Value Is Perception

Published: June 1, 2010 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating, Darn-Good Stories

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You can't make this stuff up.

Some years ago, The Lovely Marianne and I visited Rome with friends and on a gorgeous Sunday morning in early spring, we got up early to attend high mass at Saint Peters. To a good Catholic lad, the Vatican is Disneyworld.

On our way into that geographically smallest of nations, we passed dozens of street vendors who were selling holy cards, plastic statues of saints, and, of course, rosary beads. I checked out the prices and thought they were reasonable, so I asked The Lovely Marianne if she wanted to buy something. “Let’s wait until after mass,” she said, and so we did.

But after mass was also when the throngs of people gathered in the square to see Pope John Paul II appear at his window, where he would speak to us in Italian and give us his blessing. We didn’t want to miss that, so we stood there with about a million people and watched out for pickpockets. Later, we returned to the street vendors, who were right at the outskirts of Vatican City. I noticed that the prices of everything had doubled since earlier that morning and I asked one of the vendors what the heck had happened. He smiled, gestured grandly at his wares, and in perfect English said, “Worth more now because blessed by Papa!”

Get it? Value is perception.

I remembered that incident a few weeks back when I read a news story about a couple of heating technicians who had gone to Madonna’s digs in England to repair one of her radiators. She has those classic European panel radiators and each has its own set of valves. The techs had shut off the radiator and were draining the water from it when the maid showed up and screamed. You see Madonna is a disciple of Kabbalah, which concerns itself with the mystical aspects of Judaism. Part of that belief system involves Kabbalah water, and Madonna had had her radiators filled with that very expensive version of H2O. The maid was concerned about spillage because Madonna had spent about $10,000 on the stuff, which proves, once again, that it’s good to be crazy rich.

No matter what you may have heard, water is not water. I learned this as a young Catholic boy when my mother taught me how to bless myself with the holy water before entering the nave of any church. The nuns reinforced my dear mother's teaching with a 12-inch ruler. Some waters are more special than others, or so I perceive, and that is where the value lies.

I was at a trade show in Atlantic City and I was thirsty, so I looked around for a water fountain. The one I found was right next to a machine that sold (you guessed it) water. I stood there for a while and thought about how in America you can sell absolutely anything to just about anyone if you do a good enough job of describing the thing's virtues and value.

The brand of water in the machine was Dasani, a product of the Coca-Cola® Bottling Company. I went to their Web site to see what made this water better (and certainly more expensive) than common tap water, which was free for the taking and right there next to their big, expensive machine. The Dasani site explains that the good folks at Coca-Cola begin with "the local water supply" and filter it. Then they add a special blend of minerals "to make it taste crisp." In other words, it’s filtered tap water in a plastic bottle - for two bucks. Oh, but they also provide nutritional information on the label, for those who are health conscious. This is good to know: Dasani water contains 0 calories, 0 fats, 0 sodium, 0 carbohydrates, 0 protein. This is because it is water. Nevertheless, it is very special water. Otherwise, why would it cost two bucks?

Once again, value is perception.

I was visiting the Lochinvar factory near Nashville a few years ago and Marianne and I stayed at the nearby Gaylord Opryland Nashville Hotel, which is Disneyworld for country music fans. This hotel is so vast that they give you a piece of cheese when and if you are able to find your room. Marianne and I wandered around and gawked at the place. They even have their own indoor riverboat ride, and we didn’t want to miss that, so we plunked down about 10 bucks apiece and climbed into a boat with lots of other gaping tourists and their rotten children. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and took us on a tour of the place, where we watched people eating in the many restaurants, and others trying to find their rooms. I probably would have thought that this was a waste of money but then I spotted a sign that explained how the folks who run this behemoth of a hotel had put out the call for small bottles of water from all the rivers and oceans and lakes and streams of the world. They had then poured these samples into their indoor river, making it the most unique body of water on the planet. It’s a regular hydronic League of Nations, and they convinced me that it has great value.

I stared at that special water as we floated by the tourists, and it gave me an idea. What if contractors from all across the land (or all over the world) filled their heating systems with tap water, as usual, but then added a bit of exotic (and perhaps expensive) water from some other locale. Why, in the age of the Internet, I’ll bet we could get a decent water exchange going between contractors from all over the planet. We could become brokers for this water and make a fortune. We'd buy small vials of West Coast water and resell it to the guys on the East Coast. We'd sell Coney Island water to the contractors in Arizona and sparkling Rocky Mountain water (think Coors) to the contractors on the Great Plains. Or how about some water from that melting glacier in Iceland? I'll bet that would bring in the big bucks. Water from the Dead Sea? The Great Salt Lake? Wow. And I'm sure building owners would be happy to pay a premium for this premium water sample because it would make their personal heating system like no other heating system in the world. And doesn't everyone want to feel special?

And beyond the romance of all of this, there's also a practical side of adding special stuff to plain tap water. I met a contractor who told me that he adds a quart of Mr. Clean to every hot water system he does. He claims that the liquid detergent makes the water more slippery, so that it scoots through the pipes more easily, slides around the corners like silk, and slithers through the valves effortlessly. "It allows me to use smaller pumps, and that saves energy," he said. "It's very green. And clean! Here, pour some Mr. Clean on your hands and rub them together. See what I mean?"

I did. Such value!

But I should end with Madonna.

I once visited the building that houses her sprawling Manhattan co-op. I was there because the heat was uneven and lousy. Everyone in that Turn of the Century brick palace shares an antique one-pipe steam system that was suffering from neglect. That system has these huge and positively gorgeous, screwed pipes (I'm talking 12-inch). I stood there like a gaping idiot, just ogling those pipes, all of which contained steam and condensate, made from plain New York City tap water. Boring.

I’ll bet that if they ran that steam system on Kabbalah water, some soft hydronic chanting would replace the psychotic pounding of water hammer in those big pipes. I'll bet an evenness and balance would replace heating chaos, and I imagine boiler blow-down would be a thing of the past. There would be no need for blow-down with water so special. Besides, look at what it costs.

Value is perception.