Monday, February 18, 2008

A Plumber Who Preys on the Naive

Saturday evening I walked downstairs to do some laundry and stepped into a pool of water. My focus then turned to see water spewing out the relief valve at the top of my water heater. I quickly assessed the situation and saw the shut off valve in the pipe leading to the water heater. I turned it off and that stopped the water from spewing. Then I grabbed my steam cleaner and started soaking up the water. As I was doing so, I thought, “Great! This just tops off a day that has already been full of negative energy.”

Once I got the situation under control I called a neighbor and asked for a recommendation for a plumber. Unfortunately, that plumber doesn’t work after hours, so I had to resort to the yellow pages. I had to call about 5 plumbers before I found one that worked on Saturday evening. The Plumbing Connection, whose tagline says, “Happy Today or You Don’t Pay”, said they could be here in about 90 minutes.

The plumber arrived as promised and I escorted him to the basement. He walked over to the water heater, read the tag on the front, then looked at me and said, “Is there a place we can sit down and talk?”. OK .. this is where my radar goes off and says this guy is gonna try to scam me. We sit down and he starts his “sales pitch” trying to convince me that his company is like no other and he’s my best friend. Of course, I wasn’t buying into this and the more my body language showed I was disgusted, the more he kept talking trying to win me over.

After about 5 minutes I couldn’t take it anymore. I interrupted him and said, “Look, I feel like I’m getting scammed right now. Get to the point and tell me what’s wrong and what’s it gonna cost me to get it fixed. This is where he pulls out a form and asks me to sign next to the part that says I agree to pay $99 for a diagnostic service fee. “No, I’m not signing anything .. you haven’t diagnosed anything yet.” He and I went back and forth about 4 or 5 times on this issue, but I held firm on my stance. I’m not signing anything. The guy hasn’t even picked up a wrench or touched my water heater. How can he claim he’s “diagnosed” anything?

Now I’m really disgusted .. and he’s frustrated that I’m not turning out to be the easy target he hoped. He then unfolded the rest of the form and exposed a list numbered from 10 down to 1. Each item had a paragraph describing a service and a price, with the 10 being the highest price around $1000-$1200. He used his pen and slowly scanned down the list trying to determine how much he could bilk me for. He stopped at number 6, circled a price, and then realized that my body language was saying, “No way!” Then he quickly back peddled and said, “Oh, that’s wrong”, as he crossed it out and continued scanning down the page and circled number 4.

He then began to tell me that he could replace the relief valve, which is a “level 4” service that costs $199. Of course, this is on top of the $99 he wants to charge me for coming to the house and diagnosing the problem. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up right about now. “However”, he says, “I don’t think that will fix your problem. You need a new water heater.”

This is where I stood up, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Get out of my house!” He was in shock. How could I order him to leave? He hasn’t fixed anything yet. I need him. I’m just a woman. I can’t fix this on my own. I have to let him fix this. He tried to salvage this ordeal but I wouldn’t let him continue talking and I again ordered him to leave my house. He then said, “OK. Just pay me the $99 and I’ll leave.”

Um … not a chance pal. I again looked him in the eye and told him, “There’s no way I’m paying you a dime to come into my house and try to scam me. Get out!” He stomped into the other room, grabbed his tools, and started walking up the stairs. But he tried one more time to salvage this service call. He tried to explain to me that he read the tag to see how old my water heater was. He then tried to explain that water heaters start leaking around 10 years old and mine is older than that. Once again, I cut him off, snapped my fingers and pointed to the top of the stairs and ordered him out. He stormed out.

I have no tolerance for people trying to scam me. This guy had no intentions of ever trying to fix my water heater. He walked into my house will full intentions of selling me a brand new water heater which I’m sure would have been the “Level 1” price of over $1000. This guy preys on the na├»ve and probably scams women and older people all the time. It’s disgusting.

In the morning I made a few more phone calls to my stepdad and dad for some advice. They both seemed to think I could handle this myself. After all, I have tools and I know how to use them! I’ve repaired electrical stuff, I ran cable through my house, I’ve done a lot of remodeling work, and I even built a two-story shed. So I grabbed a bucket and started draining the water heater hoping that maybe there was some crud in the tank that was causing a problem. Nope .. all the water was a clear as could be.

Okay, on to plan B. I grabbed a wrench, took off the relief valve, and drove to Lowe’s to get a new one. Then I came back home, installed the new valve, and turned on the shut off valve so the tank would fill back up with water. Once filled, I lit the pilot, and stood back and crossed my fingers. Success!! The water heated and when it hit the target temperature, the flames turned off. No water spewed out the top!

• Having a crooked plumber walk through my door … $99
• Having a crooked plumber fix a relief valve … $200
• Having a crooked plumber sell me something I didn’t need … over $1000
• Fixing it myself with a $13 part … Priceless!


Rick Schummer said...

Priceless for sure!

Kevin Cully said...

That rocks Cathy!

Recently my microwave conked out. Dead. A new one costs $300+. My wife and I poured through the manuals and tech specifications. I popped off the panel, removed the fuse, called to the local hardware store. They carried a "Microwave ceramic fuse" that exactly matched the specifications of my fuse. $5. It's been working for over a month now. Sometimes, it pays to roll up the sleeves and take a second look at whether something can be fixed.

Steve Wiley said...

Wow. Good for you! I had a similar experience with one of my outside hose valves. It would leak real bad where the hose connected to the shutoff valve and it was annoying causing long-term damage to the siding. My Dad and I weren't able to unscrew the shutoff valve because it was welded on to the pipe (thanks to some brilliant-minded contractor in 1989, I'm sure). So I called out a plumber to see what they could do. They wanted to tear into the wall (from the INSIDE of the house) in order to replace the shutoff valve. That would have cost over $300. The guy handed me a clipboard and pin to sign an authorization form for that. I refused. The next weekend I was able to wrestle off the backflow converter from the valve (after getting a new pipe wrench). I went to Home Depot and got a new one for $4. I screwed it on the valve as tight as I could and VOILA! Not one drop of a leak!

It infuriates me that these kinds of companies get away with that kind of service. To not even take a closer look and even TRY turning on the hose to see where it leaks is inexplicable. I mean, I know very little when it comes to plumbing and I came to the correct conclusion. I am sure the employees of these companies are trained to offer the most expensive solutions.

Doug Hennig said...

The plumber was right about one thing: most water heaters are only good for around 10 years. I've had some last shorter, some longer, but 10 years is about average. Unfortunately, you don't know when your's is done until it lets go and you again have a ton of water to clean up

Ceil said...

Way to go Cathy! You've got the power tools to back up your convictions... and you know how to wield them.

Rob Spangler said...

But when it comes to water heaters, it is true that they generally last about 10 years(mine is at 15 years and leaks a little), but I see no reason why that opinion or fact or whatever you may want to call it... should cost 99 bucks.

I can't imagine, on my least scrupulous day, looking at somebody's broken computer, telling them "it's broken cuz it's old. There, I just 'diagnosed' your problem. Give me 100 bucks."

If I were to do the same thing but only charge 50 bucks, would that make me a saint or what? :)

It's amazing these days how much some folks want to charge to be completely unhelpful.

In the same tradition, here's a bit of knowledge that's good to know: unlike most standard garage mechanics, service writers at dealerships get commission on everything they talk you into having done. So, while most garages will probably put some effort out there to get you to replace parts that probably aren't necessary, a dealership service writer has a personal interest in doing so.

I know this, cuz I sold cars at a dealership for about 3 months. While there were generally nice people there that I worked with, it seemed like there was a cultural tradition there that involved trying to hose people; not customers necessarily, but fellow employees.

In my case, they would put a used car out on the lot, I would sell it, THEN the garage would "inspect" it, find a bunch of stuff they "had to fix", which would then be billed to the profit of the sale, which of course, would go against my commission.

Apparently they thought I was stupid, because they would then say, "hey, we're out that money, too."... ummmm... no... the money was taken from the profit from the car, directly to the service department. The dealership gets the money either way, they just don't have to pay ME as much for the sale.

Anyhoo... this has become a blog in itself... back to work for me...