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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So what I’m hearing is that we should keep on talking about air conditioners on LessWrong.

I gave this post a strong disagree.

This lack of reliability extends to most jobs, and it's not necessarily malice, can be incompetence, an honest mistake, but more often than not just loose feedback loops. 

My experience with physiotherapists, eye doctors and dentists was like that. According to them, I should have been unable to walk, in constant pain, nearly blind and with rotting falling out teeth some years ago, unless I did what they told me to, or even then. All of them appeared highly competent, with excellent reviews and long waiting times, and really wanting to help. 

Software development is notoriously like that, too: the difference between programmers (or teams) can be orders of magnitude in terms of performance and reliability, without any externally accessible indicators, and no reliable way to predict how things would work out on the next task. I have been on both sides of it, as someone who fixed (within days) a long-standing issue that a previous team labeled "unsolvable" after months of trying, and as someone whose weeks-long unsuccessful attempt to track down and fix an issue was put to shame by another developer who managed to get it resolved quickly and efficiently. 

Another lesson is: learning how to do things yourself is underrated.

A little while ago, my shower started to make a horrible grinding whenever I'd set the water to a certain (comfortable) temperature. It sounded like a semi truck was idling inside the wall. If I adjusted the water to be a little colder (and thus more uncomfortable), the noise went away. If I adjusted the water to be a bit hotter (and even more uncomfortable), the noise also went away. I researched the problem and found out that my initial suspicion was correct. The issue was that the valve was worn in that particular position, and was chattering. So I looked at some YouTube videos and online tutorials about how to replace this valve, drove down to Home Depot, bought the replacement, and spent a little over an hour in the afternoon performing the replacement. Problem solved.

I could have tried hiring a professional. Most likely, it would have taken them at least a couple days to set up the initial appointment (given that this wasn't an emergency situation). Then they would have shown up, possibly misdiagnosed the problem, possibly not had the correct part, etc, etc and I would have had to spend even more time with second opinions, follow-up appointments, etc. Instead, by completely ignoring any thoughts of Ricardian comparative advantage, I was able to get my shower back to a fully operational status the very same day.

Similarly, last winter, when my furnace failed, I was able to look at the blinking light, look up the error code in the manual, and determine that the flame sensor needed replacement. I was able to order a new one online and I had my furnace back up and running in two days, during a cold snap when HVAC technicians were backlogged for over a week.

Even when I determined that the problem was not fixable by myself (like when my hot water heater needed replacing last year), I still found the process of researching the issue valuable, because it allowed me to make a better problem report to the technician, give clear answers when asked what kind of replacement I needed, and have necessary measurements of clearances, etc on hand so that there were no surprises when it came time for the replacement to be carried out.

The lesson I've learned from owning a house is that my first question shouldn't be, "Who do I call to fix this?" It should be, "Can I learn to fix this myself?" In every case I've learned to fix or renovate something myself, the results have been at least on par with what a professional would have done, and it's taken far less time because I haven't had to deal with the overhead of managing principal-agent problems.

Yeah, that's a good approach. I remember finding out a cracked water pipe after a somewhat careless tech replaced a washing machine. I could have complained and spent time arranging a visit, after arguing about who broke it and maybe issuing some veil threats, but buying a blow torch and some solder ended up a much quicker and more painless solution. Also, fun playing with fire!

This is a great example of the lessons in https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/tTWL6rkfEuQN9ivxj/leaky-delegation-you-are-not-a-commodity

The Better Business Bureau isn't actually a government authority or anything. It's Yelp before there was the internet. So report on their Yelp page, report at the BBB, sure. I've seen better traction (ie real public shaming and awareness generating) on local community sites like a Facebook group or NextDoor. 

Definitely name names.

Trustpilot is another site you can leave a bad review. Not sure if it is popular in the US.

See, your first mistake here was not to consult with John Wentworth and Paul Christiano about thermodynamics.

I bet you didn't even ring up JeffTK!

So much for the rationalist virtue of scholarship..

my personal experiences with tradies/contractor of any kind are that 9/10 of them are there to get you [by charging enormous amount of money], it is extremely costly to find reliable ones and online reviews are not of much help since the consumer is unable to distinguish between good and reasonably priced work from the chaff [or maybe the online reviews are faked in the first place].

Mathews Crawford (physic graduate turned motorcycle mechanic) has an amazing little book - shopcraft as soulcraft - on the subject of blue collars jobs which are in fact not only better financially, but also more intellectually satisfying, than many a desk job in the knowledge economy.

Yeah I would do a chargeback. They didn’t provide service of any value, so you shouldn’t have to pay them.

I note that the questions "should you have to pay them" and "should you do a chargeback" (more usefully, "what happens if you do a chargeback") are very different.

If you were using "you shouldn't have to pay them" as shorthand for something like "...and the credit card company will agree, and doing a chargeback will end well for you", it seems worth making that explicit.

And if you weren't using it as shorthand for something like that, that seems worth being explicit about too.

Yeah the credit card will probably agree because the OP's case has a ton of merit and they err on the side of the customer unless maybe you're a serial abuser of the chargeback system.

Paul Graham's essay The Top Idea in Your Mind seems relevant. The idea in that essay is that what your mind drifts to in the shower -- the top idea in your mind -- is really important. PG also notes that disputes like this air conditioner thing are doubly costly: 1) on the object level and 2) because they replace whatever cool thing would have been the top idea in your mind.

Turning the other cheek turns out to have selfish advantages. Someone who does you an injury hurts you twice: first by the injury itself, and second by taking up your time afterward thinking about it. If you learn to ignore injuries you can at least avoid the second half. I've found I can to some extent avoid thinking about nasty things people have done to me by telling myself: this doesn't deserve space in my head. I'm always delighted to find I've forgotten the details of disputes, because that means I hadn't been thinking about them. My wife thinks I'm more forgiving than she is, but my motives are purely selfish.

So then, paying attention to it seems like a bad idea.

Of course, that's easier said than done. I personally am dealing with a bait-and-switch type of thing from a moving company right now and it's a battle to not pay attention to it.

That's ignoring the utilitarian/Kantian perspective - by me taking some time to warn other people off this company they will be saved from undergoing the same experience. If everyone does so, then this will be unlikely to happen to me in the future (and very few contractors would dare ripping you off in the first place).

Put another way you have a social duty to advertise bad companies.

Isn't Yelp the place for that? If people warned of similarly bad companies on LW/personal blogs, the percentage of posts that are warnings of bad companies would be too high IMO.

I never said it had to be on less wrong

The issue is that there is not a clear mechanism for your feedback to reach others, and a way for others to know that you are telling the truth and are not just a fake online profile made by a business rival.  

As a side note this is a clear and succinct way to use limited AI to help coordinate humans.  If we had a 0-5 star score for each business where all score components are probably from actual customers, serious issues like this attempted grand larceny have very high weight, and we don't give an advantage to "new" fly by night outfits, this would improve the efficiency of the economy and it would not require a dangerous general superintelligence.  

This strategy works for something that happens once, but for something that could be a pattern (e.g. getting ripped off by contractors), allocating thought to it would be worthwhile -- but only if you are focused on learning from the experience, and avoiding this type of problem in the future, as opposed to just wallowing in the fact that you were wronged. (And that's also easier said than done.)

I agree with that. I guess where I was coming from in my comment is, at risk of being uncharitable, that there isn't too much to learn from here and the post was largely a vent.

Since you seem to have a bit of a following, and I would guess more than a few are in your area, posting the experience on various social media, BBB and local review sites is probably good. Might get something to go viral and that will provide the negative press the rather sketchy actor needs -- and will help others avoid.

I don't think you can really recoup any payments to the first company as you agreed to that beforehand. Consider it a "learning experience". However, given the price and the apparent attempt to deceive/grossly over charge you might be able to report it to you local government. I would check with both your local representative and whatever local consumer protection department might exist. In Fairfax County VA, where I live, a commission exists.  Once of the powers/duties it has"

May hold public hearings on and publish its findings on issues of widespread public interest which deal with illegal, fraudulent, deceptive, or dangerous consumer practices. May adopt, promulgate, amend, and rescind rules and regulations, subject to the approval of the Board of Supervisors, concerning such issues.

I think you are correct, any business practice that amounts to a situation of double billing should be a huge warning flag. I always start the conversation with "I'm calling to get a ball park estimate for <my problem>." Most repair shops with then tell you what they will charge to come look but seldom be able to give a really good number. I will try to talk with at least 3 difference businesses. If one seems both reasonable and the conversation goes well (created some sense of trustworthiness) I will make schedule the initial check. If not, back to the drawing board as they say.

I will also use such a service call to assess the service personnel and the company. If they are good I will often inquire into things like service contracts (for something like HVAC systems) to perform periodic maintenance work and will generally also enjoy some type of purchase discount pricing for work done and replacement of systems when needed. (My situation may be a bit different though as I'm in a single family house with a central HVAC system not wall/window units.)

Also - can be good to tell contractors up front that you're planning to get 2-3 quotes on whatever job it is. That way they're less likely to pull something crazy if they know that you're shopping around a bit

Yeah definitely seen some huge variation in quotes for one off jobs. Just now got a custom shelf made - one carpenter wanted 1500 Shekel, the other 500.

We have a WhatsApp group with everyone English speaking who lives in my area, and standard practice is to ask what kind of numbers other people got. Serves as a very good way to get some sort of baseline.

Always get a second quote. Otherwise, you have infinite sample variance. See Bessel's Correction.

"but they hadn’t completed the necessary certificate of insurance to be let into the building" - Just a random side point. In the UK many of us hold two, simultaneous and contradictory veiws of the US. The first is "they let you do just about anything there, you can even buy a gun!". The other is "the whole place is drowning in random needless restrictions stopping you from doing basic things. You can get fined for not having and mowing a lawn!"

Needing to complete a certificate before a repair-person can even step over your doormat to just look at a problem, now that is a really giant data point on the second one.

It's helpful to the community to file a report with the BBB. And next time check the references there rather than trusting the super's recommendations.

What am I supposed to do now? Chargeback?

If you want your money back, sure. The alternative is to fight a company experienced at not giving refunds.

As for warning the community, this kind of thing happens all over the place all the time in all kinds of industries. Complaints to BBB and Yelp tend to be famously ineffective although possibly will demonstrate good citizenship to those who don't know better. Overall, this post is a bit confusing--it's like someone from a completely different society was suddenly transported to modern USA. What are you asking / telling us? 

I don't think the post is confusing. Everyone is young once. Everyone has that time where, for the first time in their life, sorting out the gas/internet/leak/AC is their responsibility.  Many people, within the first couple of times they need to do this, get stung and learn a valuable lesson. Depending on how lucky/unlucky you are you could go a long way before encountering something like this. And, for everyone, (at least for me) the first time this happens it is a real surprise. Yes, maybe at an academic level you were able to imagine that there might be conmen out there trying to rob you - but that acadmeic understanding has no power over your perception of reality, because it has never actually intruded on your life. When you were buying stuff in shops or online you never got stung because you were comparing products/websites. This is the first time you are buying a service where the price tag wasn't agreed upon beforehand.

The sting comes fairly late in life. When you are renting its the landlord's problem.

I do not of course know your intentions, but this comment really rubbed me the wrong way:

  • Most importantly, there's the everybody-knows dynamic (which, unrelatedly, Zvi has written about). Something that you happen to know is usually not as common knowledge as you think, and even if this case actually is mostly common knowledge, you could probably have found a way to write it that sounds nicer (i.e. less of a you're-an-ignorant-outsider vibe) and/or better supported (got any stats/links showing how common this kind of scamming really is?)

  • Less importantly, the 'modern USA' phrasing feels to me like it's taking a dig at something, like (a less extreme version of) whichever of the following feels most unfair to you: "of course this kind of scamming is common - welcome to capitalism", or "of course this kind of scamming is common - welcome to Biden's USA".

First bullet, those are good points. It is an interesting question how one would good data on this sort of thing and how accurate that data would be. 

Second, this isn't the intention, it's to show that the story sounds bizarre. It's not a political comment. 

Thanks for your reply. Sorry about that second bullet point and I no longer endorse it - I think that after being annoyed by the first issue, I was in a looking-for-trouble frame of mind while interpreting the rest and read in something that really wasn't there.

Overall, this post is a bit confusing--it's like someone from a completely different society was suddenly transported to modern USA. What are you asking / telling us?

I had a similar reaction, I had the impression that Zvi is more worldly and jaded than the median LWer.

Complaints to BBB and Yelp tend to be famously ineffective


BBB may be ineffective at changing public behavior overall, or the company's behavior, but in my experience it is effective at getting monetary results for individual complaints. I have used the BBB twice after failing every other method I could think of. Surprisingly I was contacted and fully 100% refunded very quickly, after doing the legwork for well documented BBB complaints. Both cases were egregious (clearly a full refund was warranted) but all other complaints got me absolutely nothing, not even a partial refund, so there was something special about using BBB.

This experience has changed my own behavior. BBB complaints require identity and documentation and I think they are far more reliable than a typical online review.  Both companies had a large number of public BBB complaints that I could have checked in advance. Especially in the case of anything with a recurring fee, or any company that is supposed to bill my medical insurance, I now religiously check their BBB information before committing. Same for home repair, plumbing, or any large project.

For small companies you can't find much, so it's not a huge help, but the BBB is a good source of information in cases it does cover. Please report this company to the BBB. Especially if they have no BBB complaints yet.

The other place I check on contractors is Facebook local groups. Find the most active group for your local neighborhood, town, city, whatever, and just search for posts in the last few years. This typically filters out the worst offenders.