A thing happened to me, seemed worth sharing.
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?