It is more difficult to spot these customers because they look so normal - at first.



You probably realize some of your customers are just plain nuts, and others will take a chance on dying if it means they can save a few bucks on that repair or installation. You probably also have the good sense to fire these customers and tell them to lose your phone number forever.

But then there are the customers who somehow turn nuts after you’ve done the work for them, and it’s more difficult to spot these people. They look so normal at first. They really do.

What follows is a letter from my friend, John Cataneo, who, along with his brother David, runs Gateway Plumbing & Heating in New York City. I would have John or David work in my own house and I would trust either man with the health of my family. They are professionals and they are grown-ups.

John sent this letter to a certain boiler company:



“My company was called on Saturday to troubleshoot a three-year-old, gas-fired steam boiler that had various installation deficiencies. In this instance, my technician found the boiler had gone off due to a tripped, blocked-vent spill switch.

“He reactivated the switch and found flue spillage at an adjacent water heater. The fact that the boiler’s spill switch had activated was a clear indication that the flue leading from the boiler itself was experiencing at least intermittent carbon monoxide spillage into the home.

“My technician then replaced the switch in its factory-determined location for two reasons: First, to eliminate it as a source of failure; and second, because, as a matter of policy, we replace some safety devices that have cycled through multiple activations.

“The tech then advised the client that if this were to happen again, a qualified chimney contractor should be contracted to at least clean and inspect the chimney and venting system, and determine the cause of failure.

“When the system failed again the following morning, the client phoned to say she had called a second contractor, who claimed the chimney was functional, and who then moved the spill switch to a ‘better’ location outside the jacket, which is not at the original factory-determined placement. I called the second contractor and he told me the original location was ‘right where carbon monoxide comes out,’ and that was his reason for moving the switch.

“The client requests reimbursement of the second contractor’s $75 fee for fixing my company’s ‘error.’

“We request a photograph of the proper placement for the device in this boiler and a brief description explaining why this location is best for the application. The picture in the manual is too close to show relative location and does not help in this instance.

“We also request a statement explaining the consequences of moving the device.

“Of course money is not the issue here, but I do hope you understand our position.”


Good letter, right? I mean who wouldn’t want to place a safety control where the carbon monoxide comes out? That just might save your life.

I sat with that thought for a while, considering the nature of some human beings. I also thought about Charles Darwin. Some customers are just plain nuts.

It wasn’t long before John got a reply from an employee at the boiler manufacturer and this is what he wrote:


“John, you are 100% correct in all your statements and actions. I am passing this over to my engineer because this is an obvious safety hazard! Also, there is currently no warranty or liability for performance on this boiler as it has been altered from its original manufactured condition. Movement of any device, especially a safety device, places all liability squarely on the shoulders of Contractor No. 2. I am aware of this and have properly recorded the model and serial number of the boiler in question. I also will retain a copy of this correspondence as a record of your actions concerning this boiler. I thank-you for vigilance and dedication to your trade.”


And that’s what a good contractor and a good boiler manufacturer do together. But before we move on, I’d like you to consider Contractor No. 2, who is probably out there working right now for customers such as the one in John’s letter. He will always find work because, in this country, there’s an ass for every seat, and people who are just plain nuts should find each other. It’s only right.

Haunted radiators

This next story has one foot in Sweet and the other in Just Plain Nuts. It begins with a young couple who have two daughters. The couple named their daughters Muffin and Squeaker. Seriously.

Why would you do that to a kid? I haven’t heard names like that since the Manson family went to the slammer.

OK, and since Michael Jackson.

Anyway, this happy family lives in a 100-year-old, steam-heated apartment building. When the heat comes on, the radiators make some noise. This isn’t normal for steam, and you can make the noises go away if you’re a heating professional, but the people working in Muffin and Squeaker’s building don’t seem to be very professional, so we now have two little girls with regrettable names who are terrified of their radiator.

So Mom and Dad took a large stuffed teddy bear and placed it on the floor in front of the radiator. They told the bear to growl at the radiator. The bear just stared at the old cast iron with button eyes.

They gave Muffin and Squeaker more stuffed bears to keep in their cribs to help out, just in case the steam radiator managed to kick the other bear’s butt. That’s the Sweet part.

Here comes the Just Plain Nuts part.

Rather than get a heating professional in there to make the noise go away once and for all, and probably lower their fuel bills while he was at it, the parents decided to consult a child psychologist to see if what they did was a good thing for Muffin and Squeaker. The psychologist assured them they had done just the right thing, and the stuffed bears would help the girls overcome their fear of the hissing radiator air vent and the clanging of water hammer.

So we now have a psychologist who specializes in heating disorders.

Somewhere in America, there are kids who will grow to become heating professionals. Some of these future heating professionals will have Muffin and Squeaker as their customers.

How do you think that’s going to go? 

Speaking of radiators and Just Plain Nuts, last Halloween there was a story on the news about Scary Mary at Elmira College in upstate New York. Students think Scary Mary haunts Tompkins Hall, which has been on the campus since 1928. The students heard this tale from other students, who have passed it down through the decades.

I watched a news video about it and noticed that Tompkins Hall has a steam system with wall-hung, Peerless radiators. In the video, the students explain that when walking down the hall, a person will often hear noises coming from those radiators. Of course, this couldn’t possibly be water hammer. It is, undoubtedly, Scary Mary.

Keep in mind these are college students, and they just may be your customers in the years ahead.

Speaking of college students, at the same time I was learning about Scary Mary, I spotted a couple of stories from the University of Michigan. The first was about a student competition to turn off the lights to save energy. They’re using that Kill-A-Watt device to do this. Good stuff, right? Hey, this is the future of America we’re talking about here.

Right next to this story in The Michigan Review was a story about how some of the dormitory rooms are very overheated, especially dorms with steam heat.

So what do the energy-conscious students do to regulate the temperature? They use the double-hung thermostat.

But wait, it gets better. Carina Easley-Appleyard is co-educational chair of Kill-a-Watt, that new eco-friendly organization that focuses on cutting energy costs in residential halls. When asked about the open-windows situation, she said, “We encourage residential hall students to not only open their window if it is too hot in their dorm or hall, but also to complain to someone at the Community Center desk so the problem doesn’t continue.”

So turn off the lights, but open the windows when it gets hot. Make sure you tell someone in charge you did that.

How do you think that’s going to go?

Links