Repair ripoffs

The only thing most of us know about our air conditioners is how to call a repairman if there's a problem. Which it's why it's so easy to get ripped off. We got out our yellow pages, randomly picked five companies from the Air Conditioning Repair section, and put them to the test. Take a look at how fast a repairman can turn into a salesman.

It's the first thing you do when your air conditioner goes on the fritz. "I need some help, my air conditioner is giving me fits. Can you send somebody out?" Carolyn Hebert's air conditioner wasn't working because of us. We "broke" it. But before we did, we called a licensed repairman to check out the unit. He tested, adjusted, threw some things away, replaced others, topped off the coolant, washed down the whole thing, then gave the unit a clean bill of health. So, we "broke" it, breaking the wire that powers the thermostat. According to our technician, it's a rather simple problem to fix. We randomly selected five heating and air conditioning repair companies from the phone book: Conway Services, Herb Ferrell and Sons, Best Air Conditioning and Heating, A-R-S Service Express and Climate Zone. The technician from Best told Carolyn she had a 265-dollar problem. "You've got a blown transformer up here. Could have been a storm. Could have been some wires shorting out somewhere else." Carolyn refused to pay the price, and he left without fixing a thing. Hebert said, "I'm willing to spend whatever it takes to get it working right, as long as it's an honest charge." The repairman from Conway Services properly diagnosed the problem. "You think that the loose wire is the only thing wrong?" "Yeah, that's the only thing wrong as far as it's not coming on." But after the A-C came back on, he went on to tell Carolyn she had another problem, her freon level was a couple pounds low. "I found that it is low on refrigerant and I can get you a price on what it's going to cost to get it back up, where it needs to be at, because without it in there it's just going to run all the time and burn your outside unit up." But remember, our technician said the unit didn't need a thing. The guy from A-R-S told her she needed more freon too. When she refused, he put on a hard sell, knocking 20-percent off the price. "The air conditioning won't cool ya. Your problem won't be solved completely. It'll run, but it'll... You'll damage your unit and everything. If anyway possible, it's best to just... I mean 20% is the best I can do." A technician from Herb Ferrell and Sons also thought the freon might be low. So we decided to check it. "It could be very slightly low, but I think the main thing is it's going to have a dirty coil." That could make the system appear low on freon, but a check of the coil would have determined no coolant was needed. And that's what the Climate Zone tech found. "But, uh, the freon was okay? Yes ma'am the freon was perfectly fine." Something we knew all along.

Coming up tonight at 10, you'll hear what these guy's bosses have to say about all this. Plus, find out why one industry expert says he's not surprised at all by what we found.