Dan Holohan
Dan Holohan

You probably realize some of your customers are just plain nuts, and others will take a chance on dying if it means they can save a few bucks on a repair or installation. You probably also have the good sense to fire these customers and tell them to lose your phone number forever.

But, then there are customers who somehow turn nuts after you’ve done the work for them. These folks are more difficult to spot. They look so normal at first — they really do.

The following is a letter from my friend, John Cataneo, who, along with his brother David, runs Gateway Plumbing & Heating in New York City. I would have either work in my own house, and I would trust them with the health of my family. They are professionals and they are grown-ups.

John sent this letter to a certain boiler company:

My company was called on Saturday to troubleshoot a three-year-old, gas-fired steam boiler that had various installation deficiencies. In this instance, my technician found the boiler had gone off due to a tripped, blocked-vent spill switch.

He reactivated the switch and found flue spillage at an adjacent water heater. The fact that the boiler’s spill switch had activated was a clear indication that the flue leading from the boiler itself was experiencing at least intermittent carbon monoxide spillage into the home.

My technician then replaced the switch in its factory-determined location for two reasons: First, to eliminate it as a source of failure; and second, because, as a matter of policy, we replace some safety devices that have cycled through multiple activations.

The tech then advised the client that if this were to happen again, a qualified chimney contractor should be contracted to at least clean and inspect the chimney and venting system, and determine the cause of failure.

When the system failed again the following morning, the client phoned to say she had called a second contractor, who claimed the chimney was functional, and who then moved the spill switch to a “better” location outside the jacket, which is not at the original factory-determined placement. I called the second contractor and he told me the original location was “right where carbon monoxide comes out,” and that was his reason for moving the switch.

The client requests reimbursement of the second contractor’s $75 fee for fixing my company’s “error.”

We request a photograph of the proper placement for the device in this boiler and a brief description explaining why this location is best for the application. The picture in the manual is too close to show relative location and does not help in this instance.

We also request a statement explaining the consequences of moving the device.

Of course, money is not the issue here, but I do hope you understand our position.

Now that’s a good letter, right? I mean, who wouldn’t want to place a safety control where the carbon monoxide comes out? That just might save your life. I sat with that thought for a while, considering the nature of some human beings. I also thought about Charles Darwin — some customers are just plain nuts.

It wasn’t long before John got a reply from an employee at the boiler manufacturer who wrote:

John, you are 100 percent correct in all your statements and actions. I am passing this over to my engineer because this is an obvious safety hazard!

Also, there is currently no warranty or liability for performance on this boiler as it has been altered from its original manufactured condition. Movement of any device, especially a safety device, places all liability squarely on the shoulders of Contractor No. 2. I am aware of this and have properly recorded the model and serial number of the boiler in question.

I also will retain a copy of this correspondence as a record of your actions concerning this boiler. I thank you for vigilance and dedication to your trade.

Now that’s how a good contractor and boiler manufacturer work together. But, before we move on, I’d like you to consider the second contractor, who is probably out there working right now for customers such as the one referenced in John’s letter. He will always find work because, in this country, there’s a rear end for every seat, and people who are just plain nuts should find each other. It’s only right.

Haunted Radiators

The next story has one foot in sweet, and the other in just plain nuts.

It begins with a young couple, with two daughters named Muffin and Squeaker. Seriously, why would you do that to your children? I haven’t heard names like that since the Manson family went to the slammer … OK, well, maybe since Michael Jackson.

Anyway, this happy family lives in a 100-year-old steam-heated apartment. When the heat comes on, the radiators make significant noise. This isn’t normal for steam, and you can make the noises go away if you’re a heating professional, but the people working inside Muffin and Squeaker’s building don’t seem to be very professional. So, now we have two little girls with regrettable names terrified of their radiator.

To remedy the situation, mom and dad place a large teddy bear in front of the radiator. They tell the bear to growl at the radiator, but, instead, the bear just stares at the old cast iron through its button eyes. To help keep the noise out of the bedroom, the parents placed more stuffed bears inside the children’s cribs, in case the radiator managed to kick the other bear’s butt. Now that is the sweet part.

Here comes the just-plain-nuts part. Rather than hire a heating professional to make the noise go away once and for all, and probably lower their fuel bills, the parents decided to consult a child psychologist to see if their placement of the stuffed bears was beneficial to Muffin and Squeaker. The psychologist assured them they had done just the right thing for the kids, and that the stuffed bears would help the girls overcome their fear of the hissing radiator air vent, and the clanging of the water hammer.

So now we have a psychologist who specializes in heating disorders.

Throughout America, many kids will grow up to become heating professionals. Some of these will be sure to service Muffin and Squeaker as customers. How do you think that’s going to go?

And speaking of radiators and just plain nuts, last Halloween there was a story on the news about Scary Mary at Elmira College in upstate New York. Students think Scary Mary haunts Tompkins Hall, a campus fixture since 1928. The students have passed this tale down for decades.

I witnessed the video and noticed that Tompkins Hall was equipped with a steam system featuring wall-hung radiators. In the video, the students explain that when walking down a hall, they’ll hear noises coming from the radiators. This couldn’t possibly be a water hammer, right? Nope, it’s undoubtedly Scary Mary.

Keep in mind these are college students and just may be future customers. Speaking of college students, at the same time I was learning about Scary Mary, I spotted a couple of stories from the University of Michigan about a student competition to turn off lights to save energy. They’re using that Kill-a-Watt device to do this. Good stuff, right? Hey, this is the future of America we’re talking about here.

Next to that story was another article detailing about how some of the dormitory rooms are very overheated, especially dorms with steam heat. So what do the energy-conscious students do to regulate the temperature? They use the double-hung thermostat.

But wait, it gets better. Carina Easley-Appleyard is coeducational chair of Kill-a-Watt, that new eco-friendly organization that focuses on cutting energy costs in residential halls. When asked about the open-windows situation, she said, “We encourage residential hall students to not only open their windows if it is too hot in their room or in their hall, but also to complain to someone at the community center desk so the problem doesn’t continue.”

So, turn off the lights, but open the windows when it gets too hot. Make sure you tell someone in charge that is what you’ve done. How do you think that’s going to go?

Publication date: 05/14/2012