Ah, fall. Pumpkins, leaf peeping, hot cider. Realizing your home’s heating system is on the fritz can quickly put a damper on the seasonal fun.

Replacing your home’s heating or cooling equipment costs thousands of dollars. Even on cool days, such expenses can make you hot under the collar. So it makes sense to maintain your current equipment properly and get good repairs when needed. When you do need new stuff, you’ll want to work with a company that offers the best advice and prices.

Evaluations by Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook of area heating and air-conditioning services will help you find a competent contractor for quality and price. Through special arrangement with The Inquirer, you can access Checkbook’s ratings of local HVAC services for quality and price free until Nov. 5 at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/HVAC.

In Checkbook’s surveys, several companies were rated “superior” for “overall quality” by 90% or more of their surveyed customers. But several scored much lower, receiving such favorable ratings from only 60% or fewer of surveyed customers. Checkbook also found big price differences. For example, to replace the control board for a Rheem Classic Series 90 Plus gas furnace, prices ranged from $340 to $1,004. To supply and install an Aprilaire #700A whole-house humidifier, prices ranged from $450 to $1,619.

Comparing prices for repairs is difficult, as you’ll first probably need to have a company out to diagnose the problem. Because most companies charge hefty minimum fees just to show up, you’ll likely have to pay something to find out the price of the repairs.

Before scheduling a repair, ask companies for details on their minimum fees and their hourly labor rates. Because most repair work is performed on a time-and-materials basis, you can use this information to get an idea which companies are likely to be least expensive.

Once a company has diagnosed your problem, it should provide you a written fixed price to repair it. 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 additional quotes.

If you need new equipment, it pays to shop around. Get several companies to prepare written proposals. Although obtaining multiple bids for new equipment will save most consumers thousands of dollars, most don’t bother to do so. Differences in designs can affect how quickly and uniformly your system heats and cools your house, how much energy it consumes, how much noise it makes, and other issues.

If you are considering new equipment, be skeptical about claims of cost savings from 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 this 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 your energy bills, and ask questions. You can calculate your own estimates using the U.S. Department of Energy’s Home Energy Saver tool at hes.lbl.gov.

Checkbook estimated how energy costs are affected by the 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 from more efficient equipment quickly pays off extra purchase costs.
  • Because all new central air conditioners are required to be fairly energy efficient in this area, it usually does not make financial sense to pay more for a highly efficient model.
  • If you’re replacing both your furnace and air conditioner, consider buying a hybrid system that uses an air-source heat pump backed by an efficient (90+ AFUE) gas furnace. Such systems offer low energy costs, but because they cost a lot more up front than standard furnace-A/C combos, it takes longer for their energy savings to cover those extra costs.
  • Ground-source heat pumps provide the lowest annual heating and cooling bills, but these systems are extremely expensive to buy and install — typically more than $24,000, even after factoring in generous tax and utility company incentives. But because of the energy savings and long life spans (about twice those of conventional equipment), it makes financial sense 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.
  • If you’re planning an addition or seeking to improve heating or cooling conditions for one room or an upper floor, consider getting a ductless system. These units, common in Europe and in hotel rooms, allow you to control temperatures in one space. And because they use little electricity and don’t lose a lot of energy transmitting air through duct work, they are highly energy efficient.
  • Investing thousands of extra dollars in ultra-efficient equipment makes no sense if your home is drafty or poorly insulated, or you set your thermostat to a tropical temp during the winter. Before upgrading your equipment, make sure your attic is well-insulated and seal up easy-to-fix leaks (at Checkbook.org, you’ll find advice on these topics). The best way to cut home energy costs is the most obvious one: Dial down your thermostat and get a programmable thermostat.

Heating and air-conditioning services are likely to push for annual professional maintenance visits, and many will offer a maintenance contract. Such frequent professional 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, you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.

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Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers evaluated.