Peter McCarthy Electric Co., Inc. - Specializing in Older Buildings in Chicago
Adventures in Old House Wiring....

Going the extra mile....

Old house wiring chicagoOld house wiring chicagoCloth covered wire ChicagoCloth covered wire ChicagoIn our business, sometimes you have to go the extra mile. As anyone who has been in the contracting business knows, there are two ways to price a job. One is charging a time and material rate. In that case, you tell the client that you can not tell exactly what you will encounter, and due to the many ambiguities, you can not accurately predict what exactly you will need to do. Which translates into how long it will take, which translates into how much it will cost. Most customers are not comfortable with that pricing, because they think (and perhaps correctly in some cases) that the contractor will deliberately work slow and run up the labor cost. To my way of thinking, that is not only unethical and dishonest, but is also a very poor way to win friends and influence people. Good news travels fast and bad news travels faster. My reputation is everything to me. Our business is built on referrals, references, and satisfied clients recommending us to their friends. It would be very foolish to rip off people by walking around in circles on the job. Very foolish indeed.

So in most cases we provide a fixed price for a job, and it is a point of pride for me not to come back to the client if we run into problems and say "I know I quoted X, but we didn't realize there would be a 6-foot thick stone wall behind the drywall. It took us 5 times as long, so now I have to charge you Y."  I never do that. To me, if I know my business I should be able to anticipate the potential pitfalls and factor them into the cost. It is a point of pride with me that when I give someone a price, it's the price. Period.

Cloth covered wire ChicagoThat can be challenging because if you have not noticed, we are in the midst of a recession. Folks are hard-pressed for money and budgets are tight. The traditional way of "covering yourself" for the worst-case scenario by quoting a price high enough to include every possible contingency has never sat well with me, since half the time when things go really smooth, the client wonders why it cost so much, and the other half your fellow contractors are not quoting at that level so you look like you are trying to gouge people along with losing the bid. So my fixed prices generally are estimated by the average case. Most of the time it works out. Sometimes it doesn't.

Rewiring old homes ChicagoLike in this case. Our fixed price bid was to run power inside the building to a point where we could install  GFCI protection and an on/off (summer/winter) switch to control a de-icing cable that the client provided. Other than the fact that it was 40 feet up in the air, and required a very tall ladder, it was easy, right? The hard work was inside, getting the power where we wanted it and setting it all up. After we got to the outside, all we had to do was lay the cable in the gutter and drop it down the down spout. Cinchy. Or as I say now, after raising a toddler who is quickly closing in on pre-adolescence, "easy, peasy, macaroni and cheesy!"

Except that we never counted on the down spout being packed solid with dirt. Not years of dirt, mind you, but decades of dirt. We tried, at first, to push our fishtape up the downspout from the lower platform to the upper gutter. No dice. It would not go in more than a few feet. Mind you, gutters are known to be clogged, but you don't expect straight vertical downspouts to be packed solid. But this one was. Our first plan of attack being foiled, we had to approach it from above. This was very challenging. You can see the very steep, almost vertical roof. We could not stand on it, and the downspout we thought would be easy to drop into was nearly out of reach from the location where we could set up a ladder.  Rick had to climb and stretch to the very limit of his reach. What we thought would be a matter of simply dropping in a pull line and then fishing in the de-icing cable quickly became a much more involved job.  From his very precarious perch, Rick tried to push a spring steel fishtape down the spout. No dice. The spout was packed solid. We then decided to use a 10' length of pipe, which he rammed into the downspout over and over. It acted like a core extractor, filling with dirt and mud with each thrust. He then drew it back, hammered on it to loosen the core of dirt/mud until it fell out and the tube was hollow again, and then gave it another ramming. This took about a half hour to get about three feet into the downspout. Finally, after he had rammed it over and over and over, the main blockage had broken loose and fell. But then it build up in a huge pile at the bottom of the spout. We had to then come back down to the lower platform, take apart the bottom section of the downspout and remove it completely.  As he held up the four foot piece of downspout to the sun, he could see no daylight through it. So he had to use the pipe to ram the solid blockage free and allow it to fall out. You can see the pile of dirt on the lower roof. That all came out of the client's downspout. Only after the we thrust the 10' length of pipe down the spout from above, gradually extracting cores of muck to eventually clear the blockage, took off the bottom portion of the spout, cleared it, and reattached it were we able to do the "10 minute job" of dropping the de-icing cable down the downspout. All in all, the outside portion of the job took about 3 times longer (and thus my labor cost)  was about 3 times what the proposal provided for.  So we didn't make any money on this one. That's what happens sometimes.

But we are in business to serve our client's needs, to do it right and to go the extra mile. I look at it like a baseball team. The manager doesn't fire a pitcher just because he gets beaten badly a few times a year. Some you win, some you lose, and some get rained out. But that gutter will drain next time we get a good rain. And in the winter, as long as they remember to keep the switch turned on and they monitor the GFCI protector, the water in that downspout should drain as well.

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