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Vive la difference!

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Author
Dan Holohan
Published
January 3, 2009
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I was in France last November, where I had the wonderful opportunity to explain American-heating practices (such as they are) to the folks who run most of the huge European boiler companies. I told them about the good systems and the not-so-good systems, and I told them about the steam heat that is still in so many of our older cities, and probably will be for many more years because we don’t change easily in America. I told them about how, in the luxury apartment buildings of Manhattan, there are often people on staff who ride the service elevators all winter long and knock on doors. These people enter multi-million-dollar digs and then proceed to open and close the radiator valves for people who have way too much money. I explained that we call these people on staff, two-legged zone valves. My new European friends liked that.

            And it’s understandable. I mean those old steam radiators are often encased in exotic wood that you just can’t buy anymore, and the pipes are buried like dead bodies inside marble soffits, and have been for a hundred years or more. Those pipes are tough to get at.

            And fuel is still relatively cheap here compared to what it costs in Europe. I told them that, and I told them that most Americans don’t care if they waste a bit of energy, as long as they’re comfortable. And besides, in most of our steam-heated buildings, the heat is included in the rent. Close the windows, or open the windows; you’ll still pay the same rent. So leave it open a few inches, or a foot. Fresh air is good for you. And besides, if you close the window you’ll probably suffocate because the radiators are as big as footlockers.

            My audience thought all of this was delightful in a primal sort of way – that we use 19th-Century technology to heat many of our buildings. They looked at the photos in my PowerPoint presentation as if they were something recently picked from a nose. They looked at each other. They looked at me. They shook their heads. Some giggled.

            I explained that we have no heating police in America, and that this has a lot to do with the way we live. We’re free to waste as much as we like. In Europe, they have the chimney sweep. He’s the guy that shows up at your house every year to check out your boiler. If it doesn’t meet the federal specs, and if you don’t get it fixed right away, the chimney sweep comes back, cuts the boiler from the pipes, and drags it away. You don’t like that? Tough.

            I told my audience that in America, such a person would be met by people with shotguns. They giggled at that too.

            I told them that there are two basic types of installers in America.  First, we have the Boutiques. These are the people who sit and salivate over the prospect of the next container ship from Europe and what it might contain. I explained that Boutiques will try anything new and that they are wonderful prospects for every European manufacturer, no matter what that manufacturer makes.  Systems can’t possibly be too complicated for Boutiques. They dream in calculus, measure in metric, and speak in gibberish.

            Which can be a problem, since the only people who understand Boutiques are other Boutiques, and when Boutiques speak to each other, they’re almost always arguing over who has the larger brain. No customer has ever understood a Boutique, and that’s why more American stuff gets sold in America than European stuff. Boutiques don’t like to sell American stuff. It’s too, well, common.

            Which brings me to Grandpas. Grandpas sell the American stuff, and the older that stuff is, the longer it has been around, the better.  A Grandpa won’t try anything new and he’ll always ask you for stuff that you haven’t stocked for 20 years. Grandpas are just now getting used to copper tubing. They think plastic is for communists. They like single thermostats with mercury tubes and they like these to start and stop big pumps on long loops of big pipe that run out to huge radiators. The bigger the better. They like boilers that maintain 190° F. water 365 days a year. They drool over tankless coils and they love getting paid in cash. They write their proposals on the backs of their business cards because they know that details just confuse people.

            By the time a Grandpa tries something new, it’s no longer new, but, oh, can they talk! Grandpas, like most consumers, have opinions about everything, and this is why the two get along so well. Both agree that things ain’t what they used to be, and that nobody makes anything good anymore. And both groups believe that a boiler should last at least eighty years and maybe longer.

            I explained to my new European friends how American consumers will get the idea of efficiency in their heads when the price of fuel is rising, and they’ll call the Boutiques to learn more about that because Boutiques usually advertise (Grandpas don’t have to advertise). The Boutique will stop by, talk to the consumer in white noise, and then give a price that will make the consumer’s ears bleed. The consumer will hurry that price over to the Grandpa, who will explain to the consumer that the Boutique is a no-good thief and that none of that stuff from Europe works. How come? It’s from Europe. Buy American!

            My audience was enthralled.

            I showed photos of one Grandpa’s exposed wiring that looked like a bowl of linguine with clam sauce (Hey, I can’t see it from my house!). I also showed the precision work of Boutiques, who level every wire in the house. “See?” I said to my new friends. “In America, we go both ways.” They looked at each other.

            I showed them boilers that had once burned coal, and had since been converted to burn oil, and now natural gas. Same boiler, and it was the size of a minivan and had no jacket. “We like to conserve natural resources,” I explained. “Here, we are conserving a ton of cast-iron.” They gagged on their coffee.

            “I live in a place called the Isle of Long,” I told them. “It’s a small country off the east coast of New York. We have our own language.” They smiled and nodded. Some had visited this peculiar country. “On the Isle of Long, and in many other parts of North America, there are people who heat with fuel oil. Fuel oil dealers deliver the oil with trucks and hoses. I know you have such companies in Europe.” They nodded. “Well, here’s the difference between our fuel oil dealers and your fuel oil dealers,” I said. “In many parts of America, if you heat with oil, you don’t have to pay for service or parts. All you have to do is threaten to buy your oil from the competitor, and your current fuel oil dealer will give you at least five years of free service and parts. He will come to your house any time of the day or night, and any day of the year, and breathe new life into your antique heating equipment. It doesn’t matter how old the equipment is, or whether it’s walking or limping. He will keep it running. There is never a reason to buy anything new in America if you have a fuel-oil service contract.” My new friends choked on their French pastries. “This, too, is how we conserve heating equipment,” I said. “It’s all very green. Moldy, actually.”

            Oh, and in that Manhattan apartment building with the two-legged zone valves? I told them about how I had visited an apartment that had just sold for $16.5 million. The new owner had the place gutted right down to the concrete and was redoing it to his taste. The old place was move-in quality, but some people are funny that way. They want what they want. I told about this and one of my new friends said, “Surely the new owner is having a modern heating system installed.” He still didn’t get it.

            I explained the they were replacing the old boiler with a new one. “That’s why I was there,” I said. “They wanted an opinion on the old steam system.”

            “And what sort of boiler will they be putting in now?” he asked.

            “Same thing,” I said. “Steam.” (more gagging).

            “And the radiators? Will someone still have to open and close the valves for the wealthy tenant when he is too hot and too cold?”

            “Oh, sure. That’s all part of the service this building offers. Pretty swanky, don’t you think?”

            Gag, gag, gag.