The Challenges Facing Urban Contractors

July 11, 2003
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Mike Bomer of Flame Furnace, Warren, Mich., performs routine maintenance on a homeowner’s condensing unit in Detroit.
Mike Teed is looking to turn into the alley, but a police cruiser blocks the passage. An officer has pulled over a traffic violator in a beat-up, late-model car. Rather than pass the police cruiser through a grassy field next to the alley, the owner of Teed Heating & Cooling, Coloma, Mich., opts to drive his service vehicle around the block to get to his destination. “Too many needles in there,” he says, looking at the field. “Probably get a flat.”

As he steps out of the van, the smell of urine is unmistakable. Used hypodermic needles and empty liquor bottles are plainly visible by a trash dumpster. A flimsy chain-link fence — helmeted with a wild array of barbed wire — guards the entrance to the back end of this convenience store, located in the Benton Harbor, Mich., community. It is secured with a tiny padlock, designed to keep would-be thieves away, as well as those seeking a place to sleep, urinate, or worse.

The store in question has an extremely dirty indoor environment, thanks mainly to the constant inrush of dirty air from the busy street outside. The smell of alcohol from returnable cans and bottles is undeniable. Teed is here to perform maintenance on an aging rooftop unit.

The owner has agreed that it would be better to move the unit to the ground behind the store, but he has not committed himself to making the change, perhaps out of fear that the unit would become an instant urinal.

“This is the worst of his five stores,” says Teed. “But he keeps changing his mind about making changes.”

Welcome to the world of urban contracting.

Mike Teed does his best to clean the dirty coils on an aging rooftop unit over a convenience store in Benton Harbor, Mich.

Playing It Safe

This scenario is not unusual. Every single day, in economically depressed or high-crime urban areas, heating and cooling service technicians face the challenges of dealing with unique — and sometimes dangerous — circumstances.

“We were at a location, preparing to install a rooftop unit,” says Teed, relaying one of his many stories. “We noticed a lot of drug paraphernalia on the ground. When we got up on the roof, we looked down and observed a couple shooting up in their car next to the building.”

Teed’s office is in the small rural town of Coloma. He runs the business with his son, Corey, and three other employees. Sixty percent of his work is in commercial service, which takes the company into some less desirable areas of nearby Benton Harbor, a small community on the shores of Lake Michigan.

When checking the rooftop unit, Teed discovered that the convenience store owner had installed his own makeshift filter holder, made up of three sticks.
Corey Teed says the bad areas don’t bother him, but he did recall one experience that was frightening.

“I was working on some equipment in the basement of a homeowner,” he recounts. “All of a sudden, I hear a lot of yelling, commotion, and breaking glass. Luckily, the basement had a door to the outside. I ran outside, got in my truck, and took off.”

There is an unwritten rule in this environment when dealing with high-crime neighborhoods. “The best time to go into some of the neighborhoods is before noon,” he says, “while the people are still sleeping.”

His father agrees.

“The worst time to visit a home is 2 or 3 in the afternoon, when the occupants are just waking up from being out all night,” says Mike Teed. “That is the time they start looking for more drugs.”

The urban contractor says he will not send techs into bad neighborhoods at night. He believes he is fortunate that he has not been the victim of a crime to date.

“People need heat and they like to see us,” says Mike Teed. “These are usually cash customers. It is usually the neighbors you have to watch.”

Mike Teed opens the flimsy chain link fence designed to keep vagrants out of the area behind this convenience store.
After a brief pause, he sums it up this way: “You just have to watch yourself at all times.”

In the nation’s largest cities, working in high-crime areas can always be a challenge. But Daniel Donnelly of Donnelly Mechanical Corp., College Point, N.Y., says dealing with urban problems is just part of doing business in New York City.

“In New York City, we assign all technicians based on a high crime/incident rate,” he says. “No area is safe for trucks and technicians until you get to the Queens [and] Long Island areas.”

In reality, he says, even upscale areas are high-crime areas, as criminals travel to these areas.

“We consider New York City to be a rough area because one day a tech can be at a 5th Avenue penthouse, while the next day he can be working on a roof in the Bronx with gun shell casings on the roof. It is a state of life in New York City.”

Flame Furnace’s Mike Bomer performs a furnace inspection for a Detroit homeowner.

Surviving In Detroit

Mike Bomer, service tech for Flame Furnace in Warren, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, has plenty of experience working in depressed neighborhoods. He doesn’t mind helping people out in these areas. “These people need service, just like everyone else,” he says.

“Some guys don’t like going into Detroit because of the crime rate. Some have had their trucks broken into.”

Bomer, one of the few African-American service techs working for Flame Furnace, says a lot of Flame customers are elderly homeowners who have been doing business with his company for years. Many live in their original homes, which are now located in decimated neighborhoods.

“Some blocks only have a few homes on them and many others are full of boarded-up homes,” he says. “Guys don’t want to go into these areas later in the day or in the early evening.”

The Teed service van is parked next to the dumpster behind a Benton Harbor, Mich., convenience store.
Bomer is very compassionate about the people he services.

“Some folks can’t afford repairs, like a blown fan motor,” he says. “So they call us back when they can afford the repair. I feel sorry for them because that means they have to be without heat for a few days.

“People in the city don’t get a discount because they are poor.”

On this particular afternoon, Bomer is performing an A/C inspection for a Detroit homeowner. While the neighborhood is falling to decay and neglect, Bomer’s customer takes pride in her surroundings. The elderly woman keeps her home neat and clean. Photos of family members are visible all over the walls and on tables and shelves.

Her street is a different story. There are several boarded-up homes. Vacant lots are prominent where homes once stood. Trash is piled high near the curb. Automobiles, in various stages of disassembly, are in driveways and on the street. Bomer is thankful his customer kept the areas around her Luxaire furnace and Lennox condensing unit clean and free from debris.

“She doesn’t want to pay for extra maintenance if she can help it,” he says.

The homeowner, who has a service agreement with Flame, is happy to open her home to Bomer, a familiar face. During his visit, Bomer gives his customer some friendly advice. He notices that someone has installed a new water heater for her and that the exhaust pipe to the chimney is not well sealed. He tells her he will seal it up when he does his fall inspection.

Bomer is surprised to learn that the woman changes her furnace filters every month because a technician from a different company told her to do so.

“No! Change it every three months,” he tells her.

Because she has a service agreement, no money is exchanged. But Bomer doesn’t have a problem carrying cash.

“I’ll usually hide it somewhere in the truck,” he says.

A view from the rear of the store reveals a makeshift trailer that holds excess inventory, as well as trash and debris.
Bomer locks his van at all times — a move that is even more important, since he owns all of his own tools.

“I am insured, but if I lose something, I have to pay the $250 deductible,” he says.

Gary Marowske, owner of Flame Furnace and Bomer’s boss, has a simple rule: If a man doesn’t feel safe in a neighborhood, it is his call if he doesn’t want to go in.

“We don’t force anybody to go anywhere,” says Marowske. “We will hire guys just to sit in the truck all day to protect it while our crew is doing an installation.”

Equipment theft is a definite concern for urban contractors. It’s why Marowske has placed deadbolts on his 60 vans.

“Since December 2001, when we installed them, we have only had one break-in — and it was Mike’s van,” he says. “The thieves had to basically take the door off.

“The deadbolts cost almost $200 per van, but the move has lowered our insurance premiums. It has been worth it.”

Marowske is quick to point out that thieves are only getting bolder.

“We’ve had guys climbing up ladders to a rooftop job and someone has climbed up the ladder behind them and grabbed tools out of their pockets,” he says. “It’s amazing how many contractors will not go south of Eight Mile,” referring to the road that marks the border between Detroit and the northern suburbs.

Sidebar: Tales From The City — Forum Visitors Relay Experiences

Visitors to The News’ HVACR Forum at www.achrnews.com relayed many horrifying experiences working in urban areas.

Bill Nye, a service tech for a mechanical contractor in the Lisbon, Conn., area, recalled the time he was working in Hartford doing some rehab work on low-income housing.

“We were working on the fourth floor of the building and people were stealing copper from the floors below,” he recounted. “The plumber I was working with was soldering a cold water pipe into a tee and as he was soldering, the pipe was turning. Someone was on the floor below, cutting the pipe and trying to remove it. By the time we got downstairs, all of the copper was gone.”

Another HVACR Forum visitor, “Eddie G.,” recalled a scary situation, which, thankfully, turned out all right.

“I pulled up on a call for no-heat in the bad part of Washington, D.C,” he commented. “Six guys came up to my van as I was getting my tool box. I was thinking about how I was going to get back up front and get out of there. To my surprise, they informed me that they were there to escort me to the boiler room and two would stay and watch my van. They turned out to be really nice guys.”

Another signee, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” provided some advice garnered from experience.

“Watch your tools at all times,” he urged. “I was having some units lifted to the roof on a hotel and we were all out back with the crane. Two of my guys were receiving the units on the roof and I was on the ground hooking up the slings. We might have been gone from the main work area a total of one-half hour.

“We went back in and there were no tools to be seen! Whoever ripped us off got all the trades’ tools. They came in from another entrance. They had to have made many trips to take all of those tools, or there must have been a lot of thieves involved.

“Also, I don’t own any vehicles with sliding back windows either. Thieves can get through one of those very quickly and steal everything in the cab. They aren’t going to break a window to rip you off in most cases — too much noise. But they will take every advantage they can to get what is yours.”

More Tips
A St. Louis-area contractor shared an idea on how to protect techs while lowering costs to customers. The answer? Supply reserved parking.

“We often don’t get the best parking spaces when working on commercial buildings,” said John Blaylock, service sales manager for Wiegmann Associates, St. Charles, Mo. “Some trucks are usually parked by the loading docks or dumpsters. This means it takes longer to get to the area where the equipment is located. We have had some vehicle break-ins as a result.

“We also have to build in pricing for jobs to allow for more time to get to the jobsite. We know going into the job that we will have a hard time finding a parking spot. Getting materials takes a lot of time. We make customers aware of this. A closer parking space can possibly reduce the cost of a service-maintenance agreement.”

Meanwhile, Robin Boyd let HVACR Forum readers know about the time he decided it was time to leave the city.

“When I had my shop in the heart of Baltimore, I woke up one morning, strapped on my .357 and thought, ‘What the hell am I doing?’” he recounted. “Within eight months, I sold that business and moved into a rural area, doing only new residential business for a while.”

— John R. Hall

Publication date: 07/14/2003

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