Gil Carlson, who was the first person to come up with many of the hydronic concepts we take for granted today, was also my teacher. He would often say, “For a difference to be a difference, it has to make a difference.” It popped out most of the time at seminars when someone (nearly always an engineer) wanted to pick hydronic nits with him. That nearly famous quote shut most people up.
Gil, when explaining how cutting corners is usually folly, would also say, “What you save on the roast beef, you spend on the mashed potatoes.” That one made me pause when I first heard it, but I was young and liked to eat a lot. The lesson eventually sunk in.
One more from my late, great teacher: “Whatever goes into a tee must come out.” That nearly famous quote is The Law of the Tee, and it, too, is true. It’s at the heart of primary and secondary pumping, which he invented. I stared at many tees during my days as a troubleshooter and silently recited The Law of the Tee as I tried my best to think like water.
My father, who left school to go to work after graduating from eighth grade in 1934, used to say, “Heating is the best business in the world.” When I would ask why, he would say, “Because everyone needs heat. Especially in the winter.” He is decades gone now, but his nearly famous quote continues to ring true.
I’ve been known to say, “When you do something stupid, you will always receive a reward, which leads you to do things of even greater stupidity.” This applies mainly to raising the pressure on steam heating systems, and ordering oversized pumps for hot-water jobs. You feel like a genius at first, but then the laws of physics kick in, and people start giving you the stink eye.
Another nearly famous quote: “If while venting, you don’t get any air, it ain’t an air problem. Stop venting!” I used that line at many of the seminars I did during my speaking career. My goal was to get contractors up off their knees if the air failed to show up. I wanted them to think instead about system balance, which is visible only in the imagination. This can be a challenge because some folks have less imagination than others.
Over a couple beers, a manufacturer of hydronic controls once told me, “We try to make our products idiot-proof, but they keep making better idiots.” I smiled at that, thinking of the people I’ve met who would rather pick up a hammer than an instruction manual. I also loved it when a contractor friend would say, “There are no stupid questions, but there sure are a lot of inquisitive idiots." The two thoughts flange together well.
An oil-heat guy told me his most-feared nearly famous quote is, “I only pushed the burner reset button once.” He explained this is what many homeowners tell him when he shows up on a no-heat call.
"When I was young, I used to believe them,” he says. “Then, I’d hit the reset button again, not knowing the customer had already hit it a dozen times and the combustion chamber was now filled with oil.”
“So what happened?” I ask. “I got what’s called an ‘audible ignition,’” he says. That’s the sort of thing that goes off like Mount Vesuvius.
“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” and “No good deed goes unpunished,” are two nearly famous quotes that are the bookends in the life of many contractors. The second one also reminds me of another: “Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.”
Another contractor, this one quite literary, quoted Samuel Johnson, who once wrote, “The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Amen to that.
Have you ever met someone who thinks heat-loss calculations are a waste of time? They believe the person doing the sizing before them was probably right. Or close enough. Right? If it worked before it will probably work again. Right? But what if the first guy was a knucklehead?
The literary contractor also quoted A.A. Milne, who wrote, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.” Which brings me to another nearly famous and often repeated quote: “Ouch that’s hot!” The person saying this is usually the one waving their hand while doing the dance of pain.
“Rust never sleeps.” Short and to the point, and so very true. That should be on a T-shirt. “Do not follow me with your eyes closed or you will make the same mistakes I do.” This came from a contractor with a fine sense of both humor and humility. Everyone makes mistakes, and most contractors have an interesting way of seeing the world. After working with many of them over the years, I arrived at this nearly famous quote that I hope helps: “The two best tools a troubleshooter can have are a bright flashlight and an open mind.”
I’ve also been known to say, “If you’re in a boiler room and you don’t know what you’re looking at, put your hands in your pockets and back slowly out the door.” To which a contractor friend adds one for those who insist on staying: “Go ahead stick your finger in there; you’ll get a quick education.”
And then, there’s this one: “Be smarter than the pipe you’re installing.” Dwell on that for a moment. It’s delicious.
Or this one, which is brimming with truth: “We can schedule downtime for maintenance, or we can wait for a breakdown during production. Either way, the maintenance will get done.” My very favorite nearly famous quote from a manufacturer is: “We have never heard from anyone else about that problem.” This came after I called the manufacturer to tell them dozens of their contractor customers told me about a problem they’re having, and each said they got in touch with the manufacturer who always replies, “We have never heard from anyone else about that problem.”
Every one of those contractors solved the problem by switching to another manufacturer. My favorite wholesaler nearly famous quote is: “No one ever asks for that product. Only you.” Most contractors solve that problem the same way they solve the manufacturer problem. “You’re not rich enough to afford cheap stuff.” An old fella said this to me. It’s right up there with, “If you can’t afford to do it right, how can you afford to do it twice?”
“You can’t see it from Times Square.” There are many variations of that one, but it’s usually said after the contractor looks at his crooked pipes or gobs of solder dripping from fittings and then turns to his helper, who is seeking wisdom from the older guy. “And you can’t see it from my house either,” is the usual follow up to Times Square wisecrack. Those helpers will grow and teach others, and often in the same way.
“You will always find the time to read the instructions after you screwed up.” I think most people are guilty of that, and the older I get, the truer it becomes.
Similarly, there’s this one: “If you always tell the customer the truth, you will never have to remember the lie you told them.” Amen to that.
Here’s one more.
Dan Foley, of Foley Mechanical fame, is as good as it gets when it comes to being a contractor. Dan told me when he was young and on a job, carefully applying pipe dope to a fitting, his boss says, “Hurry up, Picasso.” Dan thought he was there to do things as well as he possibly could, so he asked his old boss what he meant. His boss told him that he judges him by results, not by his efforts.
Dan eventually founded Foley Mechanical and is now famous for his meticulous work. His customers judge him by both his efforts and his superb results; he gets high marks all around. This makes me realize the true value of bad bosses is they inspire the best people among us to leave and to build businesses in which they strive to be good bosses. They never forget.
Which leads me to: “There is no such thing as a bad boss to those who pay close attention to the world around them. They are an inspiration.” I hope that one becomes nearly famous.
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