Weather-wise, we're willing to put up with a lot here in the Philadelphia region. But that doesn't mean we want to forgo enjoying the comforts of home.

To ensure that our heating and air-conditioning systems work when needed, it's important that they be properly installed and maintained, and that there is someone to turn to if problems occur. In short, what we need is a competent, responsive heating and air-conditioning service.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook's evaluations of heating and air-conditioning services for quality and price will help with finding a competent contractor. You can access Checkbook's ratings free until April 5 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/hvac.

In Checkbook's surveys, several companies were rated "superior" for "overall quality" by 90 percent or more of their customers. But not all contractors are up to the task: Several scored much lower, receiving such favorable ratings from only 60 percent or fewer of their surveyed customers.

Checkbook also found very big price differences. For example, to replace the blower motor and capacitor for a Trane furnace, local companies quoted undercover shoppers prices from $400 to $857. And to supply and install an Aprilaire whole-house humidifier, prices ranged from $425 to $1,110.

Comparing prices for repairs is difficult. Most companies charge hefty minimum fees just to show up to diagnose a problem. Once a company has done that, it should provide a written fixed price for the repair. If the estimate is no more than a few hundred dollars, you may as well have the company go ahead with it immediately. If the estimate exceeds $500 or so, consider getting quotes from other companies.

If new equipment is needed, get several companies to prepare written proposals to install it. Although obtaining multiple bids for new equipment will save most consumers thousands of dollars, most don't bother to take this step.

When buying new equipment, be skeptical about claims of cost savings with a more energy-efficient system. There may be substantial savings — and there are compelling public-interest reasons to install efficient equipment — but some companies exaggerate the amount of savings to sell new, or more expensive, systems. (More efficient equipment costs more money.) Get several companies to make proposals, ask for documentation of how much the new equipment will cut energy bills, and ask questions. Calculate estimates by using the U.S. Department of Energy's Home Energy Saver tool at hes.lbl.gov.

Checkbook estimated how costs are affected by purchase of new equipment with varying energy-efficiency ratings and found:

  • For furnaces, it usually makes sense to pay extra for a more efficient furnace, compared with  buying a minimally efficient model. The resulting energy savings quickly "pays off" extra purchase costs.
  • Because the climate here isn't that extreme, for air conditioners, it usually doesn't make sense in this region to pay more for a highly energy-efficient unit.
  • Ground-source heat pumps (also called geothermal systems) provide very low heating and cooling bills, but these systems are extremely expensive to purchase and install — typically $30,000 or more. Because of their big energy savings, hefty tax and utility company incentives, and long lifespans, however, it makes financial sense to consider them if you know you'll be in your house for a long time.
  • Look for energy-saving features, such as variable-speed blowers and two-stage burners.
  • Investing thousands of extra dollars in ultra-efficient equipment makes no sense if your home is drafty or poorly insulated, or your thermostat is pegged on Tahiti during the winter. Before upgrading your equipment, make sure your attic is well-insulated and seal up easy-to-fix leaks. Dial down your thermostat, and get and use a programmable thermostat.

Heating and air-conditioning services are likely to push for annual professional maintenance visits, and many will offer maintenance contracts. Such service may not be needed if you are diligent about the most important maintenance task: replacing air filters whenever they get dirty.

Whether you need repairs or a new unit, pay with a credit card. If you are dissatisfied with the work, you can dispute the charge with your credit-card company.

_______________________

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine (Checkbook.org) is a nonprofit organization supported by consumers that takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.