A story about hiring a professional (and getting amateur results)

A story about hiring a professional (and getting amateur results)

Every once in a while, along comes a home improvement project you need help with.  I suppose that’s what professionals are for.

For example, last spring, we needed a new roof installed on our home.  During my lifetime, I’ve seen a few roofs installed but I’ve never actually installed one myself.  For a big, important project like that, my wife and I felt we needed to hire some of the best professionals in the business to protect our investment, our home.  After a great deal of research, we settled on a company and didn’t look back.  Almost a year later after the installation (and a fat line of credit along with it) we are happy with the product and felt the money was well spent.

Other home projects are often necessary but on a much smaller scale.  Fixing the backyard deck due to some safety concerns and installing a backup sump pump are some of the smaller projects we completed last year.  The latter, I could have probably done myself if I made the appropriate time to learn but I wasn’t comfortable with the job so we hired a professional plumber instead.  The plumber was from a reputable company in Ottawa.  I suppose that was mistake #1, never assume.

In any event, while booking the appointment with the company I informed them of the sump pump we wanted to install, a 1/3-hp submersible pump with an automatic float, fairly standard stuff so I’ve come to understand.  A sump pump in our home is essential because of the high-water table in our area.  Last spring, the only pump we had ran almost non-stop for about two weeks during the winter thaw.  Without it, we’d have a flooded basement.  This original pump worked just fine but we wanted a back-up since the original was 12 years old.  With specifications, the new pump and equipment in hand, the plumber arrived within a week of my phone call.  He quickly surveyed the situation, cut some PVC, installed the check-valve and the pump, tested it with me and was quickly on his way.   What he did in 45-minutes would probably take me an entire day.  Initially, the new back-up pump and the original pump worked perfectly in tandem and we were happy everything had gone to plan.

Fast forward to this winter…

Even though our sump pit was dry (no water in it) I figured it was good to test both pumps before the thaw of 2012.  We didn’t get tons of snow in Ottawa this winter but surely the pumps would be running all the same.  I filled the sump pit with water and triggered each automatic float.  Nothing happened.  I tried it again.  Nothing happened.  In fact, upon the second test, I heard the pumps running but they were sucking air, not water.  I was perplexed.  Both pumps had been working perfectly only 4 months before!  What on earth had happened?

I called the company that did the installation and explained the issue.  Within a few days they sent the same plumber who performed the installation to our house to troubleshoot the problem.  Upon arriving at our house a couple of weeks ago, the plumber said “it’s not uncommon to have an air lock in your line when a sump pump that is supposed to be submersed in water, is not.”  The plumber went on to say “all you need to do is make sure your sump pit is always filled with water.  That way no air can get inside the line.”  He proved his point by filling the pit with water, unplugging and plugging in each pump from the electrical outlet, releasing the air lock from each pump discharge line and then triggering the automatic float.  Everything worked.   The head-scratcher for me was, what if I’m not home to ensure the pit is always filled with water to perform this procedure?  The plumber’s response to my question was, “just check it every few days and it will be fine.  After a few weeks, the pumps will sort themselves out.  I see this all the time.”

Skeptical still, I said thanks for the no-charge troubleshooting and the plumber was on his way, again.

I remained skeptical after his visit; something wasn’t sitting right with me so like an obsessive dog with a bone I went to the pump owner’s and installation manual.  I wanted to read step-by-step what the installation process was for these things and what the manual said about air locks.  In some fine print in the manual, to my surprise, I read the following in the “Pump Servicing” section:

Problem:  “Pump runs but does not deliver water.”

Troubleshooting:  “These pumps have a small air vent hole in the impeller cavity to let out trapped air.  If this hole becomes plugged, pump may air lock.  To break the air lock, use a small screwdriver to clear hold in the impeller cavity.  As a secondary precaution in installations of this type – 1/16” hole should be drilled in the discharge pipe below the check valve.”

Huh?  What?

The plumber never drilled this hole.  I watched part of the installation process and I know he didn’t do this.  Why didn’t he?  Why didn’t he pursue this precaution during his second visit to our home to troubleshoot the air lock?

I was mad but also relieved because even though a professional did the installation, the amateur in me had a solution.

After reading a few online plumbing forums about this issue, I decided to do the work myself.  It was simple enough.  I drilled one 3/16″ hole (based on the forum suggestion) into each discharge line below the check valve.  You can see what I mean from this diagram courtesy of the Plumbing Forum:

After the holes in the PVC pipe were made for each line, I filled our sump pit with water and bingo – pumps operational!  I tested both pumps a couple more times, to ensure it wasn’t a fluke and sure enough, they were up and running.

I was relieved but also annoyed.

What good is hiring a professional when they deliver amateur results?

I learned a few things from this small project that I’m going to try and remember for future projects if/when we need more help:

  1. Like financial products in your portfolio, never assume past performance is any indicator of future performance.  A reputable company doesn’t always means reputable professionals who work at them.
  2. Make a list of questions about the product and service you are purchasing and make sure you ask those questions beforehand.
  3. Focus on problems you might encounter with a product or service.  No question is a stupid question when it comes to your home and the hard-earned dollars that go into it.
  4. Ask for the owner’s or installation manuals for the product being installed.  Read the manual(s) thoroughly at some point, preferably before or at the time of installation.  Ask the professional any questions about what’s in or not in the manual(s) that you don’t understand.  Even if you can’t do the work yourself, the more you can understand about a product the better equipped you are if/when something goes astray.
  5. Don’t assume after any product or service work, everything is fine and it will stay that way.  Follow-up and keep an eye out for issues.  Challenge the product as advised.  Just like the financial products in your portfolio, risk comes with not knowing what you’re doing or monitoring.
  6. Trust your instincts.  If something looks wrong, feels wrong, it probably is.  Don’t delay and get to the root causes.

As with most things in life, you usually get what you pay for and ask for.  When dealing with professionals, or who you think are professionals, do your own due diligence, ask lots of questions and trust your instincts.  Your home is arguably the largest investment you’ll ever make, so take good care of it and make it last.

Have you ever had any experiences like mine?  Work done by a professional with an amateur result?

14 Responses to "A story about hiring a professional (and getting amateur results)"

  1. A & W Pump offers a full line of service and installation of pumps for submersible and aboveground water system applications. Our lines of products have solid warrantees and are supported by our customer satisfaction policy.

    We have the knowledge and training to find your problem and resolve it. We can provide you with professional and competent service technicians who have the expertise to diagnose and troubleshoot what ever your water pump problem may be. Our service vans are stocked with the most common pumps and parts for quick, on-site service.

  2. This has happened to me but I have learned a new trick for them. When you see a problem, check around on the web. If you see solutions but aren’t comfortable doing them, print them out so you have them. Then call the “professional”. Set aside the time to watch them working. If you see them doing something that is not in what you have, or not doing something that is in what you have, ask why/why not. I caught a plumber making a mistake similar to the one you had and I confronted him. He had to go back and do it. I told him at the time that as far as I was concerned, he had botched the job and every second it was taking to fix it was not being paid by me. I also showed him I had a watch on. I told him I would be phoning his company as soon as he left to report this and the time wasted and that I would follow it up by letter. He was caught totally off balance and was very careful checking everything he did until the end. I called the company and sent off a quick email, asking if they were looking for free negative advertising. My bill arrived, with no time added from the time of the screw-up and another 30% off for my trouble.
    We’ve stopped assuming doctors know everything – it’s time we treated tradespeople the same way.

  3. Nothing is more frustrating than when you pay someone to do a job that you end up having to do in the end. It is such a waste of time, energy, and money. I have seen so many bad jobs done that people I know have had to go to court. It really makes you wonder what the definition of a professional is these days.

  4. Thanks for responding back. You could try letting your pumps sit on a concrete brick, thus keeping it 1 to 2 inches off the bottom. I have done this for friends who are in the same situation as you described.

  5. As a non-handy person, I am in constant fear of “professionals” like this.

    With such a great set up, I can’t help but pimp the eBook I released today on our site. You get “amateur” results from top paid professionals everyday if you invest in mutual funds – if you can’t find the top 1% of mutual funds that is. I’ll stick with my amateur skills thank you very much!

    1. Yeah, it was a sad story with a happy ending.

      I just promoted your eBook Teacher Man. I will be tweeting it all week, and will definitely include in my Weekend Reading roundup. I will hopefully get some time in a few weeks, to complete a thorough review of it 🙂

      Awesome work!


  6. Great to hear that things worked out for you. I stick my sump pump into a 1 gallon ice cream pail. This way there is always at least six to eight inches of water in the pit. Also it is sucking only clean water. Grit and sand can and will burn out your pump.

  7. My experience with plumbers, also in Ottawa, has been that they are more expensive than the dentist!

    The local companies have taken a page from the car dealer shop service manual. That is, charge a standard book price for any service which is based upon the longest and most difficult version of the job.

    For example, replace a tap – normal time less than 30 mins but could take a couple of hours under extraordinary circumstances. So they charge a standard book rate of 2 hours plus travel, or worse.

    Last time I call them to unplug a drain it took 10 minutes exactly in and out the door. The bill was $200. flat rate.

    It doesn’t give one a lot of confidence in asking their advice…


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