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After the COVID-19 pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders went out across the country, contractors stepped up and led the way delivering … groceries … prescriptions … pizza … and, yes, even flowers. Of course, plumbing and heating pros, deemed essential workers during this crisis, were also at the ready to keep the water running and boiler working, too.
However, since our readers and their customers all found themselves in a strange “new normal,” I’ve been posting stories almost daily to my LinkedIn and Facebook pages that highlight what contractors have done to provide a different sort of comfort to their customers.
How many? Too many to count. Early on, for example, I read about how Lifetime Heating and Air Conditioning, Snohomish, Washington, partnered with other local home service companies to help elderly community members with free grocery deliveries.
“It takes a village,” Lifetime owner Dwight Miller told us. “This is a great chance to come together and help everyone in our community facing tough times.”
And by “everyone” Miller, who along with fellow owner Darrick Philp took it upon themselves to make many of the deliveries, means customers and noncustomers alike. It’s easy these days to take advantage of online ordering, and many other contractors were picking up on this to make deliveries. Lifetime then dropped off the groceries at the front door to avoid unnecessary exposure.
Miller later extended his services to include free furnace filters for first responders and free duct sanitizing for healthcare workers.
Likewise, Discount Plumbing, a San Francisco business with a fleet of 50 trucks, began delivering prescription medicine.
“This is a crazy time for all of us,” says company CEO Kevin Griffin, adding that in the early stages of California’s stay-at-home orders, his 30-year business was down 40 percent.
Griffin first made the unusual announcement to his client list of 50,000, then expanded it to anyone he could help. The dispatchers get a call or email, and if a truck is available, it goes to the correct pharmacy. Inside, after an exchange of signatures and I.D., the medicine is delivered.
While grocery and medicine delivery are hard to beat for those who should stay inside, how about some free toilet paper? Now there’s a consumer product that’s still in short supply.
But thanks to some quick thinking by Robert Broccolo who owns Professional Drain Services of Southern New England, Westerly, Rhode Island, he was able to give out some 550 rolls to 100 families – and no service call required. In fact, Broccolo says in the early days of the pandemic his daily calls dropped to one or two and, some days, none at all.
While most consumers searched in vain for the paper, Broccolo called a distributor who supplies toilet paper to commercial businesses, Porta Potty rental companies and the like.
"During times like these I want to make sure people aren’t flushing crazy items down their drain, which could cause more issues to what we are already dealing with," he says. "Everyone flushes those flushable wipes. You know what else is flushable – a T-shirt!"
OK, we could all use toilet paper. But how about some flowers to brighten the day?
For a couple of weeks in April, Hero Plumbing, Heating and Cooling, Minneapolis, delivered a bouquet or flowering plant to every service call throughout the Twin Cities.
“People love it,” says Jessica Blessing, the company’s social media coordinator. “It’s a great way to say thank you to our customers, and it has really put a smile on everyone’s faces, which is a great thing is this difficult time.”
Another way to brighten the day is pizza for lunch – even better, free pizza for lunch.
While we didn’t get a chance to get in touch with Pennsylvania contractors Rex Smith and John Henry, we did read about their generosity dropping off dozens of pizzas to healthcare workers at Reading Hospital, Reading, Pennsylvania.
Henry, who owns J.G. Henry Plumbing and Heating, Fleetwood, Pennsylvania, told a local TV news station that he first got the idea after talking to his daughter, who’s a nurse at the hospital.
“So, I said how would you like to have lunch on your old man?” Henry said.
Henry teamed up with Smith, who owns Rex Smith Refrigeration, also in Reading. After the hospital, the two dropped off more pies at Reading Rehab.
“The ones we were showing up and delivering to, they had no idea," Smith added. "And it was just like total smiles and appreciation on their faces, which puts a smile on my face."
These stories don’t look like they’re coming to a stop any time soon from what I’ve read during my morning Google news searches.
In fact, the morning I wrapped up this feature, I read about how Canfield Plumbing & Heating, Lowell, Michigan, helped hard-hit local businesses such as nail salons and restaurants forced to close by matching gift card purchases. The company’s campaign, first announced on its Facebook page, pumped $53,000 into the community.
And while we may not cover the UK plumbing scene, I also read about Jordan Jack and Anthony Murray who run Absolute PhD in Swindon, a town in Southwest England, who donate their labor for free to anyone working for the National Health Service.
“We just wanted to do something to give something back,” Jack told the local newspaper.
By the way, we read about Canfield in a post by the local ABC TV news station as part of its “One Good Thing” program to highlight the good news happening in Western Michigan. So, while we can’t write about every plumbing and HVAC professional we’ve read about recently, consider the following to be just a snapshot of the many good things done by our readers during these crazy times.
Williams Comfort Air
We’ll leadoff with Williams Comfort Air, based in Carmel, Indiana, if only because our LinkedIn post received almost 3,000 views, 51 reactions and more than a few comments.
The company includes three different locations, and also four different brands:
The plumbing and HVAC company was one of the first contractors we read about delivery groceries, but none took it quite to the heights that Williams did as it paused the work done by its preventative maintenance teams for 30,000 service agreement customers and, instead, dispatched the crew to the local Kroger, Meijer, Wal-Mart or Target.
“Our communities are literally all we have as a business,” says Matt Tyner, director of marketing for Williams. “These are the people who trust us in their homes on a daily basis to keep them safe and healthy. These are the people who have made us and allow us to give back now during this time.”
Within days of each other, all three states the company does business in issued stay-at-home orders.
“Early on, we knew that this virus was going to be a major problem,” Tyner adds. “And while our services are considered to be essential, it made us take a step back and consider what was really essential to our communities.”
So, management figured they could take a break from delivering the regularly scheduled preventative maintenance, tune-ups and inspections that are part of its service agreements.
“We figured we could wait until the summer to do that work,” Tyner explains. “We would have plenty of time to catch up.”
In the meantime, however, they could provide for groceries to people considered to be at high risk for severe illness due to the virus.
“We could help flatten the curve,” Tyner says, “and still provide our crew with getting their 35-40 hours of paid work so they could provide for their families, too.”
All qualified individuals need to do is place online orders between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and the Williams’ client care team takes care of the rest to confirm deliveries.
“It’s just like any other service call,” Tyner adds. “A crew member goes to pick up the groceries, the customer gets a bio of the tech along with a picture and they can actually track the truck via GPS.”
Tyner says the impact on Williams’ employees is just as important.
“We’re more than just an HVAC and plumbing company now,” he says. “I get texts and emails everyday from employees saying that we were the only source some people have to provide groceries. These stories are just so powerful. Our team is feeling empowered to make a difference in the community, and that creates more and more momentum for our company and our team to be more engaged.”
Later, the company expanded the service to include first responders and healthcare workers.
“We know they are all working long hours working with those who are infected,” Tyner adds. “The last thing they should have to do after getting off a 12-hour shift saving lives is worrying about finding the time to go shopping for groceries.”
Tyner also told us that the company also “dispatched” techs to help out at the Salvation Army and even donate blood. Williams also partnered with a local restaurant that delivered 2,000 meals to healthcare workers.
“We’ve got this fleet and all the resources of our company,” Tyner adds. “It just comes down to logistics, right? My whole hope out of all of this is that other dealers pick up the idea and run with it and we can help more people.”
“This national emergency has us all in the same boat,” says Corey Hickmann, owner of Comfort Matters, Maple Grove, Minnesota. “We wanted to do something to give back to our community.”
Like some other contractors, Hickmann, started out offering free grocery delivery services throughout his Twin Cities territory.
His team put together a Facebook campaign called, “Are You Stuck at Home?”
“It just said, ‘Hey, we have people out driving around,’” Hickmann explains. “If you need a gallon of milk, if you need whatever, Tylenol, some bread, give us a call. We’ll swing by. We’ll grab it for you and we’ll drop it off at your house.”
But Hickmann says he had better success with a few other campaigns.
In particular, Hickmann hit it big by offering free inserts for facemasks. Naturally, the Comfort Matters team, about 22 people, including 12 techs, didn’t have to go far for the material.
Hickmann’s crew cut up MERV-13 HVAC filters to fit inside the masks. The filter material can trap molecules between 0.3-1 micron.
“They say a cloth mask is good, but cloth is not that protective,” Hickmann says. “Adding the filter significantly improves the performance and effectiveness of cloth barriers in combating infections.”
So far, the Comfort Matters team has converted material from the company’s supply of HVAC filters into 1,000 mask inserts, which have been shipped free for the asking by simply filling out a form on the company’s website.
“The cool thing is if we don’t have work going on, it keeps our crew busy and working for a good cause,” Hickmann adds.
What’s more, the website includes handy step-by-step instructions with full-color pictures on how to make a facemask with a “kangaroo pouch” for the filter. And for those not handy with a needle and thread, the site includes phones numbers and emails for seven local mask makers and also offers a signup form to enlist any other would-be mask makers. Finally, the instructions also include information on how the masks can be sterilized in a 170-degree oven.
An FAQ includes some interesting information about the use of MERV-13 filters. For example, anyone worried about breathing in any filter material will be interested to know that a person’s breathing rate is about 200-400 feet per minute, while the high-efficiency filter media designed for furnaces and air conditioners are typically installed in air streams with a velocity of 1,000 fpm.
“The fact that the cotton cloth is between you and the filter should also protect you should any pieces come loose from when the material was cut or placed into the mask,” says the site.
The FAQ also includes some of the more helpful information we’ve read about the coronavirus.
“A viral nuclei is composed of the virus which is surrounded by fatty proteins and mucus,” it states. “This covering is what protects it outside of a host—sort of a space suit it needs to survive once it leaves a body."
This is the particle size the MERV 13 filter material is rated to filter.
“You can use a higher rated MERV filter in a pocket mask if you can obtain it, however it will be harder to breathe through,” the guide adds.
Another big help was the company’s “Eat Local” and “Shop Local” Facebook campaigns.
First, Hickmann tapped into the company’s marketing budget and did a matching program to support local restaurants.
The program worked two ways:
• Customers could pick their favorite local eatery, go onsite and buy a dining gift card. Comfort Matters then matched those gift cards up to $75. To redeem the offer, consumers just emailed the gift card receipt to Hickmann’s office. (The offer was limited to restaurants in a dozen neighborhoods.)
• The public could also buy a restaurant gift card and use the receipt to get a credit on a scheduled furnace tune-up.
Since he still had money left in his marketing budget, Hickman then launched the Shop Local campaign, specifically to help hair and nail salons and massage professionals.
“I was on a phone call with a bunch of local businesses, and there was a hairstylist on the line,” he says. “She was explaining how difficult it is for them. They all rent their chairs. They’re independently owned. They can’t do anything. And they literally got four hours of notice that came from the governor that said, ‘OK, you’re closed, starting tonight.’”
This offer matched up to $50 for gift cards bought at these businesses. The response was even better than the one for restaurants.
“We got about 400 shares on Facebook,” Hickmann adds. “In the HVAC world, if you get something shared five times, that’s great.”
Those shares helped provide an influx of nearly $40,000 into the local economy.
“People were buying $100 cards, $200 cards,” he says. “I've seen them as high as $1,000. People were buying gift cards like crazy. We got a lot of feedback on the impact it made on hairdressers, too. I mean, some of the messages we got were very emotional.”
Hickmann says Comfort Matters’ success with the gift card match also inspired some of his fellow Service Roundtable members around the country to do the same.
Prudential Heating and Air Conditioning
Rudy’s Plumbing and Heating
We’ll lump these two companies together since they each ended up directly helping healthcare workers.
After reading story after story about the lack of personal protective equipment for the healthcare frontline, Mark Schroeder, service manager, for Prudential Heating and Air Conditioning, Louisville, Kentucky, had an idea.
“We had the sheet metal and the fabrication shop,” he says. “And we know that UV light is proven to sanitize HVAC systems.”
The issue really hit home for Schroeder since his sister is a nurse, and he has several friends working in the healthcare industry.
So the crew at Prudential did what it does best and fabricated a UV light box that contains several shelves, capable of holding and sanitizing whatever PPE is placed inside.
The equipment sits inside the box for 15 minutes and comes out cleaner than it went in. The light works to disinfect PPE, but also items like pens and cell phones.
After getting some coverage on local TV, Schroeder also got a crash course in the power of social media. He says he heard from an engineer on how to improve the light box, and also heard from others interested in distributing the box.
For now, there’s just one, a prototype that a local healthcare facility was testing when we caught up with Schroeder. Whether it’s up to snuff for a medical facility remains to be seen.
“It was something we could do,” Schroeder says. “It was something that I wanted to do simply to help.”
Meanwhile, we also came across an interesting story posted on a local news site that talked about Keith and Linda Cloutier, owners of Rudy’s Plumbing and Heating, South Lake Tahoe, California, who were organizing a group effort to provide Barton Memorial Hospital with 1,000 face shields.
Keith was using his one and only 3D printer, but knew he needed to enlist others in the effort.
“It takes about three and a half hours to print one face shield,” Keith told the newspaper. So he was hoping local publicity would help him get the word out to others with 3D printers to get the job completed quickly.
The hospital, Keith added, was having a difficult time sourcing them in the early days of the pandemic.
"If I could get three or four more printers producing the frames,” Keith told the SouthTahoeNow.com, back on April 7, “we could get Barton supplied with the needed PPE face shields that they are in need of much faster. We want to get these done ASAP."
When we checked in with Keith, we were glad to hear that his mission was accomplished and the much-needed PPE was already in use at the hospital.
“The masks we built are sturdy, reusable and can be sterilized," Keith adds.
This feature is part of our Plumbers Giving Back series, sponsored by the the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO).