The hot summer months will soon be upon us, and if you are tired of relying on floor fans, an inefficient swamp cooler, or energy-gobbling window air conditioners to help keep you and your family comfortable, this is your year to finally invest in a whisper-quiet and effective central air system. An air conditioning contractor is like any other service technician: there are great ones and then there are those that aren't so "cool." Here are some things to look for to help you make sure you choose the very best.

--Licensed, bonded, and insured: When hot weather hits, fly-by-night "contractors" inevitably show up along with it. Each year, state consumer protection departments are literally swamped with complaints from unsuspecting customers who paid for an air conditioning system and then never saw the "contractor" again. Or a system is installed, but when it breaks the next week the contractor's phone number has been disconnected. Avoid nightmares: protect yourself and your money by only dealing with an established heating and air company that is licensed, bonded, and insured; after all, you want to know that when you need them they'll be there for you.

--No surprise pricing: Many companies will give you a low "quote" before installing your central air system and then tag on "surprise charges" when the job is done. Make sure the contractor you select has a "no surprise pricing" policy. Insist on a written contract that includes the agreed-upon price, and no work should ever proceed without your written approval and consent.

--The right sized product for your home: When it comes to air conditioning, one size definitely does not fit all. The sales person giving you the estimate should be able to explain in detail what sized product you need and why. Before making recommendations, many companies will perform an energy audit that will determine where your house is leaking energy along with suggesting solutions that will help keep your utility costs down. When it comes to heating and air, beware those who pressure you to "over buy."

--Clean, qualified technicians: For your safety and peace of mind, the company should employ only factory-trained, drug-tested and uniformed technicians whom you will feel comfortable having in your home. Look for a company that will give you great service while showing respect for your home and family.