The lovely wife and I were visiting daughters in suburban Maryland, which almost always involves a stop at some shopping mall or another. It was lunchtime, and I offered to treat the gang to Italian food at a sit-down, “real” restaurant just off the food court.

When we were done, we all visited the little rooms to “check out the plumbing.” I did my business and approached the sink to wash up. I noticed they had a soap pump on the counter, just like the one we have at home, but this one had a small laminated sign taped to its front. “Soap pump is finicky,” it read. “Be very careful.”

That struck me as strange. If I owned a nice Italian restaurant and had a finicky soap pump in the men’s room, I’d definitely swap it for a good one. I mean, they charge enough for the food in this place. How much could a working soap pump cost? And how cheap were these people? Gosh, talk about leaving a bad impression.

So I backed up a half step, reached out slowly with both hands, positioned my right hand in front of the soap pump’s nozzle, and gingerly pressed the plunger with my left index finger. The soap came out. There was nothing finicky at all about it. It was just a normal soap pump. I pressed again, a bit harder this time. The soap squirted out again, peaceful as can be. Nothing unusual here. Just soap. I shrugged, washed my hands, and waved at the paper-towel dispenser.

The gang was waiting for me when I came out, and we headed off into the mall. We were walking for a while when Erin, my daughter, said, “Back there at the restaurant, they had this crazy soap pump in the bathroom. It had a sign warning people that it was finicky, but when I pressed it, nothing finicky happened. I don’t know why they don’t just change it to a good one.”

“They have the same thing going on in the men’s room,” I said. “There was nothing wrong with that one either. Go figure.”

We wandered on — they shopped, I sat on benches and waited — and because I have no life and way too much time on my hands, I pondered the soap pump mystery. Why not just change the darn things?

About an hour later, it struck me. “I got it!” I said when Erin came out of Banana Republic.

“What?” she asked.

“The soap pump thing — they put that sign there so that people will use it. It’s irresistible. You know how most restaurants post a sign telling the employees that they must wash their hands before returning to work, and often in several languages? That sign is really there for the customers. They want you to think the people in the kitchen are washing up after they use the can. Who knows if they are? But what about the customers? How can you get them to wash up after they do their business? You give them a finicky soap dispenser and tell them to be careful.”

“That’s brilliant,” Erin agreed. “You just have to try.”

“Yeah, and when you do, you wind up with a handful of soap,” I said. “You can’t just walk out of the room with a handful of soap, so you wash. They’re forcing you to do it, and you’re agreeing to go along.”

“So, don’t tell me what to do,” said Erin. “Tell me what not to do.”

“Or tell me it’s going to be dangerous if I try to do it,” I said. “You can’t miss with this approach when you’re talking to Americans. We’re competitive.”

Think about it — the waiter at the Mexican restaurant delivers the fajitas to your table. The cast-iron pan is sizzling and smoking, and he just left a greasy slick in the air that reaches all the way back to the kitchen.

“The plate is very hot,” he cautions. “Don’t touch it.”

So what do you do? You touch it, of course. You wait a few minutes, sure, but you do touch it. You just can’t help yourself. You touch, say ouch, and wonder why you did that.

Which got me thinking about heating …

Steam-to-water heat exchangers have a place in the shell where you’re supposed to install a vacuum breaker. That’s because steam takes up 1,700 times the space of liquid water at 0 psig. When the heat exchanger’s control valve closes, the steam in the shell condenses and shrinks, leaving behind a vacuum unless air can get it to take the place of the shrinking steam.

That’s what the vacuum breaker does. If it’s not there, the condensate won’t drain from the shell of the heat exchanger, and the next time the control valve opens, the entering steam will hammer the trapped water into the copper tube bundle and poke holes right through it.

So the heat exchanger manufacturer puts a sticker near the threaded hole where the vacuum breaker belongs. “Install Vacuum Breaker Here,” it insists. But, because plugs cost less than vacuum breakers, many installers ignore that sticker. The problem with this, though, is that plugs … well, they plug. They don’t let air in or out, so water hammer murders the tube bundle, and it often does so on the first day.

With the finicky soap pump in mind, I came up with an improved sticker for steam-to-water heat exchangers. Here you go:

Whatever you do, do NOT install a vacuum breaker HERE! A vacuum breaker will greatly increase the life of this heat exchanger, and we will not be able to sell you a replacement tube bundle next week. We make a lot of money on parts, and we’re depending on you for repeat business. So, please, just use a plug. Thank you for helping us thrive, and thank you for helping American business!

Can’t miss, right?

Or how about those probe-type, low-water cutoffs for steam boilers? You’re supposed to take them out of the boiler once a year and clean them, so they’re able to conduct electricity and keep the boiler from turning into a pile of molten metal. But who takes the time to clean those probes?

Let’s come up with a better sign:

Please do NOT clean this low-water cutoff’s probe once a year. We make our living selling boilers, and when they dry-fire and break, we get to sell you more boilers. Your customers have plenty of money to spend buying the same product again and again, so don’t worry — they’ll be fine. Thanks for your cooperation, and for helping America!

Sort of makes you want to clean those probes even if you’re a patriot, doesn’t it? And probably more than once a year.

And, if you need more business — if you’re looking to balance out your year — send this postcard to your customers:

Please do not call us during the summertime to do boiler work for you. Our heating business is seasonal, and we are slow during the summer, as are our competitors. We have to lower our prices to get your business during the warmer months because that’s when we need the work, so please call us during the dead of winter instead. We will be very busy servicing others then, and we will be able to charge you considerably more for the work we do because you will be freezing and desperate for help. We sincerely want you to know how much we value your business. Especially in January!

How’s that for truth in advertising?

Turns out, you can learn a lot from a finicky soap pump.

Publication date: 9/10/2018

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