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Raped by the furnace repairman... (Long story Part 1)

Posted by Ferdinand 
Arrrrrr... bend over Billy.

My natural gas furnace stopped working. It's cold in the house when we wake up in the morning. My wife calls the furnace repairman. He can't come until sometime between 10am and noon, which means someone has to take the morning off work, staying home to wait for the repairman.

Meanwhile I go take a look at the furnace myself. The problem is immediately apparent.

Normally, when the thermostat signals the furnace to turn on, it first starts a small fan to pull a draft through the burner and up the exhaust chimney, then a relay clicks on and the igniter starts to glow red hot. A few seconds later the solenoid in the gas valve thunks open and feeds natural gas to the burner element, where the gas is ignited by the red hot igniter element. A thermocouple sticking into the flame path then immediately starts getting hot, which confirms to the controller that we have a good flame, and away we go. Cozy warm house.

But not this time. The thermostat is working fine. I hear it click when I turn the temperature up, and in the basement the fan starts up. Listening to the furnace, I can hear the thunk of the gas solenoid valve opening, then a second later it thunks closed again. End of story. No ignition. No heat.

Open up the covers on the furnace to watch it run through the cycle again. Aha! The igniter is not glowing red hot like it should be to start the flame. When the gas solenoid opens, in the absence of a flame the thermocouple senses no temperature increase, so the computer immediately shuts the gas solenoid valve again, and the furnace safely shuts down dead cold.

One (1) simple solitary individual lonely little, did I mention the number one (1), single philips screw holds the ignitor in place, with a handy easily disconnectable electrical plug. It literally takes less than 30 seconds to remove the igniter from the furnace.

The igniter looks like this:



On mine, there was an obvious crack in the blackened heating element of the igniter, breaking the electrical circuit. There's nothing wrong with the rest of the furnace. I just needs a new igniter.

In the mean time, I cycle the thermostat one more time, the relay clicks in the furnace, the fan starts. Obviously, since I just removed it, the igniter is not going to start the flame, so I wait for the gas solenoid to thunk open and simply light the furnace with my barbecue lighter. The flame sensor thermocouple confirms we have a flame, and the furnace happily heats the house to normal temperature. Eureka!

Of course after the furnace shuts down normally, it won't restart again automatically until I replace the igniter, or manually start it each time with my barbecue lighter. But the immediate emergency has passed. We're not going to freeze.

Call the repairman, cancel the appointment.

We don't have to miss work. We'll both get to the office on time and I'll run to the local Home Depot and buy a new igniter during my lunch break. How much could it possibly cost? It's probably manufactured in China for less than $5, so it'll cost $50 at Home Depot. I can live with that, as long as it avoids an expensive visit from the furnace repairman.

I'm such a naive fool. Nothing is ever that simple.

Continued in Part 2...
It's lunch time and I'm on my way to Home Depot. Heck, I'll probably even have enough time to swing home afterwards, pop the new igniter into the furnace, and the place will be cozy and warm again by the time the kids come home from school. Life is good again.

Home Depot has an entire aisle dedicated to furnace stuff. However, it's all just filters and air ducts and thermostats. Home Depot does not carry any actual furnace parts. I have to go to a furnace supply store instead, the nearest one of which I'm told is at the opposite end of the city. Crap.

The place is way in the back of some obscure industrial supply complex and, when I eventually find it, I discover that it's the warehouse where they restock their fleet of furnace repair vans. The public cannot purchase parts there, and the repairmen will not sell you any parts out of the back of their vans. If you want over-the-counter service you need to go to their retail outlet which, of course, is again at the very opposite end of the city from where I am now. Crap. Crap. And double-crap.

Okay, success, I've found the retail outlet. I'm carrying the defective igniter with me as a sample. What could possibly go wrong now?

The bored looking guy behind the corner looks up from his computer. "Can I help you?"

"Ya, I need one of these please."

I hand it over, he takes one look and says, "This one is cracked. Doesn't work too well that way, does it?"

"Exactly. That's why I need a new one."

"No problem, we got lots of those in stock."

Eureka! I'm a genius. I'll have this sucker fixed and heating the house again in no time.

Except, that's when he drops a bombshell on me. He says, "I'll need to see your gas licence."

"My what?"

"Sorry, I can't sell you any furnace parts unless you've got a gas fitter's licence."

"Why? I'm not touching any of the gas lines. It's just one little mounting screw and one electrical plug to replace this igniter. Takes 30 seconds. There's nothing wrong with the furnace itself."

"Tough luck. You're screwed. You need a certified furnace repairman to install that part. No licence, can't sell you the part. Good bye."

Ooof. How's that for a kick in the nuts? So now what?

Damn. Damn. And triple-damn. I'm right back where I started. I have to call the repairman again and schedule another appointment.

Continued in Part 3...
i am on the edge of my seat. has part 3 happened yet? or is it coming up in the future?


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daniel
i am on the edge of my seat. has part 3 happened yet? or is it coming up in the future?

We'll never find out...Ferd has frozen solid and won't be heard from until the Spring that winking smiley

I know what Ferd's going through though. The thermocouple on my furnace quit and the repair guy wanted way more than I thought it was worth. My wife's cousin works for the gas company so he sent someone over and it was fixed for free(well not completely free; I had to pay the original guy $50 for the call). I saved enough for a nice dinner out!
I'm not allowed to purchase and install a new igniter by myself, so I'm forced to call the furnace repairman. It's winter. We need a working furnace.

He's busy. He can't get to my house until 3pm. That's okay with me, because I'm calling him on my cellphone from the retail outlet which, you guessed it, is at the opposite end of the city from where I live and it'll take me a while to get home anyway before the repairman arrives to meet me there.

I get there at 2:30 hoping to put the furnace back together and pack away my tools before he arrives. He gets there at 2:31. Damn.

So I meet him at the door with the cracked and non-functioning igniter in my hand. He takes one look at it and says, "It's cracked. It won't work like that. Just a moment I'll get a new one from the truck."

When he comes back with a new igniter, I explain how I determined the fault was with the igniter. He says the house call will cost me the standard $139 "diagnostic" fee, regardless of the fact that I have already correctly diagnosed the fault all by myself. Doesn't matter. It'll cost $139 for him to set foot in my house in any case.

Damn.

Okay. I figured I was going to get reamed for this anyway. But I really do need to have the furnace operating again, so let's do it.

He's unpacking all his gear, all the while lecturing me on how I shouldn't be touching the furnace. I could blow myself up. I could blow the entire house up. I could blow the entire neighbourhood up!

I just about choked trying to hold back any smart replies as to how you really don't need to be a rocket scientist to do this job, figuring I probably shouldn't risk offending the guy, since nobody else in the entire city, which I'd almost blown up, was willing to sell me the part I needed to fix the furnace myself.

Then he insisted that I show him exactly what all I touched in the furnace while messing around in there. Well, gee shucks, I removed this here one single solitary retaining screw, and unplugged this here single electrical connector. (I thought it best not to mention though that I'd manually lit the furnace with my barbeque lighter.) Oh yes, I also cleaned the air filter for good measure while I was at it. Good enough?

No, not good enough.

He's not allowed to restart the furnace until he has verified that the entire system is in good operating order. No telling what sort of damage I, an untrained and unlicensed amateur, may have caused while poking around in this nuclear reactor core.

So he spends exactly 30 seconds plugging in the new igniter, then wastes another half an hour measuring gas pressures, core temperatures, duct temperatures and whatever else, before declaring the furnace to be safe and operating properly. Let's go write up the bill.

I had already agreed to the totally unnecessary but compulsory $139 "diagnostic" fee, and I guessed the new igniter would cost about $50. So I just about dropped dead of a heart attack when he presented me with a bill totalling...
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$475.00 eye popping smiley

What the..?!? You trying to tell me that igniter costs $300???

No, that was the extra charge plus taxes, on top of the $139 diagnostic fee and the igniter cost, for the half-hour safety verification.

That's nucking futs!!!

How can this kind of piracy be legal?

The worst part was, I finally came to my senses today and did a Google search for that part number, which is what I should have done first. I discovered that I could have ordered the exact same part from this source and had it shipped overnight by courier. Cost of the igniter: $25.
That is called protectionism. In order to justify the furnace repairman's job the powers that be made sure you needed to be gas certified in order to change a silly igniter. Can you imagine if we all needed to be BMW certified mechanics to work on our cars. No one would be able to afford one. That kind of reminds me of the military. My brother in law said he was not allowed to operate a chain saw unless he was licensed to do so. It was not his job! He was allowed to drive a huge bull dozer, but chain saws he couldn't touch.
How about the union BS too. Do you know that when the companies set up for large trade shows (boats, cars, consumer goods, etc) aren't allowed to plug in a display or extension cord or anything without someone from the union? You have to pay union employees to do virtually everything for those shows!
rkj
I'm really sorry to hear all this Ferdy, but it is the time we live in, even you, up there!
you should get certified and start providing your own services for people, beating the prices of others.


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daniel
you should get certified and start providing your own services for people, beating the prices of others.

He would still blow people up if he wasn't in the union eye rolling smiley

It's a nicely rigged system...to get certified you have to be in the union and you can't get into the union unless you apprentice and spend 4 years as a union member. Once you have 4 years union experience then you can take the certification program eye rolling smiley
Ferd, I feel your pain here which is why I always try to do as much as I can. That being said, I also understand the company's position of "safety check". If your house does blow up, last man in is responsible. It is just CYA. The repair service might even be required to do so by the insurance company that insures them. I know it seems like a racket, but it is what it is. It is also well known and documented that you will aways get reamed buying parts like you had to. If you can get em on the web, prices drop like a freight elevator with the cable cut.

alan
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alanrw
It is well known and documented that you will aways get reamed buying parts like you had to.
I sometimes wish I could meekly accept the fact that things cost however much the company feels like charging me. I'd happily accept that, if I want my furnace to work, I need to cough up $475 just because that's what it costs.

But this sort of licensed extortion eats at me. I can feel myself developing ulcers over this. I've been robbed!

Okay, I understand the liability issues. The repairman has to satisfy himself that everything is operating as it should be in the furnace department. But how can it possibly cost a total of $475 to spend 30 seconds installing a $25 part, and a half hour to confirm the furnace is healthy?

Not even our local BMW dealership would get away with charging $1k/hr to work on my car, assuming I'd ever be stupid enough to allow them to touch my car.
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alanrw
If you can get em on the web, prices drop like a freight elevator with the cable cut.
That's the part that hurts me the most. I'm normally quite web-savvy. Instead I wasted a day with the yellow pages of my phone book, driving from one end of the city to the other and back, thinking I could buy a new igniter locally to fix the furnace myself.

It's not like it was an actual emergency. It's not even all that cold here at the moment. I had figured out how to light the furnace manually with my barbeque lighter, if things really started to get cold.

So now, after forking over the $475, I find out I could have ordered the part online for a mere $25 and had it shipped to me overnight by UPS. That really hurts.
Hindsight is always 20/20. You did what you had to do given the information you had. If you had known you could get the part overnight from the net you would not have called the repair man. We have all done similar things... if only we had known. That is life. No one likes to pay more for something than they should, but then again not everyone is as handy as you are. If you only really knew how much some things cost. That shirt you are wearing probably cost less than $1 to make, and you paid $20 for it. Does it make you sick to know that? If I could get 250 shirts for $250 I would buy them and have a supply for the rest of my life and hope I don't gain 100 pounds. Heck at that price I could wear a shirt once and not bother to wash it and throw it in the rag bin. Anyway the point I am trying to make is that you probably pay a lot more than you realize on many items you buy every day. It doesn't feel like you need to break out the Vaseline because you have no idea what that item really cost to produce. I think we would all go nuts if we had that mindset. Hope your behind heals fast eye popping smiley
Well, they have the perfect alibi. If it is done wrong and the house blows up, where's the saving? Obviously, you diagnosed the problem and fixed but what if some dim bulb misdiagnoses it, say the fire box is also cracked and emitting CO into the air return system, the company that sold him the part could be liable. And no doubt, the company's position is that it does cost money to have a fleet of trucks stocked with necessary inventory that they have to front the money for, pay inventory tax etc., etc, etc. As we all know, running a biz has a lot of hidden costs that aren't readlily apparent.

And as was previously mentioned, evidently, techs go thru a 4 year apprenticship in order to learn the necessary skills.

Your example of the BMW agency is a perfect example. If you have a little knowledge, a little logic, you can save yourself a potload of $ in this life.

alan



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/11/2009 03:10PM by alanrw.
As I mentioned, I have a complete head in great shape. It was removed from a 325es that was running great with good compression and not eating any oil. I'd let it go for $100 with valves, springs, cam, gear, rockers, etc. Let me know and I'll get it packed up and on it's way. That way you don't have to pay a machine shop or spend a bunch of money on valves etc., you can just R&R the head as one and be done in a day or so.

If you do the valves yourself you will need a spring compressor, but you will want to have the valve seats ground to match the new valves before installing them, so you may want to just pay a shop to do the machine work and install the new valves all at once.
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Andy 90 325i
As I mentioned, I have a complete head in great shape. It was removed from a 325es that was running great with good compression and not eating any oil. I'd let it go for $100 with valves, springs, cam, gear, rockers, etc. Let me know and I'll get it packed up and on it's way. That way you don't have to pay a machine shop or spend a bunch of money on valves etc., you can just R&R the head as one and be done in a day or so.

If you do the valves yourself you will need a spring compressor, but you will want to have the valve seats ground to match the new valves before installing them, so you may want to just pay a shop to do the machine work and install the new valves all at once.

This news has really got to make Ferd feel good winking smiley
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Archeo-peteriX
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Andy 90 325i
As I mentioned, I have a complete head in great shape. It was removed from a 325es that was running great with good compression and not eating any oil. I'd let it go for $100 with valves, springs, cam, gear, rockers, etc. Let me know and I'll get it packed up and on it's way. That way you don't have to pay a machine shop or spend a bunch of money on valves etc., you can just R&R the head as one and be done in a day or so.

If you do the valves yourself you will need a spring compressor, but you will want to have the valve seats ground to match the new valves before installing them, so you may want to just pay a shop to do the machine work and install the new valves all at once.

This news has really got to make Ferd feel good winking smiley

What? A $25 igniter is 4x as expensive as a $100 BMW complete cylinder head?

winking smiley

alan
Oops, I was wondering what happened to this post. I must have typed it in the wrong tab earlier. Sorry guys, that was obviously meant for the thread on valves. :embarrassed:
.....valves, igniters.....it's all hardware.

alan
Soo sorry Ferdy.

Did I tell you the reason I gave my old mechanics "the boot" becuase they charged me $378 to replace the postage stamp size gasket on the TOP on the engine. It's where the coolant pre-warms the gasoline. I'm sure you know it much better than I.

Did you buy a spare ignigtor yet? Maybe a small fan motor too? thumbs up (I wish we had a dancing Smily.)

Long live the BBQ lighter,

Kelly B)
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