I have a confession to make: I bought air conditioning from the Home Depot and had them install it.

The Situation

I live in a 25 to 30-year-old, U-shaped, single-story home on a slab with approximately 5,000 sq. ft. of living space.

There are 12 sliding glass doors and 29 windows. Every wall has a lot of glass and one wall is entirely glass.

The existing ductwork is leaky, mildewed, and dirty rigid fiberboard. Although it would appear at first glance to have adequate return air, upon inspection, it's obvious it doesn't.

During the cooling season, which here is Southwest Florida lasts 9 to10 months, there is one room that's ice-cold and two rooms that are way too hot.

There are two systems. Both required replacing, including the ductwork.

The situation is complicated by the lack of headroom in the attic. Not only can't you stand up in it, you can barely crawl through much of it. Add our Florida heat to the mixture, and you've got a challenging installation.

I didn't go looking for any special "deals." In this case, the challenge wasn't in finding a deal. The challenge was in finding someone in whom I felt confident would do the job right and not quit when the going got tough.

The Selection Process
I got six estimates. In a nutshell, here's how they played out:

  1. The company who'd been servicing my equipment for 10 years sent their designer out. He spent about five minutes talking with me, and about two hours surveying the property. They later faxed over a two-page "letter" that I guess substitutes for a proposal and sales presentation. They didn't suggest I replace both systems. There was no follow-up. The only reason I would have called them back myself would have been out of curiosity. I want to know what their closing ratio is with no real selling, presenting or follow-up.
  2. A buddy of mine, who works as an HVAC salesman, sent two installation specialists who spent half a day here. He then brought over a rather mean-looking, one-page proposal with no "selling points" on it whatsoever. I didn't like the impersonal way this was being handled and told him to tell his boss to take a hike. No love lost there. I got the impression they didn't really want to do the job anyway, and it was important to me that the person who got the job really wanted it. I hope we're still friends after he reads this.
  3. My home warranty company sent out a salesman who turned out to be a guy I've known for 15 years. He recommended equipment without doing a load calculation and didn't want to do the installation the way I wanted it done, so he was out.
  4. I called the company that's very well known as being the lowest priced in town. I'll be nice about this and say that I can sure see why they are, and let it go at that.
  5. The company where I used to work as a salesman sent out a great group of guys who, between the salesman and two installation supervisors, spent an entire day here. By the time the salesman came back to present it, he'd been fired "without cause" and that was to be his last day on the job. I didn't want to get involved in that and I didn't want to start all over again with a stranger, so they were out.
  6. As an experiment, I filled out the little card for a free estimate at the Home Depot.

Why the Home Depot?
To begin with, when you buy an air conditioning system from the Home Depot, you're still buying it from the contractor. In this case, I was delighted to learn that the contractor is a well-known, established company — Gulf Shore Cooling. It's owned and operated by Gary Wright, whom I've known for 15 years. I should have thought to call him anyway.

I wrote about Gulf Shore Cooling salesman, Ed Matias, last month (CB Nov. 2006, page 71).

I liked the fact that their shop is located less than two miles from my house. I went over to talk to Gary about the possibility of them doing the job for me. It should point out that the simple fact that I was able to go over and meet directly with the owner was a significant factor in my decision. I got the impression from the other companies I talked to that the owner was inaccessible and preferred to avoid dealing directly with customers.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out to you that neither Gary Wright nor the Home Depot are clients of mine. In fact, I've spent the past decade as one of the naysayers about the Home Depot. The only financial incentive I have for writing this column is that, as far as I'm concerned, this review now makes my purchase a perfectly legitimate tax-deductable expense.

Gary's enthusiasm toward the Home Depot was contagious. He says, "I couldn't imagine doing business without the Home Depot. I started with one store and we've just agreed to do two more for them."

When pressed to elaborate, he said, "In a company like mine, which started out as new construction, to be able to break into the replacement market would have cost an enormous amount of money in advertising. The Home Depot does that for me. The only money I have to spend is on appointment-setters in the store. This brings our lead-generation dollars way down. The rule-of-thumb is that you're supposed to spend 5% on advertising. We're not spending anywhere near that.

"Additionally, they've got what they call 'Product Knowledge' sessions, where we get to go in and talk to 150 associates (Home Depot employees). They get us all kinds of business through referrals.

"People who move from up north to down here, and have no relationship with a local contractor, will have a relationship with the Home Depot, providing me with instant credibility."

Gary told me that the difference to the consumer between buying a system directly from the contractor and buying it through the Home Depot is that the Home Depot backs up the consumer. "They went through my financial history with a fine-tooth comb. They background checked me and every one of my employees."

Mike Jennings, district installation manager for the Home Depot, actually came to my home during the installation. He told me that the installing dealer doesn't get paid until the customer signs a slip of paper stating they are 100% satisfied. He went on to say that he's seen a huge improvement in the quality of Home Depot installations over the past year. This is due to there being more installation managers than before who perform personal inspections like they did in my home. "The big push at the Home Depot is to put the customer first."

I'd already made up my mind to go with the Home Depot when I learned about the payment options. I was looking for a cash discount on a job of tens of thousands of dollars. Gary Wright explained to me that, had I not gone through the Home Depot, all he could have offered me was the manufacturer's financing, which is for six months same as cash and costs him money to offer to me. The Home Depot's financing is 12 months same-as-cash and costs him nothing! So, I didn't get the "cash discount" I was looking for, but I do get a high-dollar air conditioning installation without having to pay for it for an extra 12 months.

The Installation
The salesman showed up with the installers on the first day. He also showed up at least once per day during the entire installation process, which lasted over two weeks. I really liked the constant supervision and interaction with the salesman who sold me the job.

Their first official act was to lay out over 250 linear feet of heavy paper to protect my slate floors. They laid out drop cloths anywhere they were working over carpeted surfaces.

About a half-dozen different installers showed up at one point or another, but the vast majority of the time, it was a core group of four guys that were absolutely amazing in their dedication to get this job done, and to do it right. The job took longer than they'd estimated and it was unbearably hot in that attic. Consequently, they'd have to give one of my regulars a day or two off during the course of the installation.

As near as I could tell, they were all of Hispanic descent, and all spoke English. Everyone was in uniform.

They worked quietly, without any smoking, playing music, loud talking or joking around. They all seemed to take what they were doing very seriously.

Every joint, including the can-to-ceiling connection, was sealed with mastic.

The installation required dry-walling. These people actually have a real live dry-waller on staff.

The Aftermath
The morning after the first system was installed, my housekeeper, who works here one day per week, walked in, stopped right at the door, and said, "You got the new air conditioner installed."

We said, "Well, one of them was installed last night. How did you know?"

No kidding, she said, "It smells so clean and fresh in here!" That's with less than 24 hours of operation.

So far, Gulf Coast Cooling has sent me two live ferns on two separate occasions and a thank-you letter. I also get a precision tune-up in about six months, included in the purchase price.

I asked them to do a number of little things, like build a box out of duct board and put it around my condensate pump to soundproof it, and they did.

Today, they showed up to balance the air a little better by installing some dampers in the attic.

Even without the extra balancing they did this morning, I was already more comfortable, with more even temperatures throughout the house, than I was before. The air seems drier.

We're finding that we're comfortable with the thermostats set a good 3F to 4F higher than we were with the old systems. After the balancing they did today I'll probably even be able to set one of them a little higher at night.

It will be a long time before a day goes by that I don't think about how glad I am that I chose Gulf Shore Cooling, a Home Depot contractor, to replace my air conditioning.

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Charlie Greer is an HVAC sales trainer and the creator of "Tec Daddy's Service Technician Survival School on DVD." For information on Charlie's products and seminars, call 800/963-HVAC (4822) or visit him at www.hvacprofitboosters.com. E-mail charlie at charlie@hvacprofitboosters.com