Furnaces and IT: lessons learned

How many of you understand household heating systems? Specifically comprehend ones that provide hot water to pipes in your floor to produce radiant heat. I don’t. But you really notice when it doesn’t work. Once I was over it, The Furnace Saga showed me parallels to our customers’ IT service experiences.

The Saga starts with the arrival of a baby to our house, which changed the heating needs. Adults can handle quirks in heating levels in a house but babies can’t – they just cry. We were adjusting the temperature much more than usual and one day the furnace stopped. It was a Sunday and the original installer of the furnace was not accessible. An emergency call to a local furnace company led to a repair guy, who started the furnace by bypassing the vent damper (what the f… is a vent damper?). The technician was a quirky, bed-headed, talking-to-himself fellow who, in other circumstances, could have been found outside Starbucks asking for spare change. He charged me double rates on a four-hour minimum.

Parallels abound. Your e-commerce site goes down on the weekend you’ve launched a special sale available only on your Web site. The original programmer is too smart to work weekends and you managed, after several phone calls, to track down an emergency tech. She informs you that she can make code changes, but has no liability for what may happen as it’s someone else’s code. You have both money and credibility on the line if the system isn’t running and you authorize the change. An out-of-scope support charge is then levied by the IT shop. Later the original programmer bills you for the bug fix.

The Furnace Saga gets better. In the paragraph below, note the sections in italics. Forget that you are reading about a furnace. Think IT.

Because the repair reduced the efficiency of the system, the boiler began boiling over. This caused the overflow tank to overflow and dirty hot water started spewing on the furnace room floor. Aggressive phone calls to the original installer led to ” I’m not sure when I can get there.”

I asked him how he’d feel saying that to my wife and four-week old child. An appointment was made, which he cancelled that morning by calling a furnace maintenance company. A fellow came over and made an assessment of the problem that seemed logical, but he could have said anything; ” I don’t have a background in heating systems.”

He went away and the next day a different fellow arrives and makes some fixes and leaves. That night the third floor (where everyone sleeps) had no heat. A rather heated phone call was made the next day, and I was told that, “T he repairs I did should not have caused that problem.” I explained that since he was the last to touch the system, it only stands to reason that he had something to do with the ancillary problem. ” I’m all booked up today.

I explained that I wasn’t planning on moving my family down to the living room to stay warm because he was going to arrange for someone to fix the furnace. A yet different repair fellow arrived. Now this guy was a portent of doom. ” I wouldn’t have set this system up this way if I had done it.” No kidding. ” I don’t want to alarm you but the problem could be in the piping in the floor.” This would mean that we’d have to rip up the hardwood floor and replace the plastic piping. I suggested that such a catastrophic problem is unlikely to have suddenly cropped up in the last two days and that perhaps the solution was more pedestrian and he should focus his attention accordingly. He eventually bled the system and the heat started working upstairs. Of course he had to add on a new valve to the system because the original builders of the house had hidden the third floor bleeder valves somewhere behind the drywall.

There were lessons to be learned.

The original installer (programmer) does not do the maintenance.

Repair people (maintenance programmers) look for the worst scenario.

Repair people (or maintenance/upgrade programmers) want to reshape the system to their own liking.

Perhaps the most important point is that customers must be prepared to manage the repair process. This is done by not panicking, not feeling bad that they aren’t experts in the subject and asking questions. If your customers are not doing this, encourage them.

Ford is a Vancouver-based consultant with an in-floor radiant water heating system, with the thermostats set such that he’s afraid to touch them. He can be reached at RobertFord@quokkasystems.com