Is That Cheating?


I've learned that there are many imaginative contractors in the heating business, and many have a fine way with words, along with unusual ways of sizing equipment, explaining stuff to customers, and being creative when problems arise.

For instance, I met a contractor who would quote every job at least twenty percent higher than what any of his competitors put out there.  “It’s because I like to make money,” he said.



“But how do you get the premium price,” I asked. "What makes you so special?"

“I sell only the square Btu,” he explained.


“Yes, square Btu,” he repeated.

I must have been wearing my baffle face, so he grabbed a sheet of white paper and a pen and set to sketching.

“You see, Dan, in the old days, builders of tract housing would use these round boilers.  They called them vertical, fire-tube boilers and they were pretty cheap.  Builders’ Specials, I always called them. They were junk, and not meant to last very long, but people didn't know what they were getting in those days. Everything was included with the house.”

“I’m familiar with Builders Specials,” I said. He was drawing circles within circles on the paper.

“So then perhaps you know that when you place a round Btu in a round boiler everything fits perfectly.  Round boiler, round Btu. See? Isn't that nice? It was a standard thing in the '50s.”


“Yes, the round Btu,” he repeated. "Even Elvis had them."

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “Btu have no shape.”

He smiled at me, as he would a confused child.  “Of course a Btu has a shape, Dan.  It can be either round or square.  And the square ones are the only ones we use on our jobs. They cost more because of the sharp corners. Those are the only corners we cut on any job.  That’s why our price will always be twenty percent higher than the competition.”

"I don't get it."

"Watch," he said, drawing a large square, and then a lot of smaller circles within the square.

“Now, Dan, as you know, most of the boilers made today are square, not round.  And as you can see, when you put round Btu in a square boiler, you’re left with all of these spaces between the Btu.”  He pointed at the spaces between the circles with the tip of his pen.  “That leads to inefficiency. Makes sense, doesn't it?"


He held up his hand to stop me and then made another sketch, this one of a big square with smaller squares laid out like patio blocks.

“But when you put square Btu in a square boiler, as you see here, those Btus will snug up against each other, leaving no gaps at all in between. And that, of course, leads to higher efficiency.”  He nodded with certainty and sincerity. " And that’s why our price is higher. You ever wonder why expensive Johnny Walker booze comes in square bottles? Same reason.”

"And people go for this?"

"Why wouldn't they?

So what do you think? Is that cheating?

I asked another contractor how he sizes boilers. He told me that he uses a combination of the boiler-manufacturer's catalog and the Ethan Allen Furniture catalog.

"How so?" I asked.

"Well, when I walk into the house, I look first at the couch. If it's a nice expensive couch, the sort that they sell at Ethan Allen, they're getting a six."

"Six sections?

"Yeah, they deserve the best."

"Isn't that a bit oversized for a house?" I asked.

"Americans love oversized stuff," he said.

Which, I suppose, is true. Cheating? Hmm.

Another day, another contractor, this one from a fuel-oil company. I'm in the passenger seat of his van. We're in New Jersey, stopped at a light. I'm looking at steam coming off the side of this ivy-covered, brick apartment building over there. "Check that out," I said.

"Yeah, that's our job," he says. "They have a service contract with us. Pay one price once a year and we have to show up for every dopey thing that goes wrong.

"What's with the steam?"

"That's not steam. It's just real hot water. We keep the aquastat high. Burns oil and keeps down the lack-of-heat complaints."

The light changes, we proceed down the street. He says nothing else. I can't stand it. "Why is there hot water coming out of the side of the building?"

"Oh, it's a hot-water job," he says. "They have those diverter tees that go to the radiaotors. You know the one's I'm talking about?"

"Sure. A one-pipe system."

"Well, I hate those systems. Air always gets stuck in the radiators and they keep calling us to bleed them. I hate bleeding radiators. I gotta move all that stuff out of the way. And those painted-shut convector covers? Fuggedaboutit. "

"Is there an air separator on the system?"

"Nah. It's an old building." He drives, says nothing.


"So I got sick of going back to that one apartment to bleed the radiator. I replaced the automatic air vent with a small fitting that goes to a small copper tube. I drilled a hole through the side of the building and stuck the tube into the ivy. Now the radiator bleeds itself 24/7, and the ivy seems to like it. They don't call anymore."

That cheating?

Another guy on a service call. This time he's in a basement, adjusting the oil burner. It's a single-family house. He has to go out to his truck a few times for this and that. The lady has a snarling Chihuahua that has the run of the house. She tells the service guy that the dog is okay, that he doesn't bite, that he likes to be in the basement and that he, the service guy, should just do his work and not bother the dog.

So the guy is sitting on an upended bucket, with a box wrench in his right hand and a part of the oil burner in his left. The dog is yipping, baring his teeth, quickly advancing and retreating in that annoying, little-dog way. The dog lunges and nips the service guy on the meaty part of his right hand. They both let out a yelp.

The dog backs off. Our guy gives him a look that should have nailed him to the wall, but it didn't. This dog has chops. He races in again with the teeth and our guy instinctively snaps the box wrench in his direction. "Get outta here!" he hisses.

"So what happened?" I ask.

"I accidentally hit him right between his big eyes. He went down for the count."



"So what did you do?"

"Well, he wouldn't fit in my toolbox, so I used the toolbox to sort of flatten him out."

"You're serious."

"Yeah. Then, once he was pretty flat, I put him inside my jacket, under my arm, and zipped up."

"Oh, my."

"And when I was done, I walked out with him."

"You say anything to the lady?"

"I told her I went out to the truck and I think the dog might have scooted out. Hard to keep track of a dog that size, you know?"

"What did you do with the body?" I asked.

"I drove about three blocks; rolled down the window and tossed him like a Frisbee. Done."

Cheating? Yeah, probably. 


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