Think before writing
"Please be advised that the reason we must replace the pumps in all the buildings mentioned below is as follows: The pumps are sized improperly for each building. The buildings are four stories high, which is approximately 40 feet, and the existing pumps in all the buildings are pumping only 25 feet.
"The pumps that we will install are capable of pumping 64 feet. This will guarantee us heat on every floor in all the buildings. The existing pumps must run 24 hours per day to maintain minimum heat. After installation of the new pumps, it will be necessary to run only one pump, and the other pump will be a standby. Here is a list of the pumps and the prices for each."
The contractor presented the building agent with prices that would make a billionaire gag. And that's why the agent hired the engineer. He needed another set of eyes to look at this thing.
I called the engineer and thanked him for the giggle. I told him I hoped the contractor would get better soon, and realize that he was sizing those pumps properly only if the water was going to go up to the top-floor radiators and never return.
"I let the building management agent know that this guy is a real idiot," the engineer said.
"How'd you do that?" I asked.
"I wrote him a letter and said so."
"What did you write in the letter?" I asked, becoming concerned for him.
"I'll fax you a copy," he said.
And here, without the names of the parties involved, is what the engineer wrote:
"I reviewed the letter this person has sent you, and I am saddened by the ignorance shown by someone who is supposed to be a mechanical contractor. He states that the building is 40 feet high, and that the existing pumps can only pump 25 feet. He concludes, based solely on this statement, that the pumps are undersized. THE HEIGHT OF THE BUILDING HAS VIRTUALLY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SIZE OF THE PUMP.
"A pump is sized based on the amount of water it has to circulate and the friction that it has to overcome. The feet of head refers to the amount of pressure drop, which is equivalent to feet of head in alternative units, produced by friction through the pipe and pipe fittings. To calculate the amount of pressure drop, one must convert the total equivalent length of piping into pressure drop and add the pressure drop produced by the fittings. That is it! The height of the building has nothing to do with the size of the pump!!!
"One then uses the amount of water to be circulated and the calculated pressure drop to select a pump from the pump curves such as those provided by the contractor.
"It should be noted that if the static pressure in the system, or the amount of city pressure provided to the building cannot lift the water to the top floor, then the upper floors will be short of water. However, the buildings are provided with adequate city pressure and the size of the circulating pumps will not have any effect on the static pressure.
"The installation of larger pumps will not only be a total waste of money, but the pumps will be much more expensive to operate.
"If there are any further questions, please do not hesitate to call me."
There's no question that the engineer was right. The existing pumps were fine, and it was lousy system balance that was causing the problem, as it often does. The contractor had made a mistake, and he had put his mistake in writing. But the engineer had made an even greater mistake by saying that the contractor was ignorant. And he, too, put his mistake in writing.
"You better hope this guy doesn't sue you," I said.
"How can he sue me? I'm right!" the engineer laughed.
I tried to explain to him that being right has little to do with being sued. "This is America," I said. "People sue each other every day, and for worse reasons than this. This guy may think you hurt his reputation, and he's liable to take you to court over that."
"Well, bring it on," the engineer said. "I'll win!"
"You might win, but it could take years.
And in the meantime, you'll be getting your legal education by spending time in little rooms giving depositions, as you pay your lawyer by the hour to defend you."
"Well, I don't think it will come to that," he said.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
Thing is, he could have written the same letter without the capital letters, the exclamation points, and certainly without telling the building management agent that the contractor was ignorant. He could have made his case from a technical standpoint, and let the management agent draw his own conclusions. Read the engineer's letter again and you'll see what I mean. All he had to do was lose the invective. He'd wind up with a perfectly usable letter that would bring the same facts to light, without exposing himself to a possible lawsuit.
When I was much younger than I am now, and far more stupid, I worked for a manufacturer's representative, and we sold pumps. One hot day in August, our competitor sent a letter to the local contractors, stating that he had a better deal on pumps than we did. This, in my young brain, meant war.
So I took this guy on, and in writing. I wrote a letter to the same people and questioned that guy's business integrity. I did this because I was in a competitive battle with him, and because I was young and stupid. I got caught up in the heat of the moment. I thought I was right, and I really laid into him, and all in the name of my company.
Funny thing was, I really liked the guy, and I still do. I took him on back then because I thought it was the right thing to do in a competitive situation. After all, he had taken the first shot, hadn't he? This was war!
He sued our company for millions of dollars, and I learned all about libel laws.
The lawsuit dragged on for eight years, and it took up much of my time. It determined when I could go on vacation, and where I could go. I wasn't allowed to travel far because I may have to show up for a deposition, or a meeting with the lawyers, at any time. This lawsuit affected every word I wrote during those eight years. Absolutely everything I did had to be reviewed by the lawyers, and their meters just kept running. I did a lot of rewriting during those days. None of this was much fun.
The case never went to court, but it did last for those eight long years before being settled. I watched my children grow up around that lawsuit. I dreamt about it most nights. I couldn't get away from it for a minute, and today, I think about it every time I sit at a keyboard. It changed me.
I wish I had given more thought to those words before I put committed them to paper. They weren't fair words, but I was young and stupid, and full of fury and competitive vengeance back then.
And that's what I was trying to explain to the engineer when he shared his letter to the building agent with me. You can be technically right, and you can jump all over another human being. You can beat him up real good, and make him look stupid.
You can revel in your own brilliance, and strut. But as you're doing this, by e-mail, or by letter, please give some thought to how it's going to sound when some lawyer for the other side reads those words back to you at trial.
And then please consider a gentler way of making your point.