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I am quite shocked that every store in my very large metropolitan area that sells HVAC supplies requires purchasers to have HVAC contractors license. Which makes it very difficult for a very technically inclined DIY-er to do the job himself.

I understand this is not a DIY and more of a legal question but I am trying to understand why that is. It is as though the Home Depot required an electrical license to sell you a spool of Romex or a receptacle, which they don't. It is clear that HVAC stores have no intrinsic economic incentive for such a policy; it must come from either the municipal government or their insurance company. Or some nefarious ultimatum from HVAC trade unions so they secure more grip on the market.

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Not specific to home improvement, but specific to the behavior of retailers in a specific region –  Steven Nov 19 '13 at 20:59
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To the best of my knowledge, this is a national ban. It does border on off topic since it's a legal question, but since it's a borderline question and one many DIY'ers may ask, I'll leave it to the community to decide if it should be closed. –  BMitch Nov 19 '13 at 22:55
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i mean, it's really something DIYers should know about. –  amphibient Nov 19 '13 at 22:57
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I expect such bans occur in places with leanings toward trade protectionist governments which are mostly in the eastern U.S. There are no such restrictions in the Pacific Northwest. –  wallyk Nov 19 '13 at 23:33
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5 Answers

Their insurance may lean that way. Rates are probably lower if they are not selling to end-users. They may also not have to deal with sales tax, if they are not selling to end-users.

As for the (or more) economic incentive you (apparently) cannot see:

They may also prefer dealing with competent licensed professionals, because they will have less time wasted on "dumb questions" (there are such things, really, even if you've been told otherwise) and irate "genusies" who bought the wrong thing for the wrong job and want a refund because it didn't work, or because they are used to getting "free rentals" by exploiting big-box-store policies that allow them to return things even after they have used them.

The competent licensed professional also provides them with a repeat/regular customer base - how often do YOU buy an air conditioning system? How many do you buy per year? Do you buy parts by the case? Less of their time spent moving more product is more profit for them, even if they sell it at a discount to the professionals (which is common, based on volume.)

There is also a concern about the proper handling and recycling of refrigerants - few if any homeowners own a vacuum pump, much less a refrigerant recovery system.

There are websites that sell various things (I happen to have been looking at mini-split system heat pumps recently) but you still need a licensed installer to assemble them; both for legal reasons (EPA) and practical ones (that vacuum pump, etc.) In many cases, you'll do better to just buy the system from a local installer than to buy it online and then pay an installer to assemble it for you.

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While I was able to buy parts and assemblies direct from a supplier (in Oregon), I managed the technicalities by striking a deal with a willing installer: I did most of the work hauling, tearout, prepping, roughing in, installing and he did the final hook up and refrigerant charge which is the minimum required by the manufacturer for the warranty. As I recall, he billed me only a minimum service call ($80?) since his work required less than an hour. –  wallyk Nov 19 '13 at 21:45
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@wallyk, i am trying to do something very much like that. thanks for the insight. –  amphibient Nov 19 '13 at 21:49
    
Minus one for inferring that all licensed professionals are competent. –  Edwin Nov 22 '13 at 21:47
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This is due to a sales restriction by the EPA. The logic behind the ban is to minimize the risk of releasing ozone depleting refrigerant into the atmosphere. If you plan to work on HVAC systems fairly often (e.g. if you manage a lot of properties), then you could look into getting yourself certified (it may be a simple as taking some night classes at a local community college). For the average homeowner, it's better to call in a pro since they not only have the certification to get the refrigerant, they also have the various tools to safely use it (manifold gauges, vacuum pump, etc).

From the EPA link above:

What does the sales restriction cover?

This sales restriction covers all CFC and HCFC refrigerants contained in bulk containers (such as cylinders, cans or drums). Refrigerant blends containing HCFCs (such as FRIGC FR-12, Free Zone, Hot Shot® or R-414B, GHG-X4 or R-414A, Freeze 12) are also covered under this sales restriction.

This sales restriction does not cover refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment or components containing an ozone-depleting refrigerant (such as components of residential split systems containing HCFC-22, also called R-22). Nor does the restriction cover the retail sale of air-conditioning and refrigeration appliances containing CFC or HCFC refrigerants (such as window air conditioners).

However, as of January 1, 2010, EPA banned the import and production of air-conditioning and refrigeration appliances and appliance components that are pre-charged with R-22. More information on EPA's rule banning the sale of pre-charged appliances and appliance components is found here.

EPA has previously banned the sale and distribution of refrigeration and air-conditioning appliances containing CFCs (such as R-12), under the Nonessential Products Ban.

What type of certification is required to purchase refrigerant?

The following people can buy any type of ozone-depleting refrigerant under this sales restriction (for instance, R-11, R-12, R-123, R-22), except for "small cans" containing less than 20 pounds of R-12:

  • Technicians certified to service stationary refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment by a Section 608 EPA-certified testing organization; and
  • Employers of a Section 608 certified technician (or the employer's authorized representative) if the employer provides the wholesaler with written evidence that he or she employs at least one properly certified technician.

The following people can buy refrigerant found acceptable for use in a motor vehicle air conditioner (MVAC), including "small cans" containing less than 20 pounds of R-12:

  • Technicians certified to service motor vehicle air-conditioners by a Section 609 EPA-certified testing organization.
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This doesn't explain why I can't buy parts for my furnace. There are no ozone depleting refrigerants in there. As much as my answer sounds like a conspiracy. The truth is there are many professions that govern themselves, and work hard to exclude the masses. In many areas where there is a strong union presence, electrical/plumbing/etc. work can only be carried out by a licensed professional. –  Tester101 Nov 20 '13 at 3:21
    
but i am not sure this is nationwide. a friend in TX says he can freely buy at a store –  amphibient Nov 21 '13 at 18:50
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I don't think this is entirely true anymore. Most HVAC suppliers in my area allow "consumers" to buy from them. There is usually a song and dance to be done. For instance anyone can sign up on several large retailers that sell lots of stuff to HVAC techs, electricians, plumbers and so on. We know the big names.

What you do is register yourself as a technician. They don't ask you to provide proof that you are what you say you are. They let you use your home address as your office address and bam you can order anything. This works on most big websites. I have bought every conceivable piece of HVAC equipment.

I still use an HVAC tech depending on the job. If it is a simple replacement with no mods I might do it - I have to figure out if me spending a few hours reading about the swap is worth the price of said tech. If it is a change and involves inspection I often get the equipment - or at least bargain knowing how much it costs - and do as much setup as I can and let the pro take over.

I have a couple HVAC guys that will come by any day to do an odd job. What consumers need to understand is that they need to make money. They make good money from me because they give me a discount but their 4-6 hour job is 2 hours because everything is prepped. Also they don't need to bring a helper out and pay that guy.

But to answer the question consumers can buy this stuff now and there are a ton of outlets to do so. Even if you go with what your HVAC guy has, at least you can be informed. I remember the first time I got an air conditioning unit it was a good $400 less than the lowest quote I got from any local business. I was fine paying the "full install cost" and then the next time I called same business their prices were much more in line (still a tiny higher) with what I could get.

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It's simple. I'm an HVAC technician, and I don't want you doing your own work. Every job you do yourself takes money out of my pocket. I'm not going to buy supplies from a guy who sells to the public, so most suppliers aren't going to bite the hand that feeds them. The supplier is going to make much more money from me than from you, so guess who they're going to sell to?

Secondly, I'm on all the boards and panels that matter. I make sure laws and ordinances that help me pass, and those that potentially hurt me fail.

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yep. that's what i thought. i call that collusion. –  amphibient Nov 19 '13 at 21:53
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It's too bad you think you have to prevent individuals from doing things for themselves at every level. That kind of thinking isn't how the HVAC industry got started: that was experimentation and development by hundreds of do-it-yourselfers. It is also how some great advances have been made recently like scroll compressor technology. Anyway, probably your supplier sells through the Internet to anyone, which helps them stay in business and improves the prices you receive. –  wallyk Nov 19 '13 at 23:30
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@BMitch Ask any HVAC tech, and they'll tell you the same thing. –  Tester101 Nov 20 '13 at 3:27
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I don't think that's true -- I can buy retail auto parts from the same store that my mechanic buys from. My mechanic gets an additional discount that I don't get, but still, the parts are much cheaper than the retail price the mechanic sells them at. So it seems unlikely that an HVAC tech would refuse to buy parts from a store just because they sell to the public. The answers above about returns, sales support and required certifications seem much more likely. –  Johnny Nov 21 '13 at 1:34
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Extending the logic in your answer: every job somebody else does takes money out of your pocket as well. You can't really do all the work, and you have to share. There are comparatively few DIYers and imho DIY mentality should be encouraged, not obstructed. Legal constraints that stem from advanced training required to do a dangerous job safely is a different thing. But that wouldn't explain these suppliers not selling to the public. –  kewpiedoll99 Nov 21 '13 at 21:01
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I'm an HVAC technician and have been in the field of HVAC for 32 years now and can tell you there are reasons for restricting refrigerant sales to just anybody, and why you need training before you decide anybody can do this.

For one get some R22 somehow and charge your system. Do you know how much you're adding? Do you know if there's a leak in the system? If there is a leak and you just start charging the system you are venting refrigerant back to the atmosphere. Did you know this is punishable by a $20,000 fine and up to 5 years in prison?

If you have a system, let's just say 410a, how do you charge this? Do you have the correct gauges? If you hook up some standard R22 gauges to a 410a system you might find out you don't have a face any longer. For your own safety you need to be certified in refrigerant.

If you buy a system on line don't be surprised when you get it that there's no warranty and the charge has been removed. I hope you understand what a vacuum pump is and how to work it as well. Bottom line: just because you are some engineering expert or doctor doesn't mean you know how to do this. Get some 410a oil on your skin and see how smart you are. Stand in a space with no ventilation while you're soldering 410a and the heat was too high and some 410a starts leaking out. If this happens you won't make it 10 steps before it sucks your breath away and collapses your lungs.

Now do you understand why you can't purchase refrigerant? If this scares you, good it should.

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While this is true for refrigerant, it doesn't explain why they won't sell parts for furnaces and other parts of the heating/cooling systems –  Tester101 Feb 24 at 11:22
    
-1 for not answering the question. –  wallyk Feb 24 at 23:06
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