The favor you do…may end up costing you

Written on: October 1, 2012 by Wayne Lawrence

Happy Healthy New Year!
Hello again!
What a rollercoaster ride of emotions this last few weeks has been. Some of what I’ve seen working the south shore here on Long Island after hurricane Sandy tore through is hard to comprehend. The photos in the newspaper, or the television news coverage, while great, lack the odors of charred homes, sewage, mold, mildew, Great South Bay, and of course, spilled fueloil. What is even harder for me to understand is the parasitic few that pray on those suffering so much hardship during this time. The tales of stealing, looting, price gouging, and fuel siphoning are told to me daily. Tragedies like this bring out the best and worst in people. The people of this trade have really stepped up, so many putting their lives on hold to help others.
The amount of hours we’ve been working, when recently told to my doctor, made him need to see a doctor! We, in this reactive based industry, have reacted favorably, and all of you should be so proud of your efforts to help others. I hope those of you blessed with good health had remembered to be grateful for it, and were able to find a way to share some of the holidays with family, especially since the demands of this industry will continue over the next few months. Family is so very special, and their understanding of what we do is so appreciated. It seems that as we come into December, with all the rushing around in trying to express our appreciation for them in return, we are reminded daily of those less fortunate. Performing service in some of these homes, we see firsthand the hardship that is out there in this depressed economy. We help people, it’s what we do. It makes us feel good.
However, I need to remind you that if there is one saying that seems to hold true for this entire industry, then in my opinion, none is more fitting than the adage, “No good deed goes unpunished. ” There is a lot of hardship out there now, with so much loss—and favors are asked daily. It is with that in mind that I thought to submit the following cautionary tale for this month’s article:
I share the following tale with my students at the start of each semester, to illustrate how important it is to ALWAYS protect yourself, fellow technicians, the company you work for, and the industry at each and every contact! The story that follows illustrates the amount of damage control and lost productivity, not to mention how many others now have to be involved, when poor judgment is the rule, rather than the exception. It is an example of what feel has been an industry-wide, incurable virus: “Leave it for the next guy it is.”
I learned a valuable, memorable lesson from this call, and due to my life now being shortened by at least 10 years because of it, will never make this mistake again….
“Winter is here, and money is tight; but ALWAYS REMEMBER to do what’s right!”
Wow it was cold! It was a many years ago, not at all like the 12 months of summer we had just experienced, and I decided to go on the night shift for a few weeks. (Ok—I was forced to go on nights; it must be nice to have seniority!) Anyway, I was given a gas no heat service call, that a technician had been there earlier in the day to repair. An elderly lady answered the door, bundled up in her winter coat, expressing her dismay of how long I took to get there, and that her furnace quit running right after the previous technician had left. She went on to tell me of how her husband was in very poor health, and that I needed to get it running again as soon as possible.
I headed down to the basement, and there before me is a natural gas furnace over 50 years old, in extremely poor condition. I see the removable cabinet door is scorched to bare metal and there is a round carbon stain on the concrete basement wall two feet away from the unit, signaling a flame rollout condition. The wires are scorched inside the cabinet, and I see where the wire nut had melted off the low voltage wire powering the standing pilot gas valve.
I think to myself, “There is no way I’m going to run this thing!” so I head back upstairs to explain to the customer that the unit is unsafe. She adamantly replies, “The other technician got it running, said it would be OK for tonight, that it wasn’t worth repairing, and a salesman from your company is coming tomorrow to sell me a new unit!” So now in my mind, I see I have a big problem, and a decision to make. Leave the unit down, causing the customer to call the company and possibly get the other tech in trouble, or leave it running as she requested, and have sales sell her a new unit in a few hours. It was 2:00 am, and 15 degrees out. I would have had to drain the house to avoid broken pipes, as the home temperature had already dropped quite a bit. I again told her it was unsafe, and she now told me her husband was too sick to be moved.
I reconnected the wires to the gas valve, while in my mind a script was being composed of the earful I was going to give my fellow tech that put me in this stressful position! The unit started and I watched a few cycles of a hefty rollout on each relight, signaling it was time for a new gas valve! I didn’t have a replacement gas valve on the truck, so with a check of the chimney base and a check to make sure the heat exchanger was sound, I crossed my fingers, said a prayer, and headed to my next call, hoping the time spent here wouldn’t now cause my next call to already be frozen! Working through the night, I watched the sun come up, and at 7:00 am, called the sales department, confirming a sales call had been placed, and the rep was heading to her home before lunch. Ok, I thought to myself, all good and off to sleep to recharge before my next night shift adventure.
With my shift to start at 4:00 pm, I was on the phone at 3:00 pm to see how the rep made out. I call the installation department, and find there is no paperwork to confirm the sale; I now call the sales rep, only to find that the customer cancelled the sales call because she told him, “The unit is now running fine.”
I’m now totally stressing, and tell dispatch I have to go back to her house to disable the unit. I go back to her home, which thankfully was still standing, knock on the door, and explain to her that I did her a favor last night, “…but I now have to disable the unit because it is extremely unsafe to be in operation!” She not only refuses to let me in, but accuses me of trying to rob her, and calls the police! I now have the embarrassment of calling my supervisor, explaining the whole story of what had happened, confess my use of extremely poor judgment, and compromising my integrity to cover for the previous technician, all to assist this poor old “helpless” lady!
My supervisor now called the customer while I waited in the van for the police, and convinced her to let me in to disable the unit. I capped the gas line, and completely removed the gas valve and downstream piping! Whew! It was now disabled! Afterwards, I find myself outside, again explaining all this drama to the police officer. I then find out her husband was deceased, and she lived alone. Wow! Old ladies lie too! Anyway, she was off to a relative’s house after her plumber drained down the house. I had put the customer, myself, my family, my fellow technicians, my company, and the industry at risk by attempting to do a favor for a customer that was buying time to price shop! I had later found out that she had the furnace installed by another company! Such seems to be the case whenever a favor is involved!
Last month in this publication, there was a checklist for flood damaged, or compromised equipment. There are also many sites on the internet There are many lessons here!
My dear friend, and fellow instructor, Tom Olsen, shared this with me: “The difference between a pat on the back and a kick in the a** is 18 inches, try to not have that distance traveled as much as possible.”
We are programmed in this business to try and help, but always remember, “The favor you do may end up costing you!”
All the best in health, and please stay safe!