I got an email from the customer service manager at a well-known boiler manufacturer whose name I will keep to myself. His email made me think of the laws of physics and how they sometimes hide behind our fears.
It also made me think of job politics and how telling the truth is always a good thing, even though it might hurt your business. Life is funny that way. Here, listen:
“Good morning Dan. I hope all is well?
I have an installation from hell and I’m hoping you can help. The contractor installed one of our steam boilers in a bank and he said it leaked from day one. He then installed a second, identical boiler in the bank and it, too, leaked.
Upon reviewing and discussing the way the contractor had piped the two boilers, we noted that neither the first nor the second boiler had swing joints to the steam header.
The contractor was reluctant to change the near-boiler piping because the design engineer had shown it to be exactly the way he had installed it. The contractor figured nothing could go wrong if he followed the plans and specs as written, but that wasn’t the case here. He, of course, began to wonder if he’d get paid for the work we were now telling him he had to do to make it right. As far as he was concerned, it was right. The engineer had told him so.
We went over the right way to install a steam boiler once again and left the business about getting paid alone. It’s best for us not to get between contractors, engineers and their customers when it comes to who’s going to get paid and who’s not going to get paid.
Fast-forward a couple years and we find the boilers are still giving all of us problems. The contractor had installed the swing joints on the steam supply, as we require in our installation drawings, but instead of using pipe on the return side, they used flexible, stainless-steel hose.
One of the boilers was leaking on startup, so we sent them a new back section for the boiler at no charge. They installed this section and it also leaked. This was turning into a real mess, so we sent our commercial boiler manager to the bank to review things. We also sent new boiler sections in case we needed them.
The contractor removed the leaking back section and replaced the seals between the sections. He put it all back together and there was no leaking. Imagine that! Was it a miracle? The contractor claims that this happened before, however, and that after a few days, it leaked again. As I said, it’s the job from hell.
In your unbiased opinion, do you think it’s the near-boiler piping that’s causing the leaking?”
WWDS? (WHAT WILL DAN SAY?)
I wrote back to say that my guess is it’s either the near-boiler piping or there’s something very wrong with the water or chemicals they may be adding to the boilers. I asked if there were leaks from the gaskets or through the cast iron.
“Nobody has confirmed that either way,” he wrote. “But if there is an issue with chemicals or water quality, the seals will fail in more than one spot, right? It won’t just happen at the rear boiler section. That’s why I am convinced that the issues at hand are not boiler related, but something else.”
I told him I had to agree. Improper near-boiler piping can move the gaskets though expansion and contraction. The wrong chemicals can attack the rubber gaskets, but since the leaking happens so quickly I had to vote for incorrect near-boiler piping.
“Yes, my thoughts exactly,” he wrote. “I believe this job will turn out to be an expensive lesson in Boiler Piping 101. Unfortunately, our company has allowed the contractor to drag us down with them. The engineer started this with an incorrect plan. He didn’t follow our published installation instructions. The contractor, who really should know better, just piped it according to the engineer’s instructions. There has been nothing but problems ever since.
“Initially, the contractor didn’t want to change anything. He blamed us as the boiler manufacturer. As if we intentionally send out section after section that leaks. As if we don’t pressure-test everything before it leaves our factory. To this day, no one has confirmed that the changes the contractor made are the correct ones, either. Hopefully, our commercial boiler manager, who just visited the bank, will be able to get it all in his report. It’s frustrating.”
Fear of monetary loss can sometimes make people not want to believe in physics. They’d rather not think about the power of iron and steel expanding and contracting as the steam cycles on and off. Only proper near-boiler piping can relieve that stress. It’s easier to find someone to blame. It must be the factory’s fault, right? We can’t criticize the engineer, right? He’s the engineer.
And something else comes into play in situations like this one. Factory folks are also sometimes reluctant to criticize the engineer. The engineer is the person writing the plans and specs and deciding whose product goes onto those jobs. Criticize the engineer and you might find it difficult to get accepted on future jobs, even as an “or equal” provider.
I mentioned this to the customer service manager.
“That’s not the case with us,” he said. “I’d rather straighten out an engineer than have someone knowingly install something that’s incorrect. Everyone loses if we don’t do that.”
I like that about this guy.
“Contractors often blame you when things go wrong,” I said. “And they’re also making choices when they’re buying.”
“Also true,” he said. “And they talk to each other, in person and online. We know that. That’s why we’re reasonable with them. We sent this contractor free replacement sections, and more than once.”
“But you didn’t do the piping,” I said.
“No, we just wrote the instructions on how to do the piping,” he said.
“How many contractors do you think read those instructions?” I said.
“Not enough,” he said.
“You guys really walk a thin line.”
“We do,” he said. “But I’d still rather straighten out the engineer and the contractor rather than have the job go in the wrong way. Let the chips fall where they may.”
To which I say amen.
I think it’s folly to argue with physics, but many people do, and almost always out of fear.
And as for the job politics, that will always come down to the people involved in the situation.
Choose them wisely.