Sooty snafu: Opting for quick over careful

When Betty Mundie discovered in early December that her gas water heater was leaking, she moved fast to replace the aging appliance that occupied a utility closet at the top of the stairs. Fitch Services gave her a price of $725 and arranged to install it the following day.

Mundie couldn't be present– she delivers The Hook, and that was a distribution day– but her 19-year-old grandson, Matthew, was. Her absence was a circumstance she would come to regret.

Mundie's first clue that something was wrong was a stack of stair treads that had been put outside the front door by Fitch employees, according to Matthew. The rattan rectangles had formerly protected the light-gray carpet on the stairs, but now allegedly had "black stuff" on them.

Mundie believes the substance was soot that had collected in a pipe above the water heater. She thinks the black substance probably leaked out when the pipe was being carried downstairs.

The "black stuff" not only spilled onto the stair treads, she claims, but also was ground into the carpet in front of the utility closet. Both sides agree that Fitch employees returned with a rented shampooer and tried to clean up the carpet stains. This effort, Mundie asserts, just made a "different mess."

Both sides also agree that the men neglected to use dropcloths.

On Friday, December 3, Mundie called John Fitch, the company's president, to complain. Fitch and his son, the operations manager, inspected the carpet the following Monday. Again, Matthew was the only one present. When Fitch later spoke with Mundie, she claims, he told her that "he would only replace the stair treads and nothing more. He said the carpet was dirty, and that he would not do anything more than the stair treads." Dissatisfied, she eventually contacted me.

When I spoke with Fitch, he disputed Mundie's version of events. First, he said, the condition of the carpet was such that "it wasn't possible to tell what part of the dirt was ours. If it had been a nice, new carpet," he explained, "we would pay a reasonable proportion." But since it "needs to be replaced anyway," he was unwilling to reimburse Mundie for more than a minimal amount.

Fitch insisted, however, that the offer of new treads hadn't been a final, take-it-or-leave-it proposition; his understanding, he said, was that Mundie would prepare a proposal for them to consider. Instead, to his dismay, she had contacted me.

I visited Mundie's home in Four Seasons, where she showed me one stair tread she had saved. Both Matthew and a neighbor say that prior to Fitch's removal of the old water heater and installation of the new one, the black stains– still clearly evident on the carpet on the stairs and in front of the utility closet– hadn't been there. The carpet is obviously old, but based on Fitch's description, I had expected far worse.

One lesson here is that if Mundie had been present while the work was being performed, she could have intervened immediately and notified Fitch that there was a problem. Living with a leaky water heater for a few more days– in order to schedule the work for a day when she'd be home– would have been easier, in the long run, than contending with the after-effects of a speedy installation.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.