Having been in the plumbing and hydronic heating service business for over 20 years, I’ve had more than my fair share of wacky service calls. In the course of doing business, you come across all kinds of crazy situations. Some funny, some not so funny. In every case, there was a lesson to be learned, and I want to share some of these experiences and lessons with you.

My Dog Never Bites

I’m sure every service tech has heard that line before. This job started out OK. My able-bodied assistant, Chris, and I were in the process of undoing the doings of some other plumber on a radiant heating system. The homeowner came down when we were about three–quarters through and informed us that she had to leave for an appointment.

She said, “I’ve never left anybody alone in my house with my dogs before, but they’ve never bitten anyone.” She had a black Labrador and a Golden Retriever. Both dogs had been very friendly toward us, so I told her no problem. She asked that when we leave we lock the dogs in the garage and not allow them to stay in the house.

“No problem.” Famous last words.

After we had completed the job, we were in her garage with the door from the garage to the house open. The Golden and the Lab were both in the garage. We stopped to admire the experimental hot air balloon gondolas the homeowner had in the garage.

When we turned to leave, the Lab was gone. I instructed Chris to wait for me in the truck and went inside to retrieve the black Lab. Once inside, it was dark and I could barely see. I heard the dog breathing, and faintly made out its outline lying on the warm floor. I said “C’mon boy, outside.” All of a sudden, this large black dog was baring his teeth, snarling, snapping, growling and lunging at my throat!! Fortunately, I had my wits about me enough to block the dog with my knee. He hit the floor snarling, and I hit the door running.

When I got to the other side of the door, I told him “You #%&*@#%!, You can just stay in there!” My assistant was standing in the garage laughing so hard he nearly wet his pants. I wanted to hit him too, but I restrained myself.

Lesson learned: Whenever the home owner says “My dog has never bitten anyone,” RUN, run as fast as you can!

Who Is Driving That Van?!

Shortly after I started my own business, I was called out to an emergency service call. “Water running everywhere,” the panicked voice on the other end of the phone said. “Be right there,” I said.

And with the fury of a fire engine on call, I left for the job in a cloud of dust, me and my constant companion, Nuclear Nick, my four–year–old Golden Retriever. When I arrived at the scene, I pulled up to the front door, slammed the van into park, told Nick to stay, rolled the drivers window down to avoid any problems with the SPCA, and ran inside. Once inside, I quickly diagnosed the problem, shut off the water, made a mental list of needed tools and materials and went back outside to gather the items I needed.

When I stepped out of the building and headed to the spot where I had left my van, I thought, “What the hell? Where did my van go?” It was nowhere to be found. Immediately all kinds of mental images of the thief who stole my truck started going through my head. Teenage punks, homeless bums?

As I was turning around to go inside and report the theft to the police, waaaaay down the parking lot, about 75 yards away, tightly wedged between a large portable shed and another apartment complex, I saw what appeared to be the back of my van.

I ran as fast as I could. When I got to the van, I couldn’t get in because there was maybe 6 inches clearance between the van and the two structures on either side. There in the front driver’s seat with a sheepish look on his face was good ol’ Nick. I ended up having to break out the back door window to gain access. I moved the van out of the precarious parking space and backed it up the hill to its original parking place. This time, I set the parking brake and told the van to “stay.”

An elderly building resident told me that after I left, “Your dog tried to follow you out the window. He had his body probably halfway out the window when he kicked it into neutral, and the van started rolling down the hill. He was still stuck halfway out the window, when he looked up and saw what was coming. He ducked back into the van just in time for the mirrors to get wiped off by the shed. He did a hell of a job parking it!”

I started laughing at the mental image of what must have been going through Nick’s mind when he looked up to see the shed coming at him.

Lesson learned: Regardless of the nature of the emergency, make sure that all safeties are in place prior to jumping into your job. I should have set the parking brake.

Excuse me sir, but your truck is on fire! Shortly after I began working for my father during my apprenticeship, he dispatched me to go to a supplier and retrieve a 100–pound bag of copper sulfate crystals. Root control, don’t ya’ know? Just a few days before this, I had convinced him that these fancy new squeeze ignitors for our acetylene torches were the cat’s meow. He relented, and I had one in the back of my service truck.

While I was on my way from the supplier to the shop, I noticed a car behind me that was flashing its headlights. I didn’t know why. I ignored it. I thought maybe they were flashing at someone else. Then they pulled up next to me and were honking and hanging out of the window of their car yelling something about a tire, or so I thought.

I thought maybe they were telling me that there was a problem with my tire, right? I pulled off the highway, stepped out of the truck and turned to walk to the back. Flames were shooting from the back of my truck!

The whole back end of my father’s open bed utility truck was on fire! Anything that could burn was on fire — including the recently purchased bag of copper sulfate crystals. I finally put the fire out, thanks to a trucker with an extinguisher.

It seems the fire started when the tank rolled over and partially opened the valve on the torch head. The next curve rolled it again, and this time the squeeze igniter lit the torch and burned that bag right off the copper sulfate crystals.

Ya’ think I didn’t have one heck of a time trying to explain to my dad why there was a large pile of blue green crystals in the back of his truck? Worse yet, why all the black ash from cardboard and paper. Spontaneous combustion? Lighting? Stupidity? My father had a good laugh on me.

Lesson learned: Always make sure that your torch is turned off, that the regulator and hose are bled down, and that the cylinder is stored in an upright secured position.

Why Yes, The Tank Is Full

Many of our mountain customers depend on propane for their fuel source. It is not uncommon for them to run out of gas if they don’t have a “top off” agreement with their fuel supplier. Under these circumstances, it gets expensive for us to drive to a “no heat” call only to find out that their tank is empty.

It is standard operating procedure to ask the customer what type of fuel they use, and if it is propane, we gently ask them if they’re sure they have fuel. In some cases, they don’t, problem fixed. But in some cases they do, and there is a valid need to send a technician out to investigate.

Recently, I was sent on one of these propane “no heat” calls. The customer assured me his tank was full. After numerous tries, I was unable to get his boiler to fire. I took out my usual instrumentation accouterment and began checking the vital signs of my cast-iron patient. I started by checking gas pressures; none to be found in the house. Working my way backwards, I checked for pressure at the house regulator; none found.

I finally went to the tank, opened the cover and looked at the gauge. Sure enough, it read 80 percent. “Stuck regulator on the tank,” I said to myself. I closed the tank outlet valve and made the necessary connections to my pressure gauge. I turned the tank back on. No pressure. “Hmmm,” I wondered out loud.

In a desperate try to find gas pressure, I shut off the tank again, loosened the connection between the tank valve and the regulator and cracked the main valve again. No pressure. This one had me baffled, and that doesn’t happen very often. “Hand me a hammer, Grass Hopper,” I said jokingly as I reached into my tool bucket. Tap tap, clink!

The fuel gauge dropped to zero. “Ahh, the ol’ stuck fuel gauge problem, eh?” The customer laughed, until I handed him the bill. He didn’t feel it was fair for me to charge him for a problem he couldn’t diagnose. I felt bad for him, but after all, it was his tank, not mine.

Lesson learned: Never trust someone else’s instrumentation. Look before you leap.

Why Yes, The Tank Is Full - Part II

As previously explained, we try to avoid unnecessary service calls when it relates to propane customers. I had another customer with similar problems, except that his boiler would light and run for about 30 seconds before shutting down.

Again, I started from the perceived problem, the boiler, and worked my way backwards toward the tank. On this one, the incoming manifold pressure was correct. That is correct until the boiler tried to fire. The pressure would slowly drop to nothing. “Defective regulator somewhere up stream,” I said to myself. I went outside to the house regulator and found the same scenario. I finally ended up at the tank.

When I went to shut off the main tank valve so that I could check the pressures there, the valve handle turned maybe 1/8 of a turn. The homeowner turned five or six shades of red and pink and looked real sheepish. It seems he was the one who had recently directed a local asphalt paving company working on his driveway to shut the tank off to avoid any problems during the flame intensive paving operations.

Lesson learned: If the tank gauge says it has fuel, tap it with a hammer, and then give the valve a twist to make sure it is on!

Boiler, What Boiler?

During my apprenticeship, I had the opportunity to learn the hydronics trade from one of my father’s friends, who was in the pipe fitter’s union. His name was Wayne, and man, could this guy fit pipe.

One of my father’s plumbing customers had purchased an old building in lower downtown, and wanted to install hot water heat in it. My dad knew nothing about hot water heat, so he called Wayne and asked him to take the job. Wayne agreed to do it at night if I would help him. I agreed.

The first night was fairly boring. Literally. We spent the evening drilling this old house full of holes in which to run pipes. At the end of the evening, Wayne took a material list of all the components we needed the next day to install the system. You know, stuff like pipe to fill the holes we had made, a boiler to fill the space in the basement and so on.

He said, “You go to the warehouse after work tomorrow night and pick this stuff up. I’ll meet you down here around 6 o’clock.” Sounded good to me.

The next day, I went to the warehouse and picked up the boiler, copper tubing, baseboard and all the usual items that went with installing a hot water heating system. As I was getting ready to get on to the main highway, I checked my load to make sure everything was secure. Everything checked out OK.

When I left the gravel on the side of the road to get on to the highway, I had to gun the truck to get it up to speed. I thought I heard something, but thought it was the load shifting in the back of the truck.

I made it to the jobsite, and backed up the truck toward Wayne. I heard him checking off items — “Baseboard, check. Expansion tank, check. Tubing, check. Boiler ... boiler? Where the hell is the boiler?” When I made it to the back of the truck, the short rusty thing we called a tailgate was gone, along with a 1,000–pound boiler! I could feel myself turning 20 shades of crimson.

“I can’t believe you lost the boiler!” Wayne shouted. I couldn’t believe it either. We called the warehouse; they said they were sure it was loaded on. I back-tracked from the jobsite to the warehouse, but no boiler.

When we made it to the warehouse, we asked one of the guys if he had heard from anyone. He said, “Yeah, some tow truck driver called. He said he had found a very heavy box with our name written all over it on the side of the road, and he wanted to know if it was worth something.” Whew, I was off the hook — or so I thought.

When we contacted the driver, he told us where we could find the boiler. When we went to pick it up, he met us. I’ve seen some burly men in my days, but this guy made most guys look small. It seems he had picked the boiler up by himself, and put it on the back of his tow truck.

He said something about hurting his back and needing compensation. I asked him if a bottle of Jack Daniels back medicine would fill the bill. He said he didn’t drink. Oh boy, I thought, this is gonna cost me. “How much you figger this here boiler is worth?” he said with a hillbilly smile.

“About a hundred dollars!” Wayne chimed in. “A hundred dollars!” I exclaimed. “A hundred dollars will do!” the boiler packing papa said. I paid up, and he picked up the boiler all by himself and put it on the back of our truck. That in itself was worth a hundred dollars.

Lesson learned: You can’t use too much caution with shifting loads. Chain them down if need be. Don’t leave anything to chance.


At one point in time, I was a highly paid mechanical systems consultant. I had three or four chains of hotels and property management firms that would put me on a jet airplane and send me to who knows where at the drop of a dime to fix or trouble-shoot who knows what. It was kind of exiting, not knowing from one day to the next which coast I might end up on.

One morning I got to work and the ominous red eye was blinking on the answering machine. I checked the message and found I was supposed to be at the airport in one hour headed to San Francisco for unknown reasons. So I went to the airport, flew into San Francisco International Airport and was met at my gate by the chief engineer of the hotel.

We headed for the hotel. On our way, I asked him the usual questions, like “Why am I here?” and “What is wrong with your property?” He said I was there because they had been through five different mechanical contractors trying to figure out what was wrong with their boiler, and nobody had been able to correct the problem. The problem, he explained, was that their “main boiler has a tendency to light kind of hard.”

Oh, I thought to myself, I’m here to relight the pilot on his boiler. No problemo!

When we got to his property, his able-bodied assistant met us at the back of the hotel. The boiler room it seems, was detached from the main building — it stood out in the back of the main hotel. It was a single-story building, approximately 20 ft. by 20 ft. As we walked up to the boiler room, I noticed the spot welds that usually hold the steel doors together had been recently broken.

“How long has this been going on?” I asked.

“Oh about two weeks,” the chief said.

I stepped back and could see heat waves coming from the boilers breaching stack, which meant it was running and had achieved ignition. A good thing, too.

We entered the door, and there was an ominous odor in the room. It kind of smelled like a mixture of burning dust and partially burnt natural gas. “She’s a runnin’ now, we’re OK,” the assistant said. About that time, the boiler shut off on its high limit. The chief and his assistant looked at each other with this kind of panicked look, then looked to me for guidance.

Right about then I heard the main gas valve open, and I instinctively began counting to myself. One 1,000, two 1,000, three 1,000, four 1,000, still no ignition. At this point, I turned and ran for the door, which was already occupied by the chief and his assistant. KABOOM!!! She lit off. It literally blew me and the two other gentlemen out the door and into the parking lot. We all ended up in a heap of humanity on the asphalt.

Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt. Further investigation found that the 5–million Btuh fire-breathing behemoth they called their boiler had been worked on by numerous unqualified persons. The main safety that ensures the low flame burner is lit before the larger main burner is turned on had been bypassed. Simple fix, but not without its share of thrills.

Lesson learned: Listen to what people say, and heed what they are trying to tell you. Always allow the subject to complete a full cycle before getting too close for comfort.


One day when I was on call for the “Putty Wagon,” I got a panicked call from one of my elderly customers. “Water is leakin’ from the main cut off valve,” she said.

When I got to her house, she met me at the door and immediately took me to the basement. Near the front wall of her house she had assembled the neatest arrangement of aluminum foil, duct tape and plastic buckets you’ve ever seen.

“See there, water is drippin’ off that handle.” I looked closely at the valve and saw what appeared to be a small stream of water emanating from the packing gland. “Oh, no problem, just needs the packing gland tightened down,” I said with a smile. “No Charge!”

“Oh, goody!” she replied.

I pulled my trusty water pump pliers from my back pocket, wrapped it around the packing gland and gave it a twist. SNAP — KASPLOOSH.

I twisted the valve right off of the paper thin copper water service. There I stood, with the main shut off valve in my hand and this look of extreme stupidity on my face. “What happened?” she yelled over the roar of an uncapped 3/4–inch water service. “I can’t tell you right now!” I said as I was running for the stairs.

Fortunately, my street key was within easy reach, and I was able to turn the water off at the meter pit within minutes. On my way back downstairs, I thought how am I going to explain this one to the boss. The only damage other than a wet carpet was my drowned ego and young know-it-all apprentice attitude. The customer understood, my boss didn’t. I wasn’t going to even charge her for tightening the packing gland.

Lesson learned: Never quote a price before you have fully diagnosed the problem — and never give your work away, regardless of the situation. As it ends up, I repaired the main for free but explained to the customer that she needed to save her money for a new water service.

Glug, Glug, Glug

Shortly after I began working with my dad, we got a call of numerous freeze breaks in a brand new burger restaurant. We were in the grips of an extremely slow moving arctic cold front — and any and all vulnerable water lines were showing their dislike to the cold.

Upon arrival, we found the manager had called the water department to turn off the water due to the numerous breaks. He showed us blue prints for the building, which showed a 6–inch fire main with an 1-1/2–inch potable tap coming off before the building. “Never seen anyone do it that way around here,” my father said. What did I know, I was just a runny nosed punk apprentice at that point.

In any case, it was determined that the water was off, so we started into our work. Shortly after we began, we noticed the fire protection lines were also frozen and broken. We recommended the manager call in additional help. We had our hands full with the plumbing. He called one of our associates.

When the sprinkler fitters showed up, I showed them the drawing that had been presented to me. The fitter said, “I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that around here.” He opened the outdoor access to the sprinkler closet and found that the riser/flow switch tree had been heavily damaged by the freeze. He began disassembling the tree and brought in a space heater to thaw out the pipes. He said he needed to go downtown and pick up the replacement valves, and would be back within the hour.

I stayed up in the ceiling cutting and repairing freeze burst lines. All of a sudden I hear KLUNK — KAWHOOOSSSHHH and there was water coming from every opening in the fire protection lines. I screamed at the top of my lungs, “SHUT IT OFF! SHUT IT OFF!”

The manager pops his head up into the access hole to the attic and said, “You better come down here quick, I think we have a problem!” I scurried down the ladder just in time to see a 1–foot wave of water coming in the back door of the restaurant.

“Holy cow, where’s all that water coming from?” I yelled. “It’s coming from the closet in the back of the building!” one of the employees said. I looked around the corner and saw a couple of microwave ovens and cases of toilet paper and paper towels surfing out of the closet into the parking lot. What a mess! Did you ever wonder what a 6–inch uncapped fire main looks like in a 4 ft. by 4 ft. closet? It’s not a pretty site.

I called the water department and requested an emergency water shut off. They responded immediately — and shut off the fire main, which was separate from the potable water tap. It seems that the plans were drawn in another state, and Denver does not allow combined mains. The fire protection main had never been shut off, other than by the ice plug in the mechanical closet.

Lesson learned: Never trust a set of blue prints that don’t look right. Listen to your instincts and look before you leap.

Don't Shoot, I'm Just The Plumber!

Shortly after I received my journeyman’s license, my father’s company took on the gargantuan task of converting some 20–year–old apartments into condominiums. This meant all new fixtures throughout. It also meant people selling units while we were in the process of rehabbing the sites.

At the time, I had a set of keys to every unit on site. Near the end of the project, units began filling with occupants and it became more and more difficult to gain access. We coordinated with the property management company to schedule time in the occupied units.

One early morning, I scheduled access into one unit in order to work on waste and overflow of the bath tub in the unit next to it. I knocked on the door of the unit I needed to gain access to. No answer. I tried again just to be sure. Still no answer. So I used my key to let myself in. The tub access was in the front living room closet. I climbed in, took off the access panel and started working, replacing the waste and overflow. I had been there for around five minutes when I heard an unmistakable sound. SLINK-KACHINK!

“Oh man,” I thought. “That sounded like the slide action of a shot gun!”

I turned around and found myself staring down a long barrel with a bore the size of the Eisenhauer tunnel. “Don’t shoot sir, I’m just the plumber!” I claimed.

“Yeah, and I’m the King of Prussia,” the gentleman on the controlling end of the shotgun said. “I’ve already called the cops, so you just sit tight. OK?”

I knew this man was serious and concurred. “OK, sir,” I said.

Shortly there after, the cops showed up and rescued me. It seems the gentleman drove trucks on the road for a living, and had come in at 4:00 in the morning. Consequently, no one told him I was going to be in his unit that morning. He said he awoke to see two legs sticking out of his front closet and thought I was trying to break into the unit next to his.

Needless to say, I was able to clear my name in no time and get back to the business at hand. I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a shot gun barrel before, but it’s enough to make you evacuate your bladder.

Lesson learned: Even though due diligence has been performed, It’s still a good idea to yell something like “Hello! Anybody home!” prior to entering a potentially occupied dwelling. Use caution when entering an occupied unit early in the morning. And always carry a spare set of clean underwear with you at all times.