Last week our heating system suddenly shut down, so we had a heating repair person come out from a local company to diagnose what caused the problem. He walked in, saw the safety switch was off, and told us that was the problem. He flipped on the safety switch back on, and we wrote him a check for $95. No explanation of why the switch went off. Then the switch shut back off again after he left. Dh turned it on. Then it shut itself off again, as well as shutting down another safety switch.
At this point it was obvious there was something more wrong than a switch that ‘happened’ to shut off. We called the company back and they said they’d said someone to do a chimney clean-out. So the next day, someone comes back, opens the (easily accessed by anyone) pipe in the laundry room, shines a flashlight in, and sees black crumbly stuff. “Crystallized soot!” he tells us, like that’s supposed to mean something. Another $55 to tell us that.
So I ask what’s the significance of that. He tells us it means the entire heating system needs to be replaced. I ask how a heating system that was working fine suddenly stopped with no warning and there’s no option but to replace it. “That’s what happens.” He shows me a fine circle of dust inside and tells me it’s because I don’t keep the floor around it clean enough that the system is no good any more. It was good to learn how large an area around the system needs to be kept clear since I didn’t know that, but at the same time, I was skeptical that there was nothing to do but replace the system – for $5800. When we asked about the possibility of cleaning the soot out, we were told that it would cost $2600 and they wouldn’t guarantee the work because there’s a low success rate, so they didn’t recommend it.
After telling my husband at least six times on the phone that we’ve got to keep the area around it cleaner, then telling me five times that we’ve got to keep it clean, and then telling me a couple of times that I have to tell my husband when he gets home that we’ve got to keep the area clear (to which I told him that my husband is a bright guy and gets things the first time, and I didn’t think any further repetition was necessary), I wasn’t feeling very enlightened. So when he warned me that we’ve got to replace the system right away and not to try to turn on the safety switch, I ask what would happen if it were turned on. Not that I have any plans to try it, I clarified, but I wanted to understand what it could lead to (because I like to understand things).
“You’d blow yourself up!” Ahh. “How would that happen?” “You’d blow the house up!” I was making a conscious effort at this point not to talk more slowly and enunciate my words to help him understand basic questions – he seemed to think that repeating himself again and again using the same words was giving me more information. He told me (again!) not to turn on the safety switch because it would be dangerous. Right, I got that, but what theoretically would happen? “Carbon monoxide.” Now, I’m not a heating repair specialist but I’m also not a totally witless person, and it was becoming obvious to me that he kept repeating himself because he didn’t know the answers to my questions- since carbon monoxide is an odorless gas that causes people to die by breathing it, not by blowing them up.
Since it’s the middle of the winter and it’s quite chilly indoors with no heat, I started to think about what the alternatives to replacing our heating system were since we don’t have the funds for it and we don’t spend money we don’t have. (Fortunately we have a separate boiler for hot water, so we still could shower and do dishes and laundry.) I started researching used boilers that would be a good fit for our needs. Within a half an hour I found two – one for $300, one for $400.
While I was doing that, dh got on the phone with a plumber he knows, and described the situation in detail to him. The plumber was very surprised at the recommendation to replace the entire system due to crystallized soot – he suggested getting a shop vac and vaccuuming it out. Dh asked him how much it would be if he (the plumber) did a professional clean-out of the system. $600, the plumber told him. There’s a big difference between $600 and $2600, and a big difference between a used system for a few hundred dollars and a new system for almost $6000, and we were glad to be finding options that were more affordable than those offered by the company representative.
Before we hired anyone else, dh got out our shop van and started vaccuuming up all the crystallized soot in the pipes or visible dust anywhere on the unit that he could see – it took him about thirty minutes. And when he turned the heating system back on, it stayed on – it’s been on for almost a week now and working perfectly. Dh called the company to complain – how could they tell us the only option was a $6000 job when it could easily was taken care of with a quick vaccuuming by someone with no training?
And astonishingly, they told him that their lawyers don’t allow them to tell anyone to have it cleaned out because they might be held liable. (I don’t know what that literally means, but practically it means that they’d rather put in a new system with a warranty than work on an older system. Nice profit to them by avoiding liability. ) I was sorry to see that given the chance to correct the situation, they continued to justify their lack of interest in what was best for the customer rather than their pocket. If you’re in the Baltimore area, I’d strongly caution you to about dealing with this company – Farnen and Dermer. When dh got off the phone with them he said told me it reminded him of obstetricians who do c-sections even when they aren’t medically necessary because then they can’t be sued, regardless of how it affects the mother and baby. Good analogy. 😛
The lesson for everyone, regardless of where you live, is that you really need to get your own information – don’t be afraid to ask questions, or to take some time to get more information. You don’t have to make a decision on the spot. Don’t let yourself be pressured to make an immediate decision. When you’re faced with an expensive repair or recommendation – whether from a mechanic, heating technician, dentist or doctor – do some research, make some calls, check things online. There are very, very often more frugal and equally effective ways to take care of the situation that the person you’re hiring isn’t aware of or would prefer not to mention to you. No one cares about you hanging onto your money as much as you do, so look out for your best interests!