The Water Line Insurance Scam

This scam has been circulating in Memphis for a while.  Today I got another postcard in the mail, advertising it.  Customers have asked me about it.

The ad begins with the polysyllabic trigger word “failing infrastructure,” as though America is crumbling from the shorelines inward.  All they’re referring to is that your plumbing might break, duh!  Even people who voted wrong in the last presidential election probably know that already.  You can figure it out by studying the trucks that go around in your city.  Do you see any with decals indicating that the driver is a plumber?  Well, just a little higher-level thinking will tip you off that he probably makes his living fixing broken plumbing.  It happens.

Next revelation: repairs cost money.  I will just leave it at that.

Punchline: these postcard-mailing bloodsuckers will sell you an insurance policy that says they will cover the cost of the repair or replacement if your water service line has an emergency.

As with all insurance, the question is “What are the odds?”  Quite obviously, the company cannot make money unless the odds are in their favor.  In this case, however, the game is rigged; it isn’t even fair.  The odds of anybody needing this coverage are pathetically small.  Your water line is fine!  Save your $60/year in a jar somewhere for when you really need a plumber.

This company, by the way, is just one more “home warranty” provider and the water line scare is a low-cost gateway for them you upsell you later.  I mean, if you’re going to cover your water line, then why would you leave your air conditioning system at risk?  And your indoor plumbing and drains?  And your appliances?  And your computer?  And . . . and . . . and . . . .

Home warranties are a bad deal.  They’re overpriced and usually the service techs they use leave a lot to be desired.  Many customers have told me of their bad experiences with home warranty companies.  Yes, sometimes they’re a godsend and sometimes people hit a jackpot at the casino.  I recommend neither.


Another Customer Review

This came today via a text message:

I just wanted to thank you for doing such a great job fixing our plumbing issues. We’ve been suffering with that shower for years because I was told they needed to tear open the wall in order to fix it. I’m so thankful to have found someone knowledgeable AND honest. Thanks again for your work. We have a toilet that might be leaking from underneath so I’m sure we’ll be using you again! 🙂

It isn’t hard to understand how to be a super hero in the service business.  If you just show up on time and keep your word, you’re already 90% there.  Admittedly, keeping your word isn’t always easy.  Sometimes it can even cost you money.  When Proverbs 15:4 describes those who are accepted by God, it includes “He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not.”  It’s a rare trait.

In my opinion, the remaining 10% of being a super hero is mostly desire.  For some reason, I want to help people.  That makes me go out at night when I’d rather stay home, keep trying to find a solution when I’d rather give up, take extra time on a job when I’m already losing my shirt.

As I said, it isn’t hard to understand.  As a comparison, it isn’t hard to understand how to be slender: except in cases of medical abnormality, it’s just diet and exercise.  Yet, everybody’s still fat.  Likewise, plumbing companies struggle to stay afloat and try to compensate for their failure with expensive advertising and rapacious pricing and overselling.  Their customers hate them, but they keep using them (unless they discover me) because, like abused children, they think that’s just they way the world is.


Sewer Replacement Scams

“They told me they need to dig up my sewer and replace it.”  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve gone through this with a homeowner, but it must have been scores.  Ninety percent of the time I’ve found it to be a scam.

The Electric Roto-Rooter Machine was invented during the Depression so that people would be able to unstop a clogged sewer “without putting a GRAVE in your yard” (and they would display a picture of a trench going through a yard).  Nowadays there  are many makes of sewer machines in addition to the ones made by Roto-Rooter, but they all do the same thing: a cable with blades on its end is pushed through the sewer pipe to cut up the stoppage so that it can be washed away or, in some cases, retrieved.  If the machine simply can’t accomplish the task, then surgery is necessary.

Why might a machine fail?  To tell the truth, a lot of the time it is incompetence on the part of the technician.  It is also possible for a root stoppage to just be impervious.  (This is very rare in Memphis.)  Most of the time it is a problem with the pipe: broken, caved in, or separated and displaced.  The tech should be able to show the homeowner the evidence in the form of mud caked up on the blades, indicating that the blades have left the pipe and gone into the surrounding soil.

Unfortunately, we have a tool for larceny that was unavailable when I began cleaning drains in 1990: The Camera.  Running a camera down a sewer line is roughly analogous to showing a car owner the metal filings from his transmission.  (Such filings are normal, not proof that the transmission needs replacing.)  A homeowner is made to think that the camera is a benevolent gesture on the part of the plumbing company for more precise diagnosis.  Au contraire, mon sewer, plumbing companies know that it is really a sales tool.

When a plumbing company gets a call for a clogged sewer, everybody’s ears go ka-ching!  The camera goes into the van and the raid is underway.  At the house, the tech runs a sewer machine and cleans the drain (hopefully he does a good job), then he offers to run The Camera at no extra charge.  The customer watches the little TV screen during the performance.

Have you ever seen the security camera recordings of a robbery at the Quick Stop?  They’re usually pathetic.  You can clearly see that the robber has two arms, two legs, etc., and may be black or hispanic, or maybe not.  Sewer camera results tend to be like that.  Techs like it that way.  Why?  Because they aren’t trying to learn something, they’re trying to sell something.

Many of my customers have asked me “should I get a camera to look down the pipe for problems?”  Ordinarily my response is “I got my blades all the way through and back.  If there were a problem, I would have felt it.”  When I’ve hit mud (a sad day) and they ask the same question, the answer is “we already know it’s broken; otherwise I couldn’t dig into mud.  The camera won’t add any useful info.”  A good drain tech basically NEVER needs a camera.  There are exceptions, but they’re rare.

A tech trying to sell an unnecessary sewer replacement, however, ALWAYS needs a camera.  It may not provide him with any useful information, but it can certainly bamboozle a customer.

As the camera goes down the line, the customer sees what looks like a tunnel.  It’s rather blurry and indistinct, but clear enough for the salesman’s purposes.  They come to a place where some stringy roots are hanging down.  “Oh, you see that?  The roots have penetrated your line!”  They come to some irregularity.  “Yep, it’s broken there.  You see that right there?”  They come to some water lying in the pipe.  “You got a belly in the line.  It’s washed away underneath and is sinking.”  They come to a joint where the stub ends of some roots are visible.  “Oh, no — more roots.  I can’t believe it; they’ve penetrated everywhere.”  Finally the diagnosis is complete:

Mr. Smith, this line just needs replaced.  You got roots coming in everywhere and it’s just gonna get worse.  It’s breaking, it’s sinking down.  I mean, my God, it’s sixty years old.  Every time we come out it’s costing you $200.  You’d just as well as to go ahead on and replace it now and cut your losses.  This oughta cost  seventy two fifty, but we’re slow this week and I know I can talk the boss down to sixty five hunnerd if you’ll do it this week.  And we even give a senior discount on top of that.

Roots are in nearly every sewer line.  It’s no big deal. Call me when the sewer clogs up every 18-24 months and I’ll shave ’em out for $100-$150.  Most sewer lines have minor “bellies” where they’ve settled and sagged; ignore them.  Broken line?  If the blades still pass through, that line might be fine for another twenty years.  Age?  It’s just a number.  There are sewer pipes in Memphis that have worked fine for a hundred years.  Price?  Even after their phony discounts, these bandits are usually 50% higher than I.  (If I’m charging $4,000, they’re charging $6,000.)

Last week I replaced a sewer for $4,500, and that was underpriced a little.  (You never really know what kinds of problems you’ll encounter when you undertake a project like this.)  The owner called me originally because another company had said the line needed replacing.  I cabled the line and found no problem.  But this house was for sale and the buyer insisted on the sewer being replaced first.  Great expense, thanks to The Camera and a plumbing company without a conscience.


A Customer Review

A lady needed a plumber and her daughter found my listing on Yelp.  She was so pleased with my work, she wrote up a rave review for me.  In fact, the review was so glowing, Yelp canned it!  They have algorithms to try to weed out phony reviews (good luck with that!)

Well, since I know it’s genuine, I’ll go ahead and publish it here 🙂

I was so impressed with the level of professionalism and conscientiousness of Mr. Kevan Barley of Barley Services.  I was desperate with a plumbing issue, and I had guests in town during the holidays.  I called Mr. Barley and he came promptly and worked diligently until the problem was solved.  He was also very friendly, personable and knowledgeable of plumbing situations, and he gave me a pretty accurate estimate of the cost of the work when I described my situation to him over the phone.  His price was very fair and reasonable, considering that he worked outdoors in the rain and after dark until the work was finished.  I didn’t skip a beat with entertaining my guests, and he turned a potentially awkward situation into an easy fix.  My guests were not inconvenienced in any way.  I appreciate his diligence and personal attention in solving my problem, and I will definitely call him again and refer him to ALL of my friends and neighbors.  If you have any plumbing issues, I recommend that you call Mr. Barley first.  He will be fair, reasonable and prompt.


Freeze & Burst: the Short Tutorial

The arctic temperatures continue marauding through Memphis and people’s pipes continue to freeze and burst.  And I continue to hear about it.

Some things cannot be helped.  If  a meteorite comes through your roof and smashes your toilet — well, we all have days like that.

On the other hand, there are things you can do to protect your pipes from freezing and bursting.

First: insulate them.  I got to one home and found the copper icemaker supply line running across the attic with no insulation until it descended into the ceiling over the refrigerator.  After I repaired it, I took a roll of insulation which obviously had lain up there for decades and I spread it over the length of copper tube from beginning to end.  Anybody could have done that before the freeze.  It would have saved thousands of dollars in flood damage.

Second: block the air vents, by which I mean the little windows around the foundation (if the house is on a crawl space) and the gable louvers.  Often I will see all of the pipes under a house doing just fine except for the ones near an open vent.  The ground has heat in it and it radiates under the house.  If the vents are closed up, it helps to keep that heat in.  Also, the moving air has greater ability to freeze a pipe.

Third: keep things warm when a pipe is near an outside wall.  I saw a home where the heating system was poor, so they closed off a bathroom, trying to heat the rest of the house.  Without the indoor heat to help, the pipes in the bathroom wall froze & burst.  This is a common problem in a laundry room because they’re often located in an out-of-the-way spot that, for the same reasons, isn’t heated.

Fourth: add some heat.  You have to be  careful with this step lest you burn something, but adding heat is the only way that some situations will stay thawed.  A halogen work light puts out a lot of heat.  In a somewhat closed-off space, a 60 watt light bulb can make all the difference in the world.  (Think of the space behind a washing machine with, perhaps, some cardboard lying atop it.)  If the attic vents are closed off completely, opening the door to the attic will allow heat in from the house.

Fifth: leave each faucet (except for the outside hose bibbs) running.  Everybody knows this trick; by continually replacing the cooling water with warmer water from underground, the pipe doesn’t freeze.  (If you read some expert talking about a “piston effect,” ignore him.)  A stream as big as a matchstick will do the trick.  For the outside faucets, just insulate them well.  Those styrofoam covers work well, but you can also wrap the faucet with heavy terrycloth or even newspaper, which is a great insulator, albeit short-lived.

Last of all, everybody needs to know how he will shut off his water if something goes wrong one day.  There are a lot of clueless people wandering through life, but you don’t have to be one of them.   Does your house have a shutoff in it?  They’re usually about a foot off the floor in a cabinet or closet.  Is yours in the basement?  The older homes in Memphis (pre-1980 or so) must be shut off at the meter by the street.  Such folks are doomed without a meter key.


When a self-governing people confer upon their government the power to take from some and give to others, the process will not stop until the last bone of the last taxpayer is picked bare.


The Market for Plumbers

The state of “the trades” in this generation, and probably the previous one as well, is abysmal. There’s still room for more decline, to be sure, but that’s a small consolation. Little education (albeit much indoctrination) takes place in grades K-12, so we’ve developed this idea that everybody should go to college. That system of mass re-education and its resultant lifetime of student loan debt scoops up most of the young people and convinces them that they should be able to sit at a computer and make $50k. Who fixes the plumbing?

Generally, the leftovers.

It is not my intention to denigrate any capable individual; I am one and I’ve met others. But bright and capable students these days seldom dream of leaving high school and working with their hands, learning a trade, and building a business from it. One of my bosses, who had been hiring plumbers for years, told me quite sincerely (with acknowledged hyperbole) “all plumbers are either drunks, dopeheads, or lazy.” Students who are otherwise will ordinarily avoid the trades.

Over time, this sorting process has produced a plumbing industry where plumbers mistreat customers (to put it mildly). Small wonder, then, if plumbing companies mistreat plumbers.

Every so often I look around and see what the plumbing companies are up to so that I can warn my customers. I got to looking at ads on Craigslist. Many companies are seeking plumbers to hire. Like lonesome singles in the “Personals” ads, they really try to sound adorable:

See what can be yours:
Top Pay & Bonus Plans
Paid Vacations
Flexible Schedules
Drug free work environment
Steady work throughout the year
Paid training on-site and off site
Best equipped/designed trucks in the country
Full Benefits: Medical, Dental, Vision, Prescription, & life insurance

I began comparing this luscious beauty with what I already have at home (being a sole proprietor) and I saw that all I lack is “paid training.” (When I read the manufacturer’s websites on new products, I have to do it on my own time.) I also happen to know that this company charges $1,500 for a job that I charge $700 for.

This one made me smile:

[XYZ Company] has grown to the point where we are adding 2 premier service plumbers! And we offer premier benefits like health insurance, vacation pay, sick pay, holiday pay, retirement plan and year round work! [XYZ Company] also offers GUARANTEED weekends off! Now who does that?

They’ve “grown to the point” that they’re hiring? Suuure they have. One of their former employees told me a few weeks ago “Nobody can work for that guy.” GUARANTEED weekends off? My friend told me, “Yeah, once a month!

I can’t fix these companies. Like cockroaches, no matter how many you kill, there’ll be more. All I can do is say “Go toward the light.” As a sole proprietor I have decentralized plumbing service with the use of computers and a mobile phone. Memphis could use a hundred more: individual guys building and living off their own reputations, teaming up with friends when a job requires it, providing personalized service to grateful and loyal customers. Maybe the idea will catch on some day.


Post Mortem on Memphis’s Frozen Pipes

Another wave of thawing and bursting swept over the city today.  I received a number of calls, nearly all of which I referred to a plumber friend.  I just spoke with him at about 10pm.  He was on his way to his last call of the day. He made over $1,000 today.  I made about $225, but I only worked nine hours and got home around 7:30pm.  I had some friends in trouble and some promises to keep — the kinds of stuff that don’t pay much money.

At the supply house today I learned that one plumbing company was booked three days out and had turned down forty calls.  My customers were lucky that they know me.  All of my callers were served.

I even missed a chance to be in the newspaper.  A reporter whom I know called to ask if he could do a story with pictures about plumbers and frozen pipes, but I had to decline since I was spending the day doing mundane stuff.  My fifteen minutes of fame — down the toilet.  Story of my life.


Finally, Our Nation Is Unified

Much bemoaning has been heard in the last decade about how divided America has become.  I think we’ve gotten past that this week.  Across all racial and religious lines, despite Marxist leftism and Americanist rightism, irrespective of age, college football team loyalty, or propensity toward cell phone moronism, America has come together to say with one common voice:

It’s too darned cold.

Yahoo Weather told me at 7:00am that it was five degrees out on the streets of Memphis. That’s just downright disrespectful. My phone began ringing at 7:30 as victims reported waking up to frozen pipes.  Those pipes have been just fine for twenty three years, but nooooooo, the weather had to dive down to South Dakota levels and wreak havoc across our beloved southland.  And I don’t even want to know what South Dakota is like today.

In fact, that last paragraph was written over a bowl of beef stew at Jason’s Deli on Highland.  This paragraph is being composed at home ten hours later.  What happened, you ask?  A housewife called me in the middle of lunch to complain that bucketfuls of water were pouring through her ceiling.  Some women have a low tolerance for that sort of thing, so I closed my laptop and headed for the truck.  En route to her house, another girl called with a similar problem.  Before I could finish that conversation, I received a third call: water pouring through the ceiling.  I got home at 9:20pm.  Mankind was not created to live like this.

It’s getting better.  The forecast for tonight shows a low of 23 degrees, which is a far sight better than five.  It’s supposed to climb into the 60s by the weekend.  But for tonight, I can’t bear the thought of opening a refrigerator door.


Some Dopes are Now Legal in Colorado

This week’s news stories would make you think that the sky had fallen or the Lord had returned to establish his kingdom or something. Marijuana was legalized.

This is hardly a big deal. You still can’t smoke it in public, so stoners will have to do it in private. How is this different, pray tell, from what they were doing before?

“But it’s legal now!” Again, I have to ask, “So what?” Everybody who wanted to smoke dope was already doing it, and practically nobody was getting caught (since cops have other things to worry about).

There are three distinct arguments among my libertarian friends for legalizing recreational drugs:

  1. People should be free to do as they please, except for fraud or the initiation of force.
  2. The effects of prohibition are worse than the effects of legalization.
  3. The benefits of legalization are too attractive to pass up.

The first argument is an assumption based on atheism. Since there is a God and he has given certain rights and responsibilities to the State (and others to individuals), the first argument is powerless, although it does provide a powerful tool for criticizing government actions.

The third argument is profoundly unsound. No amount of tax revenue could justify an otherwise evil action.

I have a lot of sympathy with the second argument. The “War on Drugs” has been the most colossal failure of anything government has ever done (and readers, that’s saying a lot!) It seems incontrovertible that nothing is going to stop people from doing dope. Why, then, sink hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars into the effort?

This argument says nothing about the morality of using drugs. Instead, it says something about the purpose and responsibilities of the State.

There is a higher level on which the issue might be discussed, too, and that is the matter of personal responsibility. I favor a world where people can take their chances and take their losses. The old saying is that to protect people from the consequences of their folly will be to fill the world with fools.

There was a time when drugs were legal. You could buy heroin at the pharmacy. “Dope fiends” were scarce. That day could return.