Frequent readers of this column are aware that I am extremely concerned about the image of our industry. Having been involved for as many years as I have, I have seen that image change and improve very significantly over the years. I am also aware that it doesn’t take many negative occurrences to negatively affect that image. Certainly the sting operation filmed by a TV station, which then appeared on the “Today Show,” does not help our image. However, as that was a one-time incident, it probably didn’t do much permanent damage, especially given the credibility of the contractors caught on camera. Nevertheless, negative things like that against our industry really bother me. It will not come as a shock to you then how upset I am about an instance that occurred recently here in the St. Louis area. Our company was directly involved so this isn’t a case of second- or third-hand reporting.

Compromising Contracting Trust

One of our sales engineers was called to a home because the homeowner had been advised by a competitor that his furnace had a bad heat exchanger and needed to be replaced. When the sales engineer arrived, he had an extensive conversation with the homeowner regarding the circumstances that led him to believe

Butch Welsch
Butch Welsch

he needed a new furnace. It started because one of his furnaces was not coming on properly, which sounded like it might need a new igniter system. The homeowner, who admitted that he would have a difficult time telling his air conditioner and furnace apart, called a competitor, who sent a service technician down to check out the furnace. Some time later, the technician returned to say that the furnace had a bad heat exchanger and was in need of replacement.

That technician further told the homeowner it was his responsibility to disconnect the gas line to the furnace and put a tag on the gas line indicating it was a dangerous piece of equipment. What that technician didn’t tell the homeowner is even more critical. Our sales engineer found that the tag put on the gas line was almost identical to the hazardous appliance tag used by Laclede Gas, our local gas utility. Further, and perhaps most importantly, when our sales engineer removed the furnace door to check for the model and serial number, a multitude of parts, pieces, hunks of gas line, cut wires, etc. fell at his feet all over the floor. He almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The furnace had been completely torn apart. All of the exposed wires had been cut, the draft inducer fan motor had been taken apart and left in pieces, and the panel in front of the heat exchanger had been bent completely out of shape to look into the heat exchanger.

In other words, the furnace now had to be replaced.

After seeing all of this with our sales engineer, the homeowner indicated that the original service technician, following his inspection, said that the furnace had to be replaced, but fortunately his company could replace it the next day. The technician then provided an unprofessional hand-written quote for the replacement. The homeowner was suspicious of the whole situation and called us and another contractor. Our price, and the price quoted by the third contractor, were similar. Both were two-thirds lower than the original quote. Our sales engineer was able to take pictures of the hazardous appliance tag as well as what was left of the furnace with the pieces all over the floor.

It was very apparent to us, and the homeowner, that the original contractor had made sure the furnace was inoperable and then attempted to use scare tactics to coerce the homeowner into making a quick decision to make a purchase at a price 50 percent higher than fair price. The homeowner then actually contacted the local police department, to see if he had any recourse. Unfortunately, the police told him that the evidence was too circumstantial to be worth their time to investigate.

Since this occurred, I have had a knot in my stomach contemplating the number of homeowners who have fallen for this scheme. How many others has this contractor scammed?

I am not sure what else we can do as an industry to rid ourselves of these types of competitors. I suppose the best we can do is to make sure that everything we do is fair, legitimate, and ethical. We don’t want our industry to revert to what it was in the 1950s, however, tactics like this will certainly put us there.

Publication date: 12/16/2013 

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