Sticker Shock

A couple of weekends ago, I got that unpleasant surprise of no hot water. That’s not nearly as bad as no water, but when you’re looking forward to a hot shower, it’s still a big letdown. After two or so hours of trying to resolve it myself, it was clear that it was time to call in a professional, in this case the company that had installed the product less water heaterthan three years ago. The good news was that everything would still be under warranty.

More good news – right there on the side of my non-working water heater was the installing company’s 24-hour service dispatch number (or so I thought). My call was answered promptly and we set up a service call for the next morning.

There was one minor point of contention: she couldn’t find any record of her company installing the unit. But no problem; as long as I had my paperwork from the installation showing that they had indeed installed it, everything would be covered. I assured her that I did and I even knew exactly where it was filed. She did give me a stern reminder that if it turned out that someone else had installed the product, there would be a significant non-refundable service charge (think Sunday morning) and of course, no warranty coverage.

I never gave it a second thought until later that evening when I grabbed the paperwork out of the file. To my astonishment, the business name on the paperwork didn’t match the company that I had been talking with on the phone! By now, you have probably figured out what happened. Earlier in the year, the plumbing contractor that I’d been on the phone with had been out to repair a broken outside faucet. But while their technician was here, he had slapped his company’s business sticker on the side of my water heater over the sticker of the contractor that had actually installed it. Once I figured this out, I quickly cancelled the one service call and rescheduled with the installing contractor.

Here’s an example where a good business practice was overdone. From both a contractor and consumer perspective, business stickers are great. They’re a convenient and inexpensive way for the homeowner to know who to call if there’s an issue. But this contractor got overzealous with it and almost led me down the wrong path as a result. He ended up coming off as unprofessional. And come to think of it, I better go see whose stickers are on the HVAC unit and water softener. If they belong to him, they’re coming off.

A constant annoyance versus constant pressure

photoA couple of weeks ago, I spent four days hanging around a hunter jumper horse show at one of the largest facilities in the country for these events. Overall, it’s a first-class facility and billed as one of the most beautiful anywhere.

Like any event, there’s always some complaining and over the course of this extended weekend, I heard the usual grumbling from the competitors: “that one judge is biased, the food’s expensive, the events are running behind schedule“, etc. But do you know what the number one complaint was?

“The water pressure here is awful.”

“They’ve got plenty of wash racks but there’s not hardly any water if more than a couple of people are using them”

“It takes forever just to fill a watering bucket.”

It was frustrating to hear, because I knew it didn’t have to be that way. There are numerous pressure boosting products available that could address this or at least make things a lot better. But from what I could tell, a single 6-inch submersible with an undersized pressure tank is supplying the entire facility and all those acres. And beyond the pump house, it’s a hodge-podge of PVC piping that’s been put together over the years as the facility has expanded. Even without knowing all the details of this system, it’s obvious that a few variable-speed or simply single-speed pressure boosting systems would work wonders here. And the cost would be trivial when taken into the overall expenses of managing and maintaining this facility.

Once again, the competition in terms of constant pressure and pressure boosting isn’t necessarily between manufacturers. It’s the alternative of doing nothing. And here’s another case that by doing nothing the owners and management of this otherwise very nice facility constantly keep their customers annoyed.

Next time I’m there, I’m going to track down their maintenance folks and their contractor and get a conversation going. This water system can be better. A lot better.

It’s show time

OLike me, many of you are headed to Virginia Beach this weekend for the South Atlantic Well Drillers’ Jubilee. And many of you aren’t.

There are dozens of reasons not to go this year: the weather is good and you could be in the field, you don’t want to spend the money to get there, you’re apprehensive about the change in venue. I very firmly believe, however, that every one of those reasons is counterbalanced by a reason TO GO–and then some. I’ve written about a few of them in the past, so rather than reinventing the wheel (or the blog post), I thought I’d re-post it here. Before I do, I also want to share some comments from a colleague, which I think sum it all up.

Bring people together who share interests–vendors and customers alike–and give them a chance to share ideas in non-threatening, small group settings. Create opportunities for enrichment. Solve problems. Send people home feeling as if they accomplished something and eager to return the next time.

So here’s my own post from a few years ago. Think about it. There’s still time to get to Virginia Beach. The National Groundwater Expo is coming up later this year in Nashville, and chances are that your own state’s show isn’t too far off either. Which one will you attend?

The South Atlantic Jubilee was held a few weeks ago in Myrtle Beach. Like most trade shows in recent years, attendance was down and the usual theories were passed around as to why. These included: the economy in general, the sad state of the housing industry, and at the other end, “it’s so dry that everyone is out busy working.” I also heard that between the state shows, distributor open houses, and national shows, contractors are just simply weary of trade shows in general. However, the most interesting comment came from an attendee who said, “I used to come here to gather the latest product literature, but I don’t think I need to anymore. You guys have it all on the web”. True enough, but that got me thinking of all the other reasons to attend a trade show.

To begin with, if you’re there to look at product, there’s no better place. The web is terrific, but there’s nothing like looking at new products in person and interacting with the manufacturer’s personnel. You can touch and feel, ask questions, and then perhaps, wander over to their competitor’s booth to compare their products and talk to their people. The web just doesn’t provide that opportunity.

Of course, most states require some type of annual continuing education. There’s generally no better place to get that than at a trade show. It’s 1-stop shopping. This year, the South Atlantic Jubilee offered over 2 days of non-stop classes. And, the feedback that is collected every year on these came in at an all-time high.

Finally, trade shows are a chance to get away from the daily routine for a while and interact with the many other professionals in our industry. And, when you get home, the web is still there, with all the literature.

“How did we live without ________?”

Wouldn’t it be cool if someone made a washing machine and dryer that was one unit? A single appliance with a single door that you put your dirty laundry into and when the cycle was complete, the clothes were clean AND dry. I read recently that the appliance companies have been looking at this for years and in the not too distant future, an integrated washer and dryer may be a reality. Whenever that happens and we all have those, we may look back and think about how ridiculous it was to have to move a pile of wet laundry froFrigidaire-Affinity-Laund08-lgm the washing machine to the dryer. But until then, we just accept the way things are and never give it a second thought.

Looking in the other direction, there are tons of examples already in our lives today. Who knew we needed smart phones, microwave ovens, or cruise control on our cars? But in every case, up until we had those products, we didn’t know the difference.

What about our industry? I would suggest that variable-speed, constant pressure systems fall squarely into this category. I know this because if you ask a homeowner that has upgraded to constant pressure, they will tell you that they will never go back to a conventional system. But for them to get there, their water systems contractor had to lead them there. Not a single one of those homeowners woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Boy, I wish someone made a water system that got rid of that large tank and gave me better, more consistent pressure.” They just assumed that for all the advantages of being on a private water system, these were just things they had to live with. They didn’t know there was a better way until they got to experience it for themselves.

Not everyone has a smartphone and likewise, you won’t sell an upgraded, constant pressure system to all of your customers. But to those customers that you do, they won’t be able to imagine going back to their old system ever again.

In the meantime, I think it’s time to go move my laundry from the washer to the dryer.

It pays to pay attention

One of our Hotline Engineers at Franklin Electric came very close to being on the receiving end of this accident earlier this week. The driver of this vehicle pulled into her parking spot too quickly and hit the curb hard enough to jump it. At that point, the driver panicked, hitting the accelerator instead of the brake, and resulting mayhem ensued. Thankfully, this wasn’t a serious accident and no one was hurt.

Right up until the moment of impact, my colleague was enjoying lunch at a table directly on the other side of that window. He could have been hurt, or at the very least covered in glass, but he was long gone by the time the car came through the window. That’s because he saw the whole thing unfold from the beginning, anticipated what might happen, and was already out of the way when the car arrived.

467551_4957447183034_91358143_oReflecting on it later he said, “You know, ever since I can remember, I’ve always been really aware of my surroundings and what was going on around me. That made a difference here.”

There’s a repeated point to be made about safety here. Safety has lots of components – proper equipment and training and good habits to name a few. But all the training and equipment in the world is no substitute for simply paying attention to what’s going on around us. Are there power lines overhead? Is the power really locked out? Who’s in the area? How tall is that overpass? Will it clear my rig? Is that the neighbor’s kid coming to check out my rig while it’s running?

Paying attention is hard to teach but you never know when it will pay huge dividends. Just ask my colleague.

Cupcakes versus water well drilling

“Barriers to entry” is a marketing term that sounds sophisticated, but all it really means is, “How hard is it to get into a business?” Barriers to entry are simply those things that keep someone new from entering a market.

Barriers to entry take many forms. One of the most common is simply a high amount of capital ($$$) required for someone new to enter a market. The airline industry is a good example here. Related to a high amount of capital is scale, or how large does the business have to be in order to be profitable. The automotive industry is a prime example. Other barriers to entry are an entrenched and loyal customer base (think Starbucks or Harley Davidson), or even legal and regulatory hurdles (think liquor stores).

Obviously, if you’re already in a market or industry (the marketing books call this the incumbent), you want the barriers to entry to be high in order to keep competition out. But if you are starting a business (that’s the entrant), you want the barriers to entry to be low. However, the problem with markets with low barriers to entry is that in the long-term, it’s very difficult to make a profit. That’s because even when you’re first, everyone quickly sees that youDrilling day2’re making a profit and it’s easy for them to jump in.

Here’s a great example: cupcakes. Cupcake shops have been all the rage the last few years. But I ran across an article the other day about the “cupcake bubble”. Come to find out, the cupcake market has reached saturation and even been overbuilt in many regions. Many shops are going out-of-business. There just aren’t enough people to support all those cupcake shops.

So why a cupcake bubble? Because the barriers to entering this market are so low. There are always hurdles to starting any business, but opening a cupcake shop in the scheme of things is pretty easy. So, lots of people saw a profitable trend with low barriers and jumped in. But as a result, it became difficult for most of them to make a profit over the long-term.

So what does any of this have to do with water well drilling and the water systems industry? Well, if you’re a professional water well contractor, the barriers to entry for someone who wants to enter your market are fairly high. It takes specialized equipment that represents a significant capital investment. It also takes specialized expertise and knowledge and experience to be successful. There are also regulatory barriers dealing with licensing and DOT regulations. And chances are you have a loyal customer base.

The point is that not everyone can do what we do as an industry and what you do as a water well contractor. We are unique. And when you couple that with the value and quality of the product we deliver at a very reasonable cost, you start to realize that once again, we’re in a great industry.

No stone unturned

photoI’ve talked about differentiating your business before (Why you?) – that is, how does your business stand out from your competition and deliver a higher level of product and service?  Here’s another simple, but great example of a business doing exactly that.

The pizza business is very competitive. Just think of the number of pizza restaurants in your neighborhood. And although some might argue, pizza is pizza. So, how does one pizza business differentiate itself from all the others in such a commoditized market?

Enter this pizza restaurant (EOC stands for East of Chicago) located in an area that, as you may have guessed, is heavily agricultural. The last few weeks have been planting season, which mean long days in the fields for the farmers and their crews. Those guys get hungry, but don’t have time to go into town for lunch or dinner.

This pizza business has identified that unmet need and offered a solution. By offering “delivery to your tractor”, they’ve not only differentiated themselves, but expanded their customer base. If the sign simply said “WE DELIVER”, it probably never would have occurred to these customers that they could have fresh pizza for lunch, instead of the usual alternative of brown-bagging it.

Think of this example in terms of your water systems business. Are there opportunities and ways of reaching customers right under your nose that you haven’t thought of?

By the way, do you know what the other side of that sign says? “WE ALSO DELIVER TO THE BALLPARK”.

Throw water on it

That’s a picture of an empty pit stall at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In a couple of weeks, at the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500, each of the 33 pits will have two of those five-gallon buckets filled with water to throw on a potential fire.

waterPit fires are relatively rare in racing these days, but they do happen. In the heat of competition, cars leave the pits with fuel hoses still attached; fuel gets spilled onto an exhaust, etc. Fire is always a concern and during the race, there will be plenty of firefighters in Nomex suits close at hand with the equipment to handle any contingency. However, what strikes me is that in the midst of this high-tech sport and modern firefighting, the first line of defense against fire is a 5-gallon bucket of water located in arm’s reach. No special training required.

I remember a scary incident a few years ago during a pit stop in which burning fuel ended up in the cockpit of one of the cars. Before the driver could even get unstrapped, the pit crew had that cockpit filled (and the driver covered) with water from those buckets. The fire was out and the whole thing over in literally seconds. The driver was uninjured and actually went on to finish the race, albeit very wet. What could have turned into something disastrous was averted by the simplest of technologies and actions.

To me, the lesson here applies to just about all safety equipment. The best safety measures are those that are the simplest. Vision and hearing protection, safety vests, hard hats, seat belts, and even pocket voltage detectors are all highly effective, but simple devices.

Secondly, safety is best executed by the people and equipment closest to the situation. The key to the situation above was having those buckets within reach of the pit crew. It’s been said before, but no matter how effective a safety device is, not having it close by or not using it is the same as not having it at all.

Do as I say, not as I do

Franklin Electric, along with others, has always promoted the value of periodic check-ups on private water systems. These involve not only having the well water tested once a year, but encouraging homeowners to have their entire system checked on a regular basis. The end goal is to identify issues before they generate an “out of water” service call at the most inconvenient possible time.

That’s good advice, but the reality is that periodic maintenance simply doesn’t happen very often in our industry. That’s always amazed me and I’ve always said that if I were fortunate enough to have my own private water system, it would be very well maintained – It’s a critical system and I wouldn’t leave it to chance. Along these same lines, I’ve been astonished and somewhat dismayed many times on how little homephoto (5)owners know about their water systems.

Fast forward to just a couple of years ago when I was in my own basement changing the air filters in the heating and air conditioning system. Hidden away next to the blower unit is a Little Giant VCMA condensate pump. Today, I can tell you its model number and that it was manufactured in 1998. But until then, I had never taken any notice of it. As a matter of fact, what actually caught my eye was that it looked just like a product that I had just seen at a Franklin P/HVAC seminar.

In that same Franklin seminar, the periodic light maintenance of condensate pumps was emphasized in order to prevent “silly failures” like stuck float switches due to accumulated dirt and dust. So there I was, the proud owner of a Franklin Electric product that I had not only never serviced over the course of five years, but didn’t even realize I owned (Little Giant was acquired by Franklin Electric in 2006).

Granted, my 15 year-old Little Giant condensate pump isn’t quite as critical as a water system. But if it fails, there’s water in the basement and no air conditioning. I was leaving that to chance, just like all those homeowners that never have their water well systems checked.

It’s said that we are all ignorant, but just about different things. As homeowners, I’ve come to believe that’s especially true. And we all ignore simple maintenance, but just on different things.

Innovative thinking

Schaefer notesI received a gift this week, a really meaningful gift. In the process of preparing to move to our new corporate headquarters, someone discovered one of our company founder’s original engineering notebooks, and I was given the privilege of leafing through it.

For those of you who don’t know much about our company history, Franklin Electric was founded in 1944 by two men with a shared entrepreneurial spirit. One of those men was Edward J. Schaefer. Graduating with a degree in electrical engineering in 1923 from John Hopkins University, Mr. Schaefer worked for General Electric for a number of years before he and T. Wayne Kehoe started this company and named after Benjamin Franklin. Today, we’d call the Franklin Electric they founded  a “start-up”.

Mr. Schaefer was always thinking, inventing, solving. Within a few years, he had patented the first reliable submersible motor designed for residential use, and Franklin Electric submersible motors were soon providing a better way to deliver groundwater than other solutions available at the time. Even today, despite many improvements added along the way, Franklin Electric submersible motors still retain much of Mr. Schaefer’s engineering design and thinking. After retiring as CEO in 1985, Mr. Schaefer continued to work essentially full-time at Franklin Electric until his death in 1991 at the age of 90. Over his lifetime, he was awarded over 80 patents.

Looking through the pages, I was in awe. Reviewing page after page of meticulously handwritten notes, I pored over  calculations, graphs, and drawings on electrical motors, their properties, and how to improve them. I found myself steeped in history–and in the presence of a true visionary. Here’s a glimpse of what I saw:

  • A page of differential equations on the “ACCELERATION OF MOTORS” from January 21, 1929.
  • A page of notes and calculations on “REVOLVING FLUX WAVES IN MOTOR ROTORS” dated January 3, 1930.
  • From June 3, 1931: “SLOT HARMONICS OF ELECTRIC MOTORS”.
  • An entire section labeled “MOTOR ACCELERATION KINEMATCS” from 1943.
  • From 1959, a page on “PULSATION TORQUE OF A SINGLE-PHASE CAPACITOR MOTOR.”
  • From 1973, several sheets of notes and calculations with the title, “BIMETAL THERMAL TIME DELAY GATE SUPPLY FOR THE TRIAC WINDING CONTROL.” (This is the basic design for the BIAC switch still used today in Franklin Electric 2-wire motors.)

The list goes on and on. The book is packed with designs and calculations done with only the benefit of a slide rule–no pocket calculators, no computer-aided-design.

Open any business publication or advertisement today and you’ll see terms like entrepreneur, innovation, and forward thinking. Today they are part of our accepted business vernacular. Personally, I doubt if Mr. Schaefer ever used the word entrepreneur; I understand that he considered himself to be an electrical engineer first and foremost. But his pages of notes over 44 years remind us that innovation and entrepreneurship are not new. In all fields, our innovations today stand on the innovations of others. People like Edward J. Schaefer brought us this far. It’s our job to do the same for the next generation.