25 Stories About Work – The Furnace Toboggan

Carl’s great stories have inspired me to share a few of my own. First some background.

I work in HVAC/R distribution. HVAC/R means Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration. The function of my company is to house manufacturers goods on a local level, mark them up, sell them to licensed HVAC companies and facilities, and then collect the money. It sounds simple, but that is what I do. In general, we get paid to come up with solutions to people’s problems – sometimes very quickly. If you are suffering because of the weather, I am happy because the extremes make me money. Nobody cares about me when it is 75 degrees outside. However, we also have a commercial refrigeration piece, and that business is year ’round.

HVAC in general is a relatively tiny part of our economy, and most numbers I have heard put it at around $25bb annually here in the USA. My job is very demanding, requires long hours, and is extremely competitive.

Everyone has had an experience or two with their climate control systems. When I go to parties and people find out what I do, the conversation always ends up with me in the basement looking their mechanicals over and giving a recommendation or two.

I have a lot of friends when the weather gets below zero or above ninety degrees.

For those of you who have never experienced weather below zero degrees, I actually recommend you travel somewhere and see what it is like. Just once.

I get lots of calls from people wanting me to open up the shop after hours. One frigid night back in the 90s, a good customer called and needed a furnace. This night, it was a blizzard (and I mean a literal blizzard where you couldn’t see anything) on top of the extreme cold temps. It was mayhem. I questioned the guy on the phone and said “really it can’t wait for tomorrow”?

Well, this furnace apparently heated a tiny room at a very large insurance company that housed their servers. If this area wasn’t heated up and the pipes burst it would cause untold millions of dollars of damage. They had redundant heating systems but those had failed too. I sighed, kissed my wife goodbye (hopefully not for the last time) and got in my vehicle for the long drive to work to open up the store.

Normally the drive took 15 minutes but this night it took almost an hour. It was the craziest thing I have ever done. A cop pulled me over on the way and asked me what the f@ck I was doing (he literally said that) out in this blizzard and I told him and he understood and let me go.

When I got to work the wind had been blowing so hard that my parking lot was encased in three feet of snow and ice. I had to park on the street. I walked up to the front door and dug it out and opened up the shop. My customer arrived a few minutes later. As I was gathering the things he needed for this furnace changeout, I asked him how the f@ck were we going to get the stuff from the building to the street? After talking a bit, I came up with the idea of the “furnace toboggan”. I had a bunch of cardboard in the warehouse and strapping material. We wrapped the furnace in this cardboard and pushed it outside to the lot and pulled it through the snow down to the street (approx. 50 feet). We repeated the process with the rest of the materials he needed for his job. He thanked me profusely for what I had done for him and offered me a (terrible, canned) beer from his truck. I said “what the heck” and had one with him – we were both exhausted from pulling the heavy toboggan through the snow twice and needed an attitude adjustment. He is a good customer to this day for saving him that account although I do not support boozing in your vehicle especially when you are going to soon be wiring and gas piping. I found out a few years ago that he had quit drinking – obviously he had a problem.

On the way home I got stuck twice and pulled over by the same cop who laughed when he saw it was me again on the way home. He said the only other people he has seen on the road are drunks, which I believe since they are probably the only people crazy enough to be out there in that mess – besides an HVAC distributor helping a customer out of a bad jam.

Next episode – Tormenting a Fortune 500 CEO.

10 thoughts on “25 Stories About Work – The Furnace Toboggan”

  1. Nothing that dramatic but I once had a cracked furnace box in a hot air system on Christmas Eve. It’s California so the temp was about 50 and it was raining. I called a plumbing and heating company that seems to have since gone out of business (This was 30 years ago) which is too bad. The guy came out to my house about 4 o’clock on Christmas Eve and did a temporary fix so we had heat. I gave him a hundred bucks cash for his trouble and they came back after the holiday and replaced the furnace.

    I used them for stuff for years after but noticed their sign is gone now. A brief search shows similar names but I don’t think they are in business now.

  2. Mike K
    I used them for stuff for years after but noticed their sign is gone now. A brief search shows similar names but I don’t think they are in business now

    As most such companies tend to be owner-operated, and the second generation doesn’t take on the business, that is par for the course. My aunt’s father was a plumbing contractor. She was surprised to find out that when he died, there wasn’t much value in the company, That is most likely because the value of the company was tied into her father’s ability to attract and maintain customers, and when he died, that was it.

    A good story on customer service, Dan.

  3. Gringo – that is correct for the most part. Most of the mom and pop shops are only worth the physical assets when the boss dies or retires. Some that have multiple employees are worth a bit more if they have long time employees that customers like to request. Part of our job (believe it or not) is to help these shops run their businesses better and to help them grow so they have something to sell when it is all over besides a few vans and some used tools.

    The larger, multi truck operations are a different animal.

  4. Concur – my late business partner was basically a one-man (or one woman) shop – one with well-established client base and excellent local word-of-mouth. She took me into partnership because I was interested in writing, publishing, and editing, trained me up in the way that she did business, and I bought her out earlier this year … and one of her reasons for doing so was so that her existing clients and potential clients would be reassured as to the stability of the company. One of the old clients told me just last week – he was purely gratified to know that I had the publishers’ copies of all of his old books. And – my daughter is being trained up in the business as well…another client (one whom I had brought to publish with us) was similarly gratified to know that Blondie would take it on after me.

  5. On small businesses, the plumbing company had multiple trucks and employees. The guy I gave the 100 bucks to was an employee and I gave it to him in cash so he didn’t have to share.. Probably the owner died or retired and the employees scattered to other employers.

    This applies to surgeons and other doctors, too.

    One of the really negative consequences of the National Health Service in England was that GPs sold their practices to fund retirement and, suddenly, that was gone. The same applies to surgeons. When I retired I sold my practice to a junior associate, basically for the accounts receivable and some assets like furniture which were mostly antiques. He got divorced and closed the practice without making any provision for patient records. I was furious but had had spine surgery so I couldn’t return and resume practice, as a GP friend did a few years later.

    It cost me in the neighborhood of $150,000. His new girlfriend’s parents had an antique shop. He moved away and later vanished. Obviously, my judgement about people was defective. He was technically good but a sociopath.

  6. A couple of months ago I had two new 80% furnaces installed in a rental duplex. I found the small company on Angie’s List. Talking to the 60-something owner, he’s got a BSME, his two sons have similar degrees, and they’re eventually taking over the business. But the two non-family employee installers were high school grads only. Young guys in their mid-20s, their work was superb. I asked about troubleshooting in case of a 4am tenant call and they walked my through testing the exhaust pressure switch and ignitor using a DVM. [Yeah, ten-year warranty, but I still like to know these things.] These two “kids” are making a comfortable living that can support a family, all on a HS education plus frequent training by HVAC manufacturers. A good thing.

  7. If any young person who doesn’t know their way wants to get into a trade and always have a good job, being an HVAC/R mechanic is a surefire path to success. The industry is desperately short of good, young techs right now.

  8. My sister lives in MN – Dan you know of what I speak but when visiting I got an education leaving without a woll hat and it was -20 with a good wind

    Gave cold a new defination

    Dan – you sure went above and beyond that day. And your customer remembered it.

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