discounted coupons on clean and inspections.

The a/c condenser unit was in “perfect” operating condition, yet various service technicians found several things wrong with the unit, most of them centering on low levels of refrigerant. The highest quote came from a tech recommending a new system (a cost exceeding $8,000).

I’m not planing on climbing back up on that soapbox again to blast the messenger for giving a biased report. I have no doubt that NBC tweaked the segment to show how dishonest a bunch of service technicians are — after all, it is fun and newsy to catch people in the wrong. Some of my critics say I spend too much time taking potshots at Dateline and not enough time digging into the root of the problem — the lousy contractors.

Acknowledging the Problem

I will not pass judgment on the contractors in the Dateline report. But make no mistake about it. Our trade is plagued by the many Neanderthals who call themselves technicians and their bosses who say they can make money on a $29.95 clean and inspect. We, in the trade, know thatno onecan make a profit on a $29.95 clean and inspect. Yet the public is lulled into believing that we can be profitable, especially if our technicians find a number of things wrong during inspections.

How do we police our own trade? Frankly, we can’t. It is impossible. Though estimates vary, there are approximately 30,000 hvacr contractors out there. That doesn’t necessarily count the moonlighters and people whose address is wherever their truck is parked. How do we watch out for our customers when these people are cutting prices while providing terribly inferior work?

We can’t — and we shouldn’t waste our time.

Doesn’t every profession have some bad apples? How many stings have you seen involving travel agents or appliance repair people? And what about doctors and lawyers who rip people off? Friends, being stung is nothing new and shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us.

It just seems to me that Dateline has gone out of its way to paint a big target on our trade and sell television advertising based on the doings of a few less-than-honest contractors. That’s what I object to.

The Positive Side

We know that doing a good job at a fair price isn’t newsworthy. But how about donating time and equipment to an elderly or poor person? How about the many charity events that contractors donate time and money to? How about the importance of our trade — which raises the quality of life for homeowners and businessowners?

Isn’t there some balance we can strike with the national media? Do you think NBC will care that a guy like Steve Ebels and other heating/cooling and plumbing contractors across the country donate money to help out a family that lost its father? Isn’t that newsworthy, too?

My plan is to keep bringing positive stories to light about our trade and encourage the national and local media to tell both sides of the story. I’d like a little help on this one, too.

There is no need to shoot the messenger for telling the truth, but there is a need to steer the messenger in a direction that is fair to all people involved. Please call a local news affiliate, whether it is television, radio, newspaper, or magazine. Give them a good story to report on and spice it up with some superlatives and testimonials.

We already know that ranting and raving doesn’t always get results. We also know that the only way to combat negativism is by doing good deeds — and by doing what 95% of our trade does: quality work at a profitable price.

Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); (e-mail).

Publication date: 07/16/2001