Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Water Heater

My water heater was put out of its misery on 4/28/2018. It had a good life. For fifteen years it served my family well, through bitter cold days when we maybe stayed in our showers a bit longer than needed. It wasn't a famous brand name; that journeyman water heater did its job with distinction.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed water on the garage floor. I thought it was from my son's car, condensation from the AC. Last weekend I removed the things stored in front of the water heater and realized it was fatally broken, leaking from somewhere inside. There's little you can do about that.

All week I kicked around my options. I wanted to go with a tankless type water heater, but my gas line and vent were both undersized for that and I didn't have the time to properly plan a way to do it. Besides, it wouldn't save me that much money to go tankless, considering the added cost.

Saturday I went to the U-Haul dealer and rented an appliance dolly for $10, then went home to prepare. I cleaned out the area in front of the water heater and looked over the current space. It's been a very long time since I did any plumbing work, but the nature of the work has changed in that time. These days there is no need to solder copper pipes together; there are all sorts of compression fittings available to make the job easier. The problem with those products, I soon learned, is that they are not quite as flexible as their steel-braided design makes them appear.

My son was coming home to help with the install, so just after noon I went to Lowes and bought the water heater. I let the old water heater drain for a half hour, which somehow wasn't long enough. We moved it anyway. An old water heater will collect sediment, making it quite a bit heavier than a new one. Our new water heater was 150 pounds; the old was around 175 at least. They are cumbersome things, with no handles or any place to grab onto. The space for our water heater is a bit tight. I wiggled in on one side, my son took the front, and slowly, carefully, we slid it off it's stand to the floor.

He helped me position the new one, which wasn't much easier. In the end I grabbed it underneath and just muscled it up onto the stand, proof that sometimes you can over-engineer solutions to things that are best resolved with a direct approach.

Two hours later, after three trips to Lowes and one to Home Depot because I was embarrassed to go back to Lowes again, the water heater was connected and hot water flowed again to the house. (I would have to go to both Lowes and Home Depot a final time to return some things.)

I bring this up for a couple of reasons.

First, while I knew how to install a water heater, I didn't know how to plan to install a water heater. Those are vastly different things, and it's important for project leaders to understand this distinction. There are experts in a field who know what they're doing; they also cost a lot of money. For example, I would have had to pay someone at least $500 to install my water heater; all of the parts I needed cost less than $100. You pay for experience and the efficiency that brings. When you ask someone without that experience to figure things out, that will take more time and that has to be built into the project plan.

Second, not every mistake is critical. With the water heater I knew the general parameters of what I was doing, and worked well within those. Sure, I made some mistakes, including some that I never thought about (like the gas line connection needing some re-routing). But those mistakes were bumps on the road, not show stoppers.

Far too often we fear those little mistakes so much that we see them as larger than they are. That's where the expression "make a mountain out of a mole hill" comes from.

So go about your day with perspective. Mistakes are normal. They help us grow and improve. And be willing to let your staff make them, and let them try things they don't know how to do.

Saturday, May 5, 2018


My son is heading off to college soon. It has made me reflect back on the choices I've made, both for me and for him. They seem to have worked out, for the most part. He has scholarship offers from two excellent schools. He still likes to hang out with me; asks to hang out with me, in fact.

Maybe it's those mountain roots.

When I was young, living in the shadow of the Appalachians, we pretended to be farmers. Really, we were just bumpkins who had some land, and every so often we had cows or horses or something that looked like a garden. And I mean that in the most positive way. Readers of my blog know that I am quite proud of my redneck heritage. Everyone should be, because we all share that past. Just about everyone was, a generation or two back, people of the land. Country folk. Rednecks. Not the pretenders who live on half acre lots and drive pristine trucks with knobby tires that have never seen a speck of mud, with a spray-in bed liner that has never known dirt or mulch or any hardship, much like the men who drive those trucks; and it's mostly men who pretend to be that which they aren't: rednecks. I don't begrudge them their fantasy; maybe I'm one of them, though my truck is beat up and is held together only by the quality manufacturing processes of Toyota. I seek out hardship, it seems. I use a push mower, hand cut wood, come up with projects that guarantee physical pain just so I can figure out a problem and walk away from it with blisters and cuts and body aches in places that really shouldn't ache.

That's how I was raised. Work meant using your hands and I never really fully grasped how to work any other way than by doing.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I stayed at my first job, as a ditch digger at the water company. Would I be on my first back surgery? My second knee surgery? Would I have continued riding bikes? Would I have ridden more? Would books mean as much to me as they do today?

Would I be happy at work? Or does that follow the person and not the job? One thing about the blue collar world: the hierarchy is more structured and more respected. You become a foreman for a reason, and I've never heard of that title being taken away form someone without it including a termination letter. Responsibility is earned and taken seriously. I was lucky in my life to have good managers, for the most part. But the best were in those days when I labored for a living.

I have tasted that responsibility in my career and had it yanked away in the most cruel way, for reasons either fabricated or exaggerated. It's not something I understand, and maybe never will. Humans confuse me sometimes.