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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Heated dispute requires some cooler heads

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

With the heating season approach- ing, the technicians who install and repair furnaces warn that Washington permitting and licensing requirements are substantially increasing the cost of even minor maintenance calls.

The Northwest HVAC/R Association, primarily a Spokane group, claims the Department of Labor & Industries and the Electrical Board that sets standards for the industry are gradually taking away the work its members can do despite increasing demand created by the housing boom.

“It’s a little here, a little there,” says association President Bill Hansen, who is also general manager of Sturm Heating.

Over the last few years, he says, businesses that do heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration work have lost the right to install water heaters, baseboard electrical heat, boiler controls and similar work. Although Sturm is licensed to do such work, not all its repairmen have the necessary certification. Getting each one certified would require a year or two under the direct supervision of a journeyman electrician, an expense neither Sturm nor its customers can afford.

Hansen says his four furnace installation crews cannot keep up with the work. “I don’t turn down business, I just increase the price,” he says.

In July, association Executive Director Tena Risley advised L&I Director Gary Weeks that the cost of a typical service call could multiply three-fold — to more than $1,000 — if the department does not back off an “extreme” requirement that any repair involving even the smallest change in internal wiring be touched must be permitted and inspected.

Take, for example, the cost of replacing the gas valve in a residential furnace. The work entails a $150 part and two hours of labor at $75 an hour. No permit is required. Total cost, with tax: $326.

If L&I has its way, two permits — provisional, $10, and normal, $40 — would be necessary. So would an inspection. Total potential increase in cost: $766, bringing the total bill to $1,092. Of course, that assumes the repairman stands around 7.5 hours waiting for the inspector. Hardly likely, and department officials express confusion about where those estimates are coming from.

But hyperbole has been part of a debate over how to regulate the HVAC/R industry that dates to the 1980s. The dispute reached a new level after 1998, when an assistant attorney general advised the department and electrical board that allowing mechanical contractors like those in HVAC/R to work on low-voltage circuits — think thermostat — was illegal. In response, L&I created a specialty certificate that established new certification standards for workers, one that grandfathered worker experience.

Still, the fracas has continued, which prompted the Legislature to authorize a task force to study the issues. Its preliminary report was issued June 22. L&I’s response is due next week.

Assistant L&I Director Patrick Woods says the increasing sophistication of home and commercial heating and air-conditioning systems, and electrical loads they create, has forced the department to draw a line.

“They want to do the whole gamut of electrical,” Woods says, adding that the new requirements will put only about two percent of all HVAC/R work out of reach of the industry.

The legislative committee found that training requirements do not assure someone working on electrical equipment is qualified, and recommended the department clarify its own standards. The department should also consider what the financial and public safety implications of alternative ways of certifying HVAC/R work.

And if the Electrical Board is to continue overseeing not only HVAC/R, but other specialty trades that make up 40 percent of all certified electricians, consideration should be given to adding representation from those trades.

From the industry’s perspective, the real solution is creation of a new board dedicated exclusively to the regulation of heating and air-conditioning. And they do not have to look far to find one.

Idaho’s Legislature authorized creation of such a board last year in response to and influx of unqualified contractors taking advantage surging demand and lax oversight. The state was getting more complaints about the quality of the work being done, and contractors were demanding some kind of licensing and certification.

Washington lawmakers, leery of another bureaucracy, have rejected bills that would have created a new board.

The venting has gone on long enough. Consumers must have the assurance their safety continues to be safeguarded. The HVAC/R industry needs to know what the rules are, like them or not. Higher natural gas and oil prices will substantially increase home heating costs this winter. Add to that injury the insult of more expensive repairs and residents are going to be plenty hot.

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