A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations — Especially When Doing a Job

The first part of this month’s title is a quote by actor Clint Eastwood at the end of one of his Dirty Harry movies. These movies were made in the 1970s and 1980s and featured Eastwood as a San Francisco police detective who got the nickname Dirty Harry because his name was Harry and he was given a lot of difficult or “dirty” jobs. He made this comment in the movie after dispatching a crooked cop played by another fine actor, Hal Holbrook. Recently, I had a couple of — if not “dirty” jobs — difficult ones where I had to realize my own limitations.

On the first job, I got a call from a customer who said, “John, my pump is coming on and off every two or three seconds and has been doing this all night.” This customer is a widow who operates a small farm and specializes in horses — boarding, lessons and so forth. She has a 5-inch PVC-cased well that was drilled by others before I acquired her for a customer. This is equipped with a submersible pump and a captive air tank in the basement of an old farm house. I installed both the pump and the tank.

I asked her if she had any faucets open and she replied she didn’t think so. The short cycle of the pump is a dead giveaway that she had a waterlogged tank. For those readers unfamiliar with tanks, any style tank on a small system, or really any pneumatic system for that matter, has got to be a tank of air — sometimes pressurized when empty and sometimes not. Loss of this air, either by leakage or it being absorbed by the water in the tank, will lead to a situation we call waterlogging. Water cannot be compressed at the normal pressures we see on systems; only air can. Even bladder tanks or captive air tanks, as they are properly known, can somehow lose their air. This is a service matter that has plagued our industry since pressure tanks were first used, although the problem is much less today than it was 50 years ago.

I asked the customer to check to see if she had any faucets open or partially open, and I would be on the way to her site within the hour. I also told her to turn off the power to the pump, as this short-cycle operation will kill any motor known to man faster than you can say “out of warranty.” I got out my service truck and drove to the customer’s location. She had not turned off the pump and the unit was cycling as she described. I was able to cut the electricity to the pump after finding the breaker switch in an old, cluttered and unsafe (the cover was off) electrical panel. As I suspected, she had a severely waterlogged tank. Somewhat to my surprise, using my trusty portable compressor, I was able to empty the tank of water and super charge it a little bit. By super charging, I mean building up a little air pressure so the pump starts to pump against 15 or 20 psi of air, or perhaps 35 psi in a higher-pressure system, rather than against 0 psi. This increases the effective capacity of a tank by a large margin. I turned the power back on and the pump ran properly. Actually emptying the tank is unusual with a captive air tank and you have to empty out water, not just add air pressure, to remedy a waterlogged condition.

After turning the water back on to the system, my customer did indeed find a partially open yard hydrant and said she closed it. While the system was back in good shape, this was only a temporary fix and I told her we would have to replace the tank. I also told her that I do not stock tanks at my shop and I would have to get a replacement from a supply house. My customer agreed this was reasonable, and thanked me for coming so quickly. I drove back to my shop.

On return to my shop, I contacted a supply house some miles away from my location but the one that is closest to me and found they had a grand total of one tank that I needed to do this job. They said they would hold it for me and, after eating some lunch, I headed out on some other tasks I had planned to do that day. As I drove along, it occurred to me that this job was beyond my limitations. Let me expound on that. I work alone, have no family nearby that could assist me with this job and am, frankly, an old man. To compound this, my customer had what we might call a “semi-Michigan basement.” By this, I mean only part of the floor was concrete, the rest being dirt I believe, and there were several stubs of pipe — perhaps the remains of old drains sticking up through the concrete. There was also no floor drain and the steep stairway to the basement had only a partial railing — that is, the top four or five steps had no hand railing at all. If you think this sounds like a place an older man should stay out of to do service, you and I are in agreement. I decided I could not safely do this job.

After I completed my other tasks for the day, I stopped back to the jobsite and told the customer what I had concluded. She could understand my reasons but asked what she would do now. I gave her the name of a good contractor about 30 miles away, to whom I often refer work I cannot do. I told her to call them and tell them she needed a tank replaced. I gave her the model number of the tank and told her to tell them that John Schmitt had installed the defective unit. She thanked me again and I returned to my shop, the day being over. Somewhat to my surprise, the next morning an office person from the contractor called and asked what the deal was — why was I not replacing this tank myself? I explained the condition of the work site, my age and other factors, and this lady thanked me and said they would take care of customer with the horse farm.

A week or so later, the customer sent me a nice note thanking me for my efforts and said that the other contractor had gotten her all fixed up. This is actually the important point: We, the recommended contractor and myself, got a consumer’s system working properly. Would I have liked to change that tank? Yes. Could I have changed? Probably. Did I make the right decision? I think so. I knew my limitations. Oh yes, I did call the supply house and tell them I did not need a tank and they were very understanding. Too many times in my career, I have seen a contractor bid on a job he was ill prepared and experienced to do. I have heard of many botched jobs where the client took the low bid and did not inquire as to the qualifications of the low bidder. The low bidders sometimes do not know their limitations.

I have written this a few days from Thanksgiving, and you will be reading this after the New Year and it will be 2018. I hope you had a pleasant holiday season and a safe one, too, and most importantly a profitable 2017. My semi-famous lawn is still somewhat green and I mowed it for the last time about three weeks ago. My lawn mowing tractor is now equipped with the snow blade and I am ready for the snow we have yet to get (although we have had a huge amount of rain). Until next time, don’t be afraid to take on a tough challenge, but stay within your limitations. Next time, I will write about a couple other tough or dirty jobs that I did do.

For more John Schmitt columns, visit www.thedriller.com/schmitt.