How can I be right and wrong at the same time?

Posted on 03. Jun, 2009 by in Ethics, Heating and Air-Conditioning

How can I be right and wrong at the same time?

It’s easy: make an unqualified promise.

Here’s my story

Last summer I inspected a retirement-type attached home. It was 3 years old and had been vacant for about a year. This was an easy inspection in most ways-the general quality of workmanship and materials was above average and the dwelling was a single story on slab-no crawl spaces or 2nd floor to inspect.

Not THAT easy; it had a complex truss system in the 150F attic. I exited the attic sweaty and tired. I had trouble getting gas to flow from a distant meter. After getting the range and gas logs going I went back to the attic to check the furnace. After an additional 15 miserable hot and sweaty minutes waiting for the gas to get to the furnace I gave up and noted on my report that I did not verify the furnace was working but that it appeared to be in good condition.

My clients, an older couple, insisted that I return to the property and check the furnace.
I certainly did NOT want to return to the property: it was out of my way and I was having a particularly busy week. I pointed out that I was not required to verify operation: I had exercised due diligence in trying to operate the furnace using normal controls. Still they insisted. So I wrote them a letter stating that I would pay for any servicing required. Wrong!

The matter seemed settled until I received a demand letter in December. It was from the wife: her husband had passed away in late summer and the furnace was, according to her letter and documentation from a well-known HVAC company, defective. The HVAC company had repaired the furnace and stated that there was a strong indication further expensive repairs (replacing the heat exchanger) might be needed.

This was the first time in 23 years in the business that I had taken a chance like this; a seeming validation of Murphy’s Law.

I contacted my trusted HVAC contractor and set up a meeting at the house. He inspected the furnace and found no defects. His opinion on the previous repairs, charges and recommendations of the first HVAC contractor indicated that the work was:
1. Incredibly overpriced
2. The possibility that the “defective” part had failed were about 10,000 to 1
3. There was nothing wrong with the heat exchanger

What he did not say (he is a gentleman) and what was readily apparent to both of us was that the homeowner was wrong AND that she was not thinking clearly. This poor woman had lost her husband, was in a new environment and had a furnace she was not familiar with. When the induced draft burners kick in there is a roaring sound as the flames are drawn into the heat exchanger. She assumed this meant she had a defective furnace. She was quite insistent on this point. My HVAC contractor tried to explain to her that this sound was normal, to no avail.

What upset me the most (pissed-off is a more apt characterization) about this affair was the willingness of the original HVAC contractor to profit at the expense of his client, with MY money. My promise to pay for repairs only made it easier for him to justify his greed.

Sure, I could have refused to pay. After all I was not notified of the original problem and my visit indicated no defects, especially with the heat exchanger. In hindsight I should have qualified my letter by saying they had to call me first. But the owner had just lost her husband and was “confused”. She was an easy mark for what I considered to be an ethically-challenged repairman. Besides, a promise is a promise and refusing to pay would probably have cost me more over the long term.

Was I right about the furnace being in good condition?

Was I wrong making and unqualified promise?

Yes, and yes.

The name of the first HVAC company? I’m not telling

The second? George Gary Mechanical Design

Caveat Emptor,

Dan

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