Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Meeting - and saying goodbye to - Mr. Rooter

Regular readers will know that over the years I've used the blog a number of times to point out remarkable customer service, whether it came from Sprint, Northwest Airlines or whomever. This, however, is NOT one of those stories.

In front of our house sits a beautiful dogwood tree that is at least 40 feet high and spreads wonderful, cooling shade in the summer over the entire house. The downside of this great tree is that it has a deep, complex root structure that sometimes causes problems with my plumbing.

The problem first reared its head about five years ago, on the same weekend that my daughter Erin was getting married. We woke up to a basement floor that was flooded with some really yucky, smelly backed-up water just a day before a number of guests and family would be at the house. A quick call to a plumbing acquaintance brought some help, and was quite instructive. He ran a camera down the offending drain and showed me how roots from the tree had worked their way through the underground pipe that runs from the house to the street, and he then used something called a power scrubber to blow away the roots and open the drain. He also explained that this was only a temporary solution, and that over the years, the roots would grow back and eventually cause the same problem.

Fast forward five years, to a couple of weeks ago, when the drain began to back up onto the basement floor again.

Luckily - or at least we thought it was lucky - we had just received a postcard in the mail from an outfit called "Mr. Rooter." It had a local phone number, as well as a coupon that promised $51 off of "any plumbing service." So we decided to give them a call.

Within a few hours a fellow from Mr. Rooter arrived. I explained the root history problem and he said that for about $350, he could run a cutting blade down the drain that would cut away some of the roots and get the water flowing again. It wouldn't be a permanent solution, he explained, and said that eventually the pipe would need "hydro scrubbing" again. Which I understood, and acknowledged that we would have to have that done later, perhaps this summer.

So he went to work, and within a few minutes he said there was a problem. On the basement floor there is a metal cap that needs to be opened in order to access the drain, and he said he was unable to open that cap because it had become "fused" to the floor. Instead, he would have to take out the downstairs toilet and access the drain pipe through there, and it was going to be another $145 or so. Again, I said "fine" and left him to work.

A couple hours later he finished. It was, he explained, a difficult job because the roots were getting thicker, and the hydro scrubbing should definitely come sooner, rather than later. For the time being, however, he said the drain was "50 percent clear" and would at least get our daily plumbing functioning normally again. I was happy with the service, and we sat down at the kitchen table to settle up the bill.

Except there was no bill to show me, because the Mr. Rooter guy keeps track of everything on a little tablet computer, and without a printer, there was no paperwork. But he said the total came to $512, and that didn't seem horribly out of line and I was okay with that. As I took out my checkbook I showed him the coupon THAT HIS COMPANY HAD SENT TO US and said, "Well, this will take a little bite out of it."

No, he explained, that coupon wasn't valid because "that's only for plumbing." I sort of half-chuckled at the notion that taking out a toilet, cleaning a drain and re-installing the toilet wasn't "plumbing," (What WAS it? Carpentry? Masonry?) but I said okay and started to write the check.

He then said that there WAS an internet coupon that would let him take $20 off the bill. That mollified me a little, and so I wrote a check for $492 and some change. He couldn't give me a receipt, however, because all his "paperwork" was on the tablet, but he offered to email me a copy of the bill later. Again, I was fine with that.

Later that night the email arrived, and I opened the attachment to look at the bill.What jumped out at me was the first item on the bill, which was a $15 "fuel surcharge."

I'm familiar, of course, with fuel surcharges. UPS, which I use to ship a lot of items, will tack on a fuel surcharge when gas prices get up in the $4.00 range. The airlines, and some trucking companies, use similar charges, and I'm okay with that during times of high fuel prices.

But on the day in question, gas here in the Red Wing area was $1.89 a gallon. Not exactly sky-high prices. And Mr. Rooter had come from Zumbrota, a town about 20 miles away, meaning that even if his truck got a measly 10 miles per gallon, the round trip had cost less than $8.00 in fuel, which makes a $15 "surcharge" seem a little shady. So now, in my mind, there were two little "strikes" against my Mr. Rooter experience - the failure to honor their own coupon, and a fuel surcharge.

Strike three arrived two days later, when the basement floor was once again flooded from the same backed-up drain. Now I was out $492 - including the "fuel surcharge" - and I still had sewage in my basement. Once again, the call went out to Mr. Rooter, and my expectation was to hear something like, "Oh, we're sorry, we'll get right out there and fix it."

That's not what I got.

What I got instead was a promise that the NEXT day, Mr. Rooter might be able to get someone out there in the afternoon, and a warning that in the meantime I should be careful not to run the dishwasher, washing machine, or take a shower.

On the scheduled afternoon, I had to be at a client's office in St. Paul, but Penny was home with her day-care kids and I asked the Mr. Rooter scheduler if she could have the plumber call me when he arrived at the house so I could discuss what we were going to do. And shortly after noon he did call to say he was parked in front of the house. He also said that he had brought along his "hydro scrubbing" machine and was ready to clean out the drain. I asked for a ballpark estimate on the cost, so that I could have Penny ready to write a check. He said it would be "$611 for the first two hours, and maybe about $800 if it takes me longer."

Again, I wasn't terribly upset by the number, but I did ask if I was going to get some sort of allowance for the $492 I had just paid him for work that only left me with a still-clogged drain. That's when he started to get belligerent.

"No," he said. "I told you it needed hydro scrubbing and that you had a real root problem. This is a $50,000 machine, and it costs money to run it and that's the price."

I told him that - as someone who own and runs a business - I completely understood the cost, but I also understood that I felt an obligation to stand behind my work, and I would have a hard time charging one of my clients if my work had been unsatisfactory. Shouldn't a "50% clean" drain stay clear for more than 48 hours? 

"I never said it was 50% clear," he said, in what was a bald-faced lie. "I said right on the write-up that it needed hydro scrubbing."

Of course, if there even was such a "write-up," I never saw it. The only paperwork I had gotten was an invoice with a fuel surcharge on it.

At that point, his attitude and demeanor had gotten so hostile that I decided I didn't want him in the house with Penny and her day-care kids, especially when I wasn't around, so I told him "never mind, thanks for coming out and good bye."

Later that afternoon I called an acquaintance of mine that owns a plumbing company in Red Wing to ask his advice. I hadn't called him originally because I was under the impression that they only did commercial and construction plumbing. Turns out I was wrong, and that they do residential work as well. "We'll come out and power scrub it for you," he said. "It will probably be about $400 and it will get you by a few more years before you have to do something about the pipe."

A couple of his guys showed up the next morning - removed the floor cap that Mr. Rooter guy said was "fused" to the floor - and blew the roots out of my pipe. It was quick, clean and simple, and hundreds cheaper than what Mr. Rooter wanted to charge.  Most importantly, it actually worked, and the drain is flowing free again.

I asked my friend about how I should address the long-term problem of the pipe and the tree roots. Mr. Rooter guy had said they could install a liner in the pipe that would keep the roots out, but that they would need 2-3 days, and it would cost between $4,000 and $6,000. My friend just chuckled.

"We do a lot of jobs where we have to take care of problems from those liners. We'll come out and dig up the old pipe, put a new one in and your problem will be solved forever," he said. "It will take us an afternoon, and I would guess about $3,000."

So I guess this summer or next, we'll have that done, but in the meantime I'm out $492 for a plumbing call that solved nothing. I guess conciliation court is my only option, but of course that means giving up a day to file papers, then go back for court, trying to collect, etc. I'll see if it fits in the schedule, or else I may have to just chalk it up as tuition in the school of "Don't ever call Mr. Rooter." Consider yourself warned.

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