Service Is Never Easy

Published: May 13, 2022 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating, Darn-Good Stories

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We live in Bethpage, NY, a suburban Long Island town, known for the now-gone Grumman (maker of fine canoes and lunar landing modules) and a golf course that breaks hearts (Bethpage Black). I don’t play golf, which is why I’m so peaceful.

Since I retired, we own just one car. My biggest problem these days is having to constantly adjust the driver’s seat, since The Lovely Marianne is about half my size, but I can deal with that.

Our one car is in our driveway and no cars park in front of our house, which makes it easy for the service tech that shows up to give our heating system its annual physical. The challenge for that poor soul is when he opens our boiler-room door. We don’t have a basement. Our boiler and related hydronic doodads are shoehorned into a room the size of a small closet. The room has an out-swing door and no shelter from the storms. It’s very difficult to change anything in that dog’s breakfast of a boiler room. There’s piping in there that’s tighter than the inside of a baseball. If you wanted to change your mind about something you’d have to step outside to do so. It’s that tight.

So I always tip very well. I know that service, regardless of the free parking just steps away from the boiler room, is never easy.

I asked some friends in the industry, who work in cities, how they manage to do what they do, what with the traffic, lack of parking and high-stressed inhabitants. What they had to say made me shiver.

One said, “The big city near me is Philadelphia. I don't go there, for any price. It’s a logistical nightmare. The traffic is ridiculous and parking is impossible. You need someone to literally ride shotgun with you. There’s plenty of work in the suburbs. I don’t know how they do it in NYC.”

Being a native New Yorker, I also don’t know how they do it in NYC. An NYC contractor told me that his company has a guy on retainer who does nothing but go to court to deal with their parking tickets. “He beats down enough of them to make it worth our while,” he said.

A contractor in Western-Massachusetts said, “I did a few jobs in downtown Boston. I had to leave the house by 4:30 at the latest, then I fought traffic on the Massachusetts Turnpike for 90 miles. I parked a few blocks from the job (I was lucky to get a spot). And of course, I had to run out and feed the parking meter all day. I couldn’t put the truck in a garage because of the roof racks.

“So once I parked, I had to load all my tools on a hand truck and strap it all down. (don't forget anything). Then I dragged it through the snow-covered sidewalks all the way to the job, which was on the 34th floor. It was quite a wait for the elevator.

“Now I could start working, knowing that if I left for lunch, or even a short break there was no job box, so I could kiss my good tools goodbye.”

“When I was done, I repeated the moving-in process, but in reverse. I got home after 6 PM. I worked 13-1/2 hours and got paid for just eight hours because ‘good customers’ don’t like to pay for travel time.”

“I only had to do this once or twice a year for a week or two. I’m so glad I’m retired.”

Service is never easy.

A contractor in Seattle said, “The traffic delays in Seattle cause havoc and can add hours to a service call. Customers are told that there is a trip fee and they often are resistant to paying the charge. Traveling within the city could easily add one- to two hours per call and will eat up any profit if not accounted and charged for. Parking is never easy downtown, as the city reduced the amount of spaces by installing bike lanes.”

“Oh, and then there are the customers who have not maintained or serviced their equipment in 10 years, and wonder why it doesn't work, or why it's so expensive to fix.”

Never easy indeed. So why not leave the big city behind and go do service out in the country, where the air is pure and the parking is easy?

I once asked a friend who did service in beautiful Saranac Lake, NY, which is tucked away in the Adirondack Mountains and is the coldest place I ever visited. Even sunlight freezes in Saranac Lake. If you’re in the heating business, you have to love this town, right? It should be a place where service is both easy and profitable. Right?

“How’s the parking?” I asked.

“Never a problem!” he said.

“Traffic?” I asked.

“Pfff,” he remarked.

“So service is easy?” I questioned.

“Well, not so easy. You have to carefully time things around here,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I may do a job on an island this winter. It’s out there in the middle of the lake. Water-access only. I have to get my backhoe out there,” he explained.

We were in his shop and I looked at his backhoe. It was very big.

“How will you get that beast out there?” I asked.

“I’ll have to drive it over when the lake freezes,” he said.

“What if the ice breaks?” I asked.

“While I’m driving the backhoe?” he questioned.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I suppose I’ll die,” he said. “But I probably won’t. I should be okay. The timing is important, though. If I get stuck out there too long and the ice starts to melt, my backhoe will be on the island for all of next summer, and that’s going to screw me up.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Did I ever tell you about the boiler job we did last summer?” he asked. “It was out on another island. We had to wait for the boiler to arrive at the wholesaler. Then we had to make arrangements with the customer and accommodate their schedule. From there, we moved the boiler onto a barge.”

“A barge?” I asked.

“Yes, the kind Grumman makes. It’s a big aluminum job. Oh, and we also put in a couple of four-wheelers and a big sled,” he said.

“You needed all of that to do a boiler job?” I asked.

“Well sure, because once we got over to the island we had to figure out how we were going to get the boiler off the barge and up to the house,” he said. “That’s where the two four-wheelers and the sled come in.”

“And then you had to get in down the basement?”

“Right, but from there it was just all the usual stuff. Piping? You know. Oh, and you have to be sure you didn’t forget anything. It’s a long way back to the shop,” he explained.

None of this bothered my country friend. It was just how it did things. It wasn’t easy. It just . . . was.

The thing I love about this trade and its people, though, is that no matter what, and no matter how, and no matter where, they always seem to get it all done.

Service is never easy.

But it is always commendable.