Q: What advice may BBB provide on HVAC systems and service providers?

A: As the weather warms, that is a great question. You may be thinking about buying or servicing your existing heating and air conditioning system. The total cost of any appliance, including heating and cooling systems, has three components — the purchase price, the cost of repairs and maintenance, and the cost to operate it. With heating and cooling among the largest energy expenses in the typical home, it is crucial that you purchase and maintain your system for efficiency.

Many of the things you should consider when hiring an HVAC contractor are consistent with what to consider when hiring any contractor, There are also considerations specific to heating and cooling.


Purchase and installation

Before you buy, conduct an energy audit. This will help you detect energy waste, gauge the efficiency of your current heating and cooling systems, and determine if conditioned air is moving properly. Your utility company may offer free or low-cost energy audits or a do-it-yourself kit. You also can hire a specialist to do a more comprehensive energy audit (though this will probably cost you more money).

You should also take steps to weatherize your home. Check the caulking, weather stripping, and insulation, and make any necessary repairs. This may enable you to install a smaller, less expensive heating or cooling system to get the same results.

Compare the performance of different brands and models. Study the product literature. Will the product do the job? What's its repair history? Will it handle your needs today?

Ten years from now? Does it fit your budget? How energy efficient is it?

Consider energy efficiency from the start. All products must meet minimum energy efficiency standards set by the Department of Energy in the United States. But many products beat the standard, use even less energy, and cost less to run. Ask your builder, installer, or home supply outlet about the Energy Guide label and the fact sheets or product directories for each system you are considering.

Compare the energy efficiency and operating costs of competing models. Consider both the purchase price and estimated operating costs when you decide what to buy. Sometimes you may be eligible for cash rebates or tax breaks from your energy provider for buying and using energy efficient products. Be sure to check with your energy provider for more information.

Make sure any contractor you hire to install your system is an approved, authorized dealer by the manufacturer. If they are approved it means they meet the requirements and the manufacturer trusts them to install and represent the product.

Compare more than just cost. Check the size and rated efficiency of the equipment each contractor recommends. Ask each contractor to explain how the estimate of the required heating capacity and equipment was determined. Make sure the service and products of the contractor will provide the maximum benefit in both comfort and value.

The contractor you choose should provide at least one call back free of charge after installation to check the system. See that this is in the written agreement. Many contractors also offer service contracts under which they will inspect and service your equipment once a year and provide emergency repair service. Before purchasing a service contract, be sure to weigh its cost and coverage against the cost and likelihood of future repairs. If your system is new, it probably comes with a warranty, which is included in the purchase price of the system.

If you sign a service contract, be sure that it spells out what parts and service are provided and that it doesn't duplicate coverage you already have under the warranty. Because service contracts vary significantly in coverage, compare the coverage offered by several different companies.

Is the guarantee or warranty disclosed? Is the entire job under warranty or only certain materials? Is labor included in the guarantee? Who will make good on the guarantee — the dealer or the manufacturer? Of course, remember the guarantee is only as good as the firm that offers it.


Maintenance and repair

Keeping your system well maintained will prolong the life of the system and save you money. So be sure to have it checked every year by a qualified technician. Spring or early summer are the best times for servicing cooling systems while summer or fall are the ideal times for servicing your heating system. You can also do some routine maintenance yourself, by replacing disposable filters as needed or cleaning permanent ones.

Before calling a heating or cooling contractor, check what model system you own and the maintenance history for the system. Understand the license and insurance requirements for contractors in your county and state. Make sure the contractor meets all the requirements.

When having your heating system cleaned, you should also ask the contractor to do a test for carbon monoxide. This odorless gas can be deadly, so you should also consider installing a carbon monoxide detector to protect you between service visits.

If you need repairs, be sure to get multiple written estimates for the job. If you need to replace your system, the estimate should include a full description of additional work required for the installation of ducts, registers, electric wiring, and any other work needed.


Energy efficiency

Being an energy-smart consumer means getting the most from the energy you use.

* Shade your room air conditioner from direct sun. This will reduce its workload. Clean the filters monthly and replace as necessary to save energy and reduce dust and pollen in the air. Lower the setting when you go out to reduce operating costs.

* Vacuum air vents, and baseboard heaters regularly to remove dust that reduces heating efficiency. Move furniture, carpet, or curtains that restrict their operation. If your baseboard heaters have movable deflectors or vents, open them in the winter and close them in the summer.

* Schedule annual tune-ups for your heat pump, and heating system. Check to see if your utility company provides this service.

* Hire a professional to seal and insulate leaky ducts, and to ensure that the airflow distribution system serving your heating or cooling equipment is operating at peak efficiency.

* Check your attic, attic stairway, attached garage walls, and basement to ensure that you have proper insulation between conditioned and unconditioned spaces.

* Open your foundation vents each spring if your home has a crawl space under it. Close the vents in the winter. Prune back shrubs that may block airflow to your air conditioner or heat pump. Consider installing ceiling fans. The air circulation promotes cooling in the summer and heating efficiency in the winter. Consider investing in a programmable thermostat. That will create a comfortable temperature while you are home and help save you money while you are away.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.