Contractors put to the test in hidden camera furnace investigation

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Your furnace is on the fritz -- so what do you do? FOX6's Contact 6 used hidden cameras to catch repairmen saying one thing, but doing and charging for another! Contact 6 put the heat on furnace repair companies to see if they can find a simple fix and whether their work reflects their word.

For this report, Contact 6 had heating expert Philip Lorum make a simple disconnection at a home -- leading to no heat.

Lorum has been in the business for more than 15 years, and his company, Stramowski Heating has an A+ rating with the Wisconsin Better Business Bureau.

"We pulled the capacitor wire off, which will cause this furnace not to run -- its main blower to actually circulate the heat throughout the house," Lorum said.

Lorum says this is the time of year when homeowners call for tune-ups.

Contact 6 set up hidden cameras around the home and outside, and called four random furnace repair companies to see whether they could find what Lorum says is a simple fix -- and whether the cost of the trip charge they provide over the phone is what they really charge in person.

Wade from Reliable Mechanical Services takes just 15 minutes to find the problem.

"A wire fell off on the fan motor, so I just reconnected it and it works fine," Wade said.

Wade charged $60 -- exactly what he said he would.

B.W. from Iron Fireman also found the problem quickly. In less than 20 minutes, the heat was fixed, and Contact 6 was charged what we were told -- $80 for the trip charge.

Eric with Swift Heating and Cooling also uses the name "The Heating Man." He found the loose plug, but said he believed it was the unit it was plugged into that's the problem.

"I think you might have a bad capacitor," Eric told Contact 6.

Eric ended up going to the truck to get another one and gave Contact 6 a price of $50.

"If you pay me $50, you'll have a furnace that runs.  And that includes the service call," Eric said.

Contact 6 however, just wanted an estimate -- not extra work done to the furnace. Eric later called Contact 6's producer, who set up the service calls, and the price went up $10.

Contact 6 declined, but Eric was determined.

"He said just leave it, but it's fixed anyway so it doesn't matter," Eric said.

Ultimately, Contact 6 was charged $54 for the service call and a new part we didn't want, but at least there was heat.

Dave from Four Season's Heating and Cooling also found the problem right away, but he also discovered a slow oil leak inside the furnace -- a problem Contact 6 didn't even spot.

"The eventuality to the oil leaking out of there is that blower motor is going to go out," Dave said.

Dave provided a fair estimate for a new blower motor and plugged the wire back in.

Contact 6 expected a trip charge of $35, but added a diagnostic cost of $25, even though he didn't ask Contact 6 to approve his work.

"For today, the service call's $35.  Minimum charge is $25 to do any type of repair, so I just did it as a diagnostic.  $60 even," Dave said.

When Contact 6's assistant said she only had enough money for the service call, things got awkward.

"What if I was to fix the furnace? What if there was a major problem with it? So you only have $35 dollars? Expect someone to come to someone's house and do a repair?" Dave said.

Ultimately, Dave accepted $45, and the heat worked.

Contact 6 says you never know what you're going to get when a contractor comes to your home, so it's important to be prepared.

Contact 6 advises asking up front what charges to expect, make sure the contractor clears any additional work with you before he does it, and before he charges you for it, and always get more than one bid -- preferably three, to make sure you're finding the right contractor for you.