Air Conditioner Repair

A thing happened to me, seemed worth sharing.

What Happened

A few weeks ago, the in-wall air conditioner in our bedroom ceased to function.

Troy Barnes was unavailable, so instead we talked to the super, he recommended a company called Amhac, we ignored normative determinism (e.g. “Am a hack”) and called them. They charged a rather large amount simply to come out and take a look, with a diagnostic fee and also a noticeably generous per-hour fee.

Then, a few days before they were supposed to show up, our other in-wall air conditioner sprung a leak – or rather, the leak got big enough that we noticed it – and the super advised us we had to shut it down until it was fixed, but he thought that one would be a simple fix plus the addition of a failsafe that should have been there to stop the leak; he wasn’t sure about the bedroom one.

The repairmen showed up, but they hadn’t completed the necessary certificate of insurance to be let into the building – this policy is even more annoying and friction generating than it sounds – and we had to reschedule while they sorted this out. A number of rather hot nights later, they managed to come in.

Their report was that both air conditioners were unfixable. The one in the bedroom was completely shot. The one in the living area was fixable in theory, they said, but due to some EPA regulation it wasn’t possible to fix it.

They could send over a contract for the new units, it would be… $28,000.

I Googled for various new air conditioners, and couldn’t find ones that would be that expensive. The guy explained I would need two of each unit, for four units total.

I asked some trusted friends about all this, as well as the super, and all agreed a second quote would be a very good idea. I asked the super who else had done work in the building, and he remembered M.LaPenna Refrigeration, Inc. They charged by the hour as well, but without a ‘diagnostic fee’ up front.

Which on reflection should have been a hint about the first company. If you’re charging for the labor, as you do, starting with minute one, why is there an additional diagnostic fee? It doesn’t actually make any sense.

This time, they took care of the certificate of insurance as fast as the insurance company could handle it, then got a guy out to look the same day that got approved. Almost as if things were urgent. Different attitude.

Instead of two workers, this time there was one, who was keen to explain to me what was going on as he worked.

The super was busy, so I explained the situation as best I could and he got to poking around in various places.

Two hours later, both air conditioners were working again, and they sent out for the part to install the failsafe.

I asked the man if there was any way the other repairmen could have made an honest mistake saying the units needed to be replaced. His answer: “No.”

If I hadn’t checked, I wonder how much they finally would have tried to get me for, but I’m sure it was a lot.

What To Do About That First Company?

I’m not sure. I emailed my contact to say what happened and suggested a full refund would be appropriate. The response was that the person was on vacation for weeks (with no warning). Which did not endear me.

If it was one unit, I could imagine an honest mistake. But it wasn’t. It was two units, with distinct setups, experiencing distinct problems. This was not a mistake.

What am I supposed to do now? Chargeback? Report to better business bureau? Report to someone else? Do something else? What’s the responsible thing to do here?

I don’t know.

Thoughts and Takeaways

What about takeaways in general?

First of all, get a second opinion. Do not trust contractors of any kind, who you don’t have damn good reason to trust, who tell you that you need something massively expensive or how much that something should cost until it has been verified. However much the cost in delay, mild social awkwardness and an extra payment for the double check, not double checking is malpractice.

Quality is highly variable. Some people are great. Some people are less great. Others are out to get you. I had the same experience when I explored getting a new wall, with proposals differing in cost by an order of magnitude. The person someone recommended did not listen at all, then when I told him what he was proposing was not at all what I’d asked, responded with ‘well if we’re going to go back and forth then you need to pay for the proposal.’ We found a much better option, but ended up deciding what we had was fine.

Second, remember to be scope sensitive and give proper attention when there are bigger stakes. A small number of relatively big decisions are worth quite a lot, yet there will be that temptation to be done with it to avoid the stress and the mild social awkwardness. Resist this.

Third, air conditioner repair seems like a damn fine business. This was most certainly truth in television. The repair role isn’t anything in the job that an average person couldn’t learn, after which you’re making three figures an hour while doing an actual physical useful thing. Centrally, you solve puzzles, figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it, and make things work again. Very not alienating.

It sure seems like it beats a lot of ‘white collar’ jobs I’ve seen, and it’s open to pretty much anyone. If you run the business yourself, that seems even better. There are some barriers to entry there, especially starting capital, but again it seems pretty sweet, and you do well by doing good.

It’s also a job that seems relatively safe from automation in the medium term.

In general, the category of ‘physical work to make physical things work that requires skills but which can be learned’ seems like it pays pretty well and has strong demand.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not especially high on my list of things I would try doing, but it seems worth putting on the list of pretty damn good options.

Fourth, I suppose I should get that maintenance contract up and running?

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24 Responses to Air Conditioner Repair

  1. greg kai says:

    I never experienced scam attempt at the same level, but multiple smaller ones. It is the norm for most semi-urgent repair works demanding specialized knowledge. Fixing home appliance, IT (hardware and software), mechanics for cars, all the same story (although the latest is on the way out in my case, from a combination of company car and modern car more and more difficult to fix without the diagnostic tool which are brand specific. Most engine and electronic related stuff is like iPhone repairs: only the manufacturer or it’s agreed repairmen are allowed to do it, which is in some way even worse – no independent second opinion available).
    For home stuff, it’s super usefull to be able to do a lot yourself. Which is a combination of DIY talent, considering DIY-friendly and/or cheap stuff vs proprietary expensive stuff, and doing the installation/improvement yourself in the first place (it makes diagnostic and repair much much more easy, regardless of DIY-level).
    It sounds like death of specialisation and societal trust. It is, caused by those scams and (in Europe) tax on wages: Even if you are less efficient and have a higher hourly wage than the fix-man, it is still often worth it do DIY if you can.

    • myst_05 says:

      Yep, DIY is the way to go. For the price of a single plumber/electrician visit you can go get top notch tools at the hardware store and just do it yourself.

  2. Robert Melater says:

    This puts a lot of what you’ve written over the years into serious question for me. ‘Learn how to assess professionals’ is the same across all disciplines. If you can understand how to work with contractors, you can understand most everything. ‘Don’t trust contractors’ is…both true and weak at the same time. Take the emotion out of it, ‘trust’, etc and learn to assess your own situation. ‘Dont trust contractors’ is right up there with ‘don’t trust economists’ and ‘dont trust news sources’ etc. Trust is the wrong – as you guyz would put it – ‘metric’.

    • TheZvi says:

      That’s super interesting, never would have expected that. I don’t *think* I’m doing the thing you’re trying to warn against and it’s most a question of language? But also I do think there’s a certain place where trust is kind of the right metric, as in bounded distrust – the idea that you need to be *radically* skeptical of contractor claims, in way you basically don’t for (most) economists or (most) news sources – they will outright commit pure fraud on you, constantly, which is very different.

      But I did totally try to actually reason out the situation myself and figure out what was going on, same as I always do, and I was HELLA suspicious the moment they told me they needed to replace the 2nd unit. I do think I passed here.

      • Etheric42 says:

        Scripting and light software development works similarly. If I hire someone to write some scripts I could write if I spent a lot of time go ogling and at least conceptually know what is going on, it is cheap. If I hire a someone to write something I know nothing about it is a crapshoot if it ends up being cheap or not (I find out later after I have the requisite skills to identify what needed to happen in the past).

        Can make it hard to be a business too small for a IT department.

      • Robert Melater says:

        Hmmm, yes, you are right; you ‘passed’. Because you didn’t get shafted. I apologize (but also i’m a dog on the internet). “Dont trust contractors” rankled a bit; there’s a better framework for finding and using contractors which is worth knowing. Far better to always pay or offer to pay ‘time and materials + %’; the big weak area in contracting = estimating. Even for mech contracting.

  3. the resistance says:

    The house which I rent had, for my first three years here, an electrical system that could best be described as “cursed”. My landlord at great expense had three different sets of licensed electricians come look at it. The first switched out some plugs, which made no difference. The second said the only solution was to tear the house down and start again (that’s literally what he said). The third did lots of work with lots of worker in matching uniforms, charged lots of money, and made no difference. Suspicious, I bought a $10 voltmeter, took some readings, posted them on the “ask an electrician” subreddit, and immediately got the correct diagnosis, and the fix, which was to ask the utility to replace the neutral wire on the utility pole across the street. 1 hour and 0 further dollars later the electrical system was completely fixed. I am still slightly stunned by the whole incident and no sure how to properly update.

    • greg kai says:

      I think it’s to be filled in the “trust the expert” vs “trust random guys from the internet” double list.
      Official message is trust the expert (professional, or with the correct title/diploma, or from the bigger/more official organisation), while only cheap fools will turn to internet/friends.
      Same thing has been said for Wikipedia, WebMD and various blogs since they exists, and before that, about common sense and friends advices.
      Let’s say my personal experience differ, the cheap fool tools are not 100% accurate but, with a minimal of common sense, usually better. Which is nicely meta: on choosing expert sources, I do not trust the official message (the expert) :-)
      Incentive are a good point to start: who would reap the most benefit from not telling the truth? RIG or expert?
      If it’s the expert, is there an easy-enough way to expose the scam and a big penalty when it’s exposed? If not, ask the random internet guy.

      • Anonymous-backtick says:

        I’m always shocked to the degree that “search forums and subreddits” *isn’t* a tool most people use to solve their problems. Kinda like Robert Melater says for IRL people–you quickly learn the cross-domain patterns for figuring out which people know what they’re talking about.

        • amac78 says:

          As a self-taught shade-tree car mechanic, I’d broaden “search forums and subreddits” to include YouTube. With the rise of electronics, many auto repairs have moved out of my reach. But many others haven’t, in no small part due to wonderful YouTubers who post narrated how-to-do-it videos. Search performance is surprisingly good, especially if you classify your vehicle correctly (e.g. a 2009 Honda CR-V is the middle year of its third generation).

        • bugsbycarlin says:

          @amac78: what does “shade-tree” mean in this context?

        • amac78 says:

          @bugsbycarlin, it means “amateur,” referring to e.g. rebuilding the carburetor under the shade of a nearby tree, rather than at the bench in a well-equipped mechanic’s garage (intentionally outdated example).

  4. myst_05 says:

    What you should do is make your review of Amhac as easy to find as possible:

    1. Change the post title to “Amhac New York AC repair scam”
    2. Put their phone numbers and website name in there in case someone Googles those
    3. Repost your review on as many subreddits and review websites as possible

    Basically try to make it so that anyone searching for Amhac finds your post and makes the right conclusions. Don’t back down unless they refund you in full AND give you a compensation for your time lost on their scam.

    • Greg kai says:

      Before, check the legislation. I am not in the US, so I don’t know what the local law is, but there are worrying infos about purple getting fined or worse for posting negative reviews on websites about commercial entities.
      I don’t think it’s useful to say to our host (who posted about the new normal after 2 covid years and what could be assumed about power in places should not be assumed anymore…), but to other it may be: free speech/consumer protection is balanced with libel and commercial benefit protection. Be careful to check what particular balance is enforced now at your place…

      • Greg kai says:

        Edit: but there are worrying infos about people getting fined or worse for posting negative reviews on websites about commercial entities. Those stories seems more frequent lately, the example i have in mind is Thaïland (stuff like hotel review on trip advisor, and no, it was not because the reviews were fake, just negative…)

      • cwuestefeld says:

        In the USA, truth is an absolute defense against libel/defamation. And even if it’s not completely true, as long as Zvi is only publishing *opinions* (as opposed to objectively factual information like “contractor X is unlicensed” or something), or if he explains how he arrived at his conclusions, he’s in the clear. So posting all over “Amhac is crooks, read my story about them at this URL” is perfectly OK in the USA. (But I can’t say strongly enough that I’m not a lawyer and you shouldn’t listen to me for legal advice.)

  5. Peter says:

    If you paid with a credit card you should definitely charge it back, possibly after another reasonable attempt at getting the refund directly from the company. Save the emails, in case the credit card asks for them. And

  6. justafool says:

    You should sue Amhac in small claims court, and then write about the experience. Inflict pain on the bad-guys and explore our broken infrastructure at the same time!

  7. Anonymous says:

    The BBB is a complete scam. Think modern-day SBR where basically anything negative, no matter how much incontrovertible evidence it’s backed by, is suppressed for companies that pay up. My sister had plumbers try to scam her charging for far too many hours (like 4.5 hours of work when the guy left at 10 am, with correspondence backing it up, etc) and the BBB edited out almost all of the substance of the complaint, posted a statement by the owner that was 80% non sequitur and 20% proven lie contradicted by their correspondence, and gave them an A- rating. This does not appear to be an unusual experience. Just charge back when it’s clear that it’s not getting resolved amicably.

  8. 5hout says:

    I promise there is a relevant point at the end. In my last house I did almost all my own plumbing repairs/rebuilds, on a system that was PEX, copper pipe, steel galvanized, cast iron and PVC. Many adventures, some of which were merely horrible. We move and go to install a basement toilet that has to be pumped uphill into the septic line. I’m handy, but I’m not messing around with something that will pump literal crap 15 feet uphill. Nope. Not doing something wrong or missing a step or gluing PVC wrong and having poop spray everywhere.

    Hire a highly rec’d local guy, amazing reviews. Pay half upfront. Team comes out, spend 3 days doing it. Inspector comes and writes a multiple paragraph list of everything not to code leaving saying “normally they’re really, idk what happened here”. 4 weeks before I can get someone from the company to respond. It’s like out of a freaking sitcom, also I have a jackhammered 12×4 ft hole in basement floor right now and a toddler.

    Once this gets wrapped up, hopefully this week (they come out again on Wednesday) I’m going back to doing it all myself. If it is going to be done wrong anyway, at least this way I’m not paying someone else to do it.

    So this prompted me to check, using credit card records, how many times I’ve been to a hardware store this year. 22 trips in 2022 (so far, and I have 1 more this week) on my card, there were a few on my Dad’s that I paid him back cash for and my BIL/FIL/Dad have spent weekends helping me. There’s enormous cost/quality savings, often even accounting for time spent, buttttt you need to have the free time/truck (or friend with a truck) and 2nd/3rd/4th helper.

    Basically, the shoeleather cost to doing things yourself can be a lot larger than people think. The closest non-terrible lumber yard to me is 30m away, and I live in an easily drivable mid-sized Midwestern city. Every trip to the lumber yard for “ohh darn, I need X” is 30 miles of driving/1.5 hours, minimum. If you live in a big city where this kind of stuff requires driving out and/or permit/building requirements mean you can’t easily do this without inspectors you probably can’t effectively fix many things yourself, even if you have the time/tools.

    The point: If you’re going to be an repair tech do something gated by regulated supplies (i.e. HVAC (can be very hard for consumers to get sufficient refrigerant these days, even if they know how to charge a system)), or where there are permit/building (not city) inspection + insurance requirements that create a barrier to self repair.

    Plumbing is (from the one’s I’ve talked to) too much 24/7 emergency callout work if you are making a living off it. Electrician work is good, and protected by fear/codes, but back breaking over time. General handyman (not contractor) is too unregulated and open to competition by random people entering the market and undercutting, same as Plaster/Drywall.

    • myst_05 says:

      In practice permits/inspections are pretty easy to ignore, as houses in the US are sold “as is” and no one bothers to check if you pulled the right permits or not. The one exception is things readily apparent from the outside – i.e. I’ve heard of people getting fines for installing a permanent jacuzzi outside without getting a permit.

      Same for HVAC – if you don’t have an existing permit for AC, it might too obvious from the outside to do without a permit. But if you already do, its pretty much a free-for-all to replace/change whatever you want.

      • cwuestefeld says:

        > houses in the US are sold “as is” and no one bothers to check if you pulled the right permits or not

        This is not true in my experience. When we sold our house 8 years ago, we were told there were two items that we need to retroactively get permits for, and get inspected. It was a while ago, so I don’t recall how it was that the need for these permits was discovered, but they did. One was for the installation of a water softener, and the other for a transfer switch for a generator.

  9. hapablap says:

    In any situation like this where you feel you are owed some money or redress by a company but not sure what (such as, your hotel is overbooked and they rebooked you for another hotel), ask your credit card company. They should be able to tell you what is reasonable and what is not, and when negotiating you can use your credit card provider’s advice as an appeal to authority. And if you’re lucky they may just deal with it for you.

  10. XVO says:

    Give them a bad review on Google reviews and explain exactly what shenanigans they tried to do to you. You’ll save someone else the same pain. Give the good company a good review explain what they did.

    Reviews are good but detailed reviews are more trustworthy and you are helping people. Unfortunately the reviews are gamed but sometimes you can tell which ones are real.

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