'One Time'... Tales from the front line
It's easy to say you know how the Green movement works– you've read the blogs, follow the Twitter updates, and talk with your well-to-do friends about the latest trend in Green living regularly. But living an eco-conscious lifestyle isn't exclusively for the well-off. Indeed, often the most environmentally savvy and economically practical among us are the everyday blue-collar workers– those who protect our green spaces and practice smart living without making a big fuss or, often, without realizing it at all. The Hook goes under the Green movement radar and talks with those locals who can really say they live an environmentally friendly life– and they remind us of the little things we can be do to stay on the eco-conscious front line.
Darrell Camper– Landscape Supply, Inc.
One time, it was fall and everybody was cleaning up leaves. One of our few responsibilities on the golf course that I worked at was to pick up the neighborhood leaves. We collected dumptruck after dumptruck of them in tremendous piles. We had a dump site on the property where we would collect topsoil, and there were holes dug for it. Occasionally, they got a little deep. That was where we dumped leaves in ten-foot piles.
At home, I got a phone call. The golf course needed our backhoe– there was a problem at our dump site. So I drove in and met the Fire Department at our shop where the backhoe was parked, and just out of curiosity, I followed them down to see what's happening. When I got there, there was a brand-new, limited edition Jeep Cherokee, nose-down in a hole which had been filled with leaves.
A teenage kid with his mom's Cherokee had been running around through the piles of leaves, four-wheelin' and havin' a good time. He happened to drive into one of the holes that we had dug, and of course the leaves couldn’t support the Jeep. He was totally stuck. And before long, the heat of the exhaust ignited the leaves and it blazed up. (The area wasn't totally burned.)
I'm assuming that he realized he was in trouble and called for help immediately because the burn area was small. But it took a while to get the Jeep out of the hole, and to remove all of the potentially flammable material.
Treat a situation like that like any other emergency: Protect the people first, and then the property. If you know there could be potential trouble in a spot like that, gate it or fence it. Do everything that you can to make sure that there can't be any vehicles down there.
But it's hard to teach boys not to be boys sometimes, but try to give them a little common sense. $45,000-to-50,000 vehicles aren't toys!
Brian Lambert– Jones Heating and Air
One time, we had a call where we had to perform a duct cleaning. We were given a heads up that this woman was a little eccentric, shall we say. She was convinced that she was a direct descendent of Anastasia. I like my customers a lot and they aren’t eccentrics, but this woman was a wild exception to that rule.
When we arrived on the job, she calmly explained that she believed that there were aliens living in her ductwork. At which point, my boss, the salesman, assured her, “My boys will get ’em.” So we went ahead and performed the duct cleaning.
What she was actually hearing was a roll of sheetrock tape that had been left there when they built the house. When the fan would cut on, it would make flapping noises inside the ductwork. So we got credit for that— we were the heroes of the day. We saved her from the aliens.
To prevent HVAC problems, you want to make sure that you check your filter regularly. You would be surprised how many calls we get because people hear noise in their ductwork and when we arrive, we find that it’s a stopped-up filter. It causes a booming noise.
Simple maintenance is crucial, too—having the equipment serviced regularly. Restricted airflow is detrimental, regardless of the season. Make sure that your filters and coils are clean. The best way to do that is have it maintained regularly.
Catch small problems before they become big problems. You can usually avoid a huge repair bill with simple maintenance, which on most maintenance plans are pretty reasonable.
You’d be amazed of how many people don’t even know what they have. Sometimes, you walk in and you want to know where the furnace is, and the homeowner has no idea. That awareness is very important—you should know where your breaker panel, where your main water cut-off, etc. are. These are very important in the event that you have, say, a significant water leak. Being aware of simple things like that can make a big difference.
Jim McNemar– Puroclean, Inc.
One time, there was a couple that owned a three-story vacation home in the mountains. They stayed there for Labor Day weekend, then left the house and went home. Shortly after they left, the hot water line to one of the third-floor bathrooms broke. The water ran for the better part of three weeks— all hot water.
Their neighbors were retirees who lived there year-round. And they saw the water coming through the sliding glass doors in the basement rec. room. They immediately thought, “You know, water really shouldn’t be coming out of there…”
These homes are managed and watched by a property management company, so the neighbors called them and the property managers came in. On the main floor and on the lowest floor, all the ceilings and walls were caved in. There’s a foot of water in the basement. There are probably four to six inches of water on the second floor.
Because the water was hot and because of the time of year and because it took three weeks for anybody to discover it, everything on the main floor and in the basement was covered in black mold.
So we walked into this house the next morning, and it was like entering a sauna. The hot water was also feeding the mold. A fire couldn’t have destroyed the house more thoroughly.
The moral of this story is: When you’re going to go away from home for more than a week at a time and/or on vacation, turn the main water valve OFF. That way you won’t come home to a surprise.
Honest to goodness, almost every single water job we go to starts on the top floor of a home. Almost always, the customer is on vacation. We get a call and they tell us, “We just got back from such-and-such a place.” “How long has the water been running?” we ask, and they say, “We don’t know, but it looks like it’s been running for three or four days.”
Most of these accidents occur when the homeowner is away from home. You can’t turn the water off to go to work, but be careful when you’re away for a while because it almost always happens when you’re on vacation!
And, sadly, there’s no such thing as a water detector.
Alan Williams– Piedmont Electronics and Communications
One time, I heard about a guy who had a client who complained about a mobile radio in a vehicle not working correctly. And they said, "It's always this particular vehicle, this unit." And he sent some employees out who checked the radio out and came back and said, "There's nothing wrong with it technically." So he told the client that there wasn't a problem.
They called him back the next day saying that the radio was still malfunctioning. He decided to go down personally and speak with the radio operator. He got there and the operator picked up the microphone and undoubtedly she hadn't watched Adam 12 or any other cop show from the 70s, 80s, or 90s because you have to talk into the front of the microphone. This particular person enjoyed speaking into the back of the microphone, which isn't very good for modulation, and therefore you can't hear them.
I also heard about a guy who tore the antenna off of his car and then told the repairman that there was a problem. When he asked the guy "Where's the antenna?" he told him "We took that off because we didn't like the way it looked, and it wasn't running through the carwashes well."
Just to clarify, these people are very atypical. You rarely see cases like that. You do have to realize that some people are more technically inclined than others, but you always have to take people on face value, that they are technically savvy. No one is expected to be a rocket scientist. (I couldn't take the Space Shuttle apart, but, like a lot of people, give me the Internet and a little bit of time, and I'll make a good run at it.)
People sometimes want to point the finger at a device being bad, and sometimes it is the case that you have an equipment malfunction. But you need to first check if you're asking the piece of equipment to do something that it wasn't designed to do. And that applies to anything from a two-way radio to a DVD player. Am I operating the machine correctly? Am I asking it to do something that it wasn’t designed to do? Then it could be a malfunction.
Tom Kavounas– Albemarle Heating and Air
One time, on the first hot day of summer, I got a customer calling me begging for us to come and fix their air conditioner. "We’ve got exotic birds that are worth thousands of dollars!" they said.
When we got there, they had one parakeet.
In this business, people often ignore you. We send people cards reminding them that a tune-up is due. If their air conditioners were busted the previous year, we tell them to get it checked out or fixed before summer.
But not many people respond. The first hot day hits, a hundred people call who want us there immediately.
Usually, we have to put them order: If they’re regular customers, we’ll get there as quickly as possible in the order that we received their calls. We get all kinds of people making stuff up: One customer said that she had really expensive dogs that were asthmatic and she desperately needed us out there. It turned out that she had a mutt. People invent things to make it seem like it’s an emergency.
To avoid having to prevaricate, you should respond, plan, and get your system serviced. Actually, there’s probably less general knowledge air conditioning and heating than any other area of the home.
And like your air conditioning, get your heating system serviced regularly. One way to affect your heating bill by about fifteen bucks a month is to change the filter. You have to understand that it’s not like any other appliance. It’s like your car: It has all kinds of things that need to be tweaked and tuned.
One house that I serviced had a four-ton unit in it which should move 1,600 CFMs, cubic feet per minute, of air. The grill on the floor was 151 degrees—I touched it, and it literally burnt me. I told the owner what a serious fire hazard it was, then I checked it out, and there was this little teeny 12” duct, which is the only return in the whole house and it’s WAY too small. Instead of 1,600 CFMs, it was only returning 670, so as it slows that air down, the air coming out gets a lot hotter and stresses the heat exchanger, causing fire, heat exchange rupture, high energy bills, and discomfort.
The same thing happens when the filter gets dirty. So when there’s a bend in the fan in it and when the filter gets dirty, the pressure goes up. And when it builds, the airflow drops, so if you’re 20 or 30 percent off on your airflow, your bill is basically 20 or 30 percent higher than it should be.
That fan is just like your heart and it can only handle so much static pressure, just like your blood pressure.
Dave Rosene– Van Yahres Tree Company
One time, this guy had a tree that wasn’t dead, but it was too close to his house so he was concerned about it. And he went to take it down himself. He had a rope on it, but didn’t have enough tension on it. He made his cuts in the tree incorrectly, and it ended up leaning over against his house.
He bent up the edges of the shingle and scuffed the side of his house. But once he got it hung up on the side of the house, he didn’t know where to go with it.
He called us, we took it off of the house, and he said, “While you’re here, why don’t you take down the rest of these pine trees that are near my house.” So we wound up taking down all of them. There were another half a dozen or so.
In dealing with trees, it’s important that people know what their skill level is. So if you’ve taken down some trees already out in an open field and you’re confident that you know how to make the cuts and make the tree go where it needs to go, then that’s one thing. But if you’re going to be doing it next to your house, then be careful and make sure that you know how to handle a tree, or it will do this kind of thing and end up on the house.
Things like this don’t happen a lot. I’ve had lots of people who have said, “I’ve taken down trees before and I don’t want to take down the one next to my house.” We do that kind of thing all the time—where people realize that their skill level is not where it needs to be. “I’ll do them out in the field and my yard, but NOT next to my house.”
We’ve run across that a lot, but less where we’ve had to rescue a guy from his own ineptitude.
Jim McNemar– Puroclean, Inc.
One time, we were called to clean up after a fire and it was in the filthiest place that you have ever been in your life. We had to put respirators on in order to work in the home because the dog urine smell was so strong as it was soaked into the carpeting on two floors. Now, in July, with 95-degree weather and 90 percent humidity, wearing a respirator for nine and ten hours a day is no fun because you sweat like a dog. We had to loosen them from our faces and drop the sweat out so we could keep going.
And this place was filthy from top to bottom.
When the insurance company showed up to determine the cause of the fire—we beat them to the house—they discovered that one of the residents had power strips with extension cords in it: televisions, stereos, fans, lights, and all this stuff was going into one wall socket.
Cluttered, dirty homes are a major fire hazard. It is rare when we walk into an immaculate home where there's been a major fire. Their owners usually do things that are necessary so that these things don’t happen.
With fire, the difference between a job that I get where I can clean up the house from a fire and a job where the owners don’t bother to call me because the dwelling has to be demolished is just a matter of minutes. And most of the fires that the insurance companies get claims on are total losses. They’ve lost the whole house because from the time the fire department was notified, if it has already started and is up and going, if it takes fifteen minutes or more for them to get there, instead of trying to put the fire out, they’ll try to stop it from burning somebody else’s home.
This is why fire extinguishers and smoke detectors and alarms are so terribly, terribly important in a home. You could be asleep, and all of a sudden something happens and by the time you wake up, you might not be able to get out of the house. You’re done.
John Flevarakis– J & A Painting and Home Improvement
One time, a woman called me and said that she was about to move into a house in a week and her painters weren’t going to come for two weeks. So I went out there and gave her an estimate and told her that I could get it done by that Friday. I stuck twenty-two guys on it, and we got it done in that week that we had.
Two days into the job, the other painters called and said that they were coming to get their equipment. I wanted to make sure that I was there before they got there so that they wouldn’t say anything to my guys.
But they came in and said, “Hey, I’m glad you guys are finishing this job off, and we’re going hunting for a couple of weeks.” They were just picking up their ladders because they were afraid that we might take them. They didn’t care about losing the job, which was a shock to me because business is business and they could hunt on Saturdays.
I often have to go back and re-do shoddy work. Actually, last year I did about ten or twelve houses that other painters couldn’t finish up, and at least eight of them in different neighborhoods were from one company.
The first thing I do when I take over a job is walk around it and re-estimate it and then tell the customers what looks good and what doesn’t. I tell them what has to be done and give them a price before I start.
To avoid using a shady painter, pay attention to how he preps. If he’s a professional, he would have things covered first. He gets up there and cleans the walls—he doesn’t just start scraping and painting at the same time. He should scrape the loose paint, caulk it, and sand it to a feather edge to where it’s down to the wood. And then, depending on the condition of the house, whether you do a full-prime or spot-prime, and then put two coats of paint on there.
That’s another thing: a lot of people quote two coats of paint and then only end up putting one up. A lot of homeowners won’t pick that up.
Brian Lambert– Jones Heating and Air
One Time, I went out on a job for a client who had no heat. And what I found was astounding.
It was an oil furnace with a down-flow configuration, which means that it would normally be sitting on ductwork which would distribute the warm air through the duct system. It would blow down into the ductwork and pull from above.
The furnace was literally just sitting on the floor without any ductwork. The wires and the oil lines were hooked up, but nothing else. It could have built up like a pressure cooker and done untold damage. It was also on the floor in the bathroom and the ductwork was insulated with asbestos. To say that it’s an airflow issue would be a major understatement. Whoever put it there almost certainly didn’t work in the trade.
This would have burned the client’s house down if it had been allowed to operate.
It was literally sitting on the floor. I photographed it because I didn’t think that anybody would believe me.
I told the client “Do not run this. This is extremely dangerous.” That furnace would leave any inspector or any contractor in this trade speechless.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, I don’t have to fix stuff like that which was left behind by reputable contractors. Usually, it’s something by a jack-of-all-trades, so to speak, who isn’t qualified to do this kind of work but who is out working on his own anyway. He’s low-balling— putting out the lowest bid. That’s how he gets work. He isn’t reputable or associated with any company. You will find that in a lot of trades
Your heating and cooling system is one of the most expensive components in your home. Short of having to re-do the roof or something like that, it’s a big investment. So make sure that you know that you’re dealing with a reputable company. Get references.
Ninety percent of the homes in this area are going to have some sort of central system. When you see systems that were installed by fly-by-night guys, you can always tell by the quality. For instance, in the ductwork: the ductwork should be properly insulated because what you lose from uninsulated ductwork that someone leaves comes out of your pocket.
I once saw an air conditioning unit sitting on a drain pan, which is there in anticipation of water leaking into it, and the pan was resting on two two-by-fours resting on end—no fast support. If they collapsed, it could spill and cause sheetrock damage. A layman often can’t immediately tell when something has been done shoddily, so be careful.
Dave Rosene– Van Yahres Tree Company
One time, right before a hurricane, we were pruning and removing trees that we had on the books that we knew were a safety hazard. We were cutting them and throwing them to the ground, just to get them where they were safe.
I had given one of our customers an estimate to remove some deadwood from a big oak tree on the street, which was where he parked because he didn’t have a driveway. He hadn’t gotten around to accepting the work and so it didn’t come up on our radar.
He thought that he would outsmart Mother Nature. Instead of parking underneath the tree with the deadwood, he parked across the street where there were no trees nearby. A big oak tree from his neighbor’s backyard across the street came down between the two neighboring houses, completely missed both houses, and creamed his truck. His truck would have been safe where it had been: Nothing came down out of the tree with the deadwood.
You can’t outsmart Mother Nature.
People should deal with deadwood, though, especially if it’s anywhere near your house. We often leave dead trees out in a field or the woods where no one goes. It’s good habitat. It’s harmless. Pieces will fall off, but if you’re not underneath it, it doesn’t matter. Trees are only hazardous if they have a target.
If a tree is at the back of your yard, you can accept a little deadwood, but if it’s over your driveway or your house, then you have potential for bodily damage or property damage.
Pay attention– look for things that might be a problem and even get help looking for them because people commonly gloss over stuff. When you’re pulling into your driveway, you’re concentrating on everything else, not paying attention to what’s up in the trees.
People call and say “There’s this deadwood that just showed up in my tree, and it was fine a month ago.” And I look at the tree and say, “That’s been dead for over a year. That’s not recent. There are no twigs left on it, the bark is falling off, and there’s fungus growing on it.” A lot of it is being aware: You don’t have to be an expert, especially during the summertime, to look up and say “That branch is leafless—it has a problem”
The biggest issue that most people have is that they don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on because they see it every single day. You don’t notice things if you don’t focus on what’s going on. Pay attention, look more often.
Bonus–> a story about grinning and bearing it
Allen Harlan– Blue Ridge Paint and Decorating
One time, me and the assistant manager closed up on Saturday and went home. About two hours later, he called me. He had come by the store to get the work van and there was a car in the front door.
It shattered all of the windows except the top ones. The door was pushed in, but the way it did, it never broke the alarm sensors, so they never went off. There were firemen here, police, an ambulance, but nobody was hurt. No one would have known, so he called the main manager, and she came down and helped clean up.
And he called me to ask if I knew where the dustpan was. I asked him why, and he told me about the car, and I said, "I have got to see this."
The only people that knew we were here were regular contractors. But this was a week before our grand opening. So the whole week of the grand opening, we had boards on our door and a lot of homeowners that came by thought we had moved.
The door was boarded-up for two weeks because they had to build a new frame. After three days, we put up signs saying that we were open. But there's very little that you can do about a disaster like that except to have people standing outside, hollering "Come in! We're open!"
We didn't do anything like that, and it was tough: Having a grand opening, expecting to do a whole lot of business that week, and all we could do was grin and bear it. We were just lucky that we had another entrance to our showroom instead of having to make a makeshift door out of plywood.
The Monday after the accident, somebody came in and measured, and I don't think we saw anybody else from the insurance company until two weeks later. It's a hurry-up-and-wait kind of deal because your hands are tied. It's not like you can rebuild it yourself; you've got to wait for somebody else to do it on their time. Grin and bear it is all you can do.
As recently as a year and a half ago, the Hook ran a weekly column of "One Time" stories by local tradespeople.