On the Fence
I looked and realized that this winter, mild as it had been, had not been at all gentle with the old fence. “You should do something about the other sides while we’re at it,” Tony said. He would be chipping in for the one side, but not for the other two– Neighbor’s Rules. I couldn’t get any money from the other two neighbors (don’t ask), so I sighed and agreed, and Marianne and I headed to the fence store.
It had been more than 20 years since we bought a fence so we were in for some sticker shock, but we came to terms and wrote a check and I sat back and waited. And while I was waiting, I noticed that there was an electrical outlet attached to the fence post next to the house. This was a remnant of the days when we had a small aboveground swimming pool in our yard. Local code calls for an outlet near the pool filter, and another near the house, so that I shouldn’t be tempted to plug in a radio near the pool. Which would have been impossible since the outlet near the pool has a different sort of plug, but code is code and I respect that.
Our four daughters enjoyed the pool for a time and then never again went into it. None of us did. I opened it each spring and closed it each fall. I fed it chemicals and skimmed it each day, and when Marianne finally agreed with me that its time had come, I disassembled that pool on a sunny afternoon with an axe, while it was still filled with chlorinated water, and that was a satisfying experience.
Years went by and the outlet near the now-gone pool was still sticking out of the lawn and looking ugly. With the new fence coming, I figured that now would be a good time to have that outlet removed, and the one on the fence moved. So I went searching for a good electrician, and here is what I learned about the service business along the way.
First an explanation: My do-it-myself days are over. I learned the hard way, though experience and visits to the emergency room, that when it comes to doing things around the house, I am a very good writer. When I was younger and dumber, I would rise to the challenge of wife and friends. They’d say, “You can do that yourself and save a ton of money!” And I, being stupid, would try and I would wind up in the emergency room.
So with age, came wisdom, and now I call people.
As for the electrician, I first went online, but came up empty. That was strange. No local electricians advertise online. Imagine that in this day and age. So I opened the Yellow Pages and looked there. I found what seemed like the perfect company for my little job. They had a friendly, well-written, half-page ad. They were local, did commercial and residential work, and no job was too small. So I called.
A woman answered the phone on the second ring. She had a smile in her voice. I told her about my new fence, how I needed to have an outdoor outlet moved, and how I wanted the one in the garden disconnected. She said that wouldn’t be a problem at all, and then she asked me how I had heard of them.
“I saw your ad in the Yellow Pages,” I said.
“Do you have the ad handy?”
“I do,” I said.
“Would you please read me the number in the lower-right-hand corner of the ad?”
“That’s very smart,” I said. “I’m in business too; I know what you’re doing. That’s very smart.”
“Thanks,” she said. “We spend a lot of money on advertising and it’s important for us to know what’s working and what’s not.”
So far, so good, right? Sharp outfit, don’t you think?
Here’s what happened next.
“Our service manager, Howie, is in the back,” she said. “I’ll have him call you within the next 15 minutes.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said, and then I waited.
The sun went down; the moon came up. Morning arrived, and I waited. At 11 AM, I called back and got the same young woman. Same smile in her voice. I told her that Howie had never called. She showed concern and she apologized profusely. Howie had just stepped out. She still had all my information. He would call me within an hour. Promise.
The sun went down; the moon came up. No Howie. I went about my business and the next day I took out the Yellow Pages to call someone else. And that’s when Howie called.
“Yeah, this is the electrician,” he said. “You called?”
“Is this Howie?”
“How nice of you to call, Howie.”
“Yeah, what can I do for you?”
So I told him and he said that he had a crew in the neighborhood. They could be there today, and he told me it would be $175, which I thought was reasonable, so I said okay.
A few hours later, two guys showed up. The lead guy was about my age and very friendly. His helper was just out of high school and obedient. The lead guy told him what to do, he started doing it it, and I followed the lead guy and watched because I never know where my next article might come from.
He stood by the side of our house for a few minutes, looking up at the main line that ran from the pole to the meter. He looked at me and again at the line, and then at me. “Watcha do for a livin’?” he said.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said, “but I work here at home.”
“Cool,” he said. “You got computers and other electronic stuff like that in the house? You got a refrigerator?”
“I sure do.”
“You got a TV?”
“Answering machine and a microwave oven.”
“Well, you really should let me install a whole-house surge protector while I’ve got your panel open,” he said. “The power around here is a bit hinkey. You ever have electronic stuff break down?”
“Sure, who hasn’t?” I said.
“Most of the time, it fries because of a power surge. It doesn’t take much and you never know when it’s gonna hit you. And you never know what happened after it does. You got surge protectors on your computers?”
“How about on the other stuff?”
We got a special on whole-house surge protectors while I got your panel opened. It’s just $275 and it comes with a $10,000 guarantee. I could put it in right now.”
And because I think about power surges all the time, being so close to computers and all, and because what he had said made sense, I told him to do it. And it was a nice add-on to his sale.
When he was done with what he had come to do, and while his helper was cleaning up, he said to me, “Take a look at this. I want to show you something.” We were by the side of my house and he pointed up toward that main line that comes in from the pole. “We call that a rope,” he said. “It’s the cheapest way to run power from a pole to a house. They probably did this when they did your dormer.”
“That’s the problem with subcontractors,” he said. “They do things on the cheap. Oh, this meets code, but it wears after years. Look, you can see it’s starting to wear here.”
It looked okay to me, but I’m no expert. “Is it unsafe?” I said.
“It could be. I’m going to get you a price on having it replaced.”
And that’s when he called Howie and explained the situation.
“He’s going to get back to me with a price,” the lead guy said.
“Probably not for a while, though,” I said.
“No, he’ll call right back.”
I went into the house and got us some soft drinks and we sat in my yard, chatting about life and the service business for the next hour or so. The lead guy finally called Howie back and Howie gave him the price, which was nearly $2,000.
“Here you go,” the lead guy said. “I need you to sign a release that I’ve told you about this possible unsafe condition. Howie will call you in a couple of days to follow up.”
That was six weeks ago. I look at the “rope” every couple of days. It looks okay to me. It hasn’t caused any problems so far, and I figure that if it were that critical, Howie would have called. It’s probably okay. And Marianne agrees.
So I do nothing. I’m sort of on the fence with the whole thing.