Friday, March 11, 2011

Toodleloo, Tools

by Peggy Robin

Our house is over 100 years old, which means that something always needs to be replaced, repaired, or propped up temporarily until a longer-term fix can be found. For better or worse, Bill (my husband) and I jointly claim the title of Un-Handiest Couple on the Planet in the Do-It-Yourself Home Maintenance category (though Bill is a serious contender for top honors when it comes to the category of Best Spousal Computer Tech Support). As a consequence, we are abnormally dependent on a small army of handymen, repair people, and service providers to keep our old house standing and in more or less working order.

I have noticed, however that many home maintenance helpers have a problem keeping hold of their tools. Just a few days ago I read reports on our local police discussion forum that theft of contractors’ tools is a widespread problem. When workmen come back to the same house every day to work on a long-term project, they tend to leave some of their equipment on site. Burglars know this and take the opportunity to steal valuable tools that are not secured. In a message on the thread posted on March 8, Police Lieutenant Alan E. Hill suggested that contractors should install a special lockbox at a project site to store anything that might attract a burglar to someone’s home renovation site. Here’s a part of his message:

“We encourage contractors large and small to use a 'job box' whenever they plan to leave tools at a job site. This reinforced steel box is made to be secured to a solid structure and secures their valuable tools in a double locked steel container. We have found in most cases that it is someone with knowledge of the project, and the fact that tools are on the premises, involved in these types of thefts/burglaries. If it is widely known that the tools are secured in this fashion on a job site, it may help prevent the theft and resultant destruction involved in getting in to the premises.”

Personally, I’m glad to know there is something contractors can do to protect their tools from burglars. Now if only there was something they could do to protect their tools from the absent-mindedness of their own employees. I’m talking about how often repair people leave their tools in the customer’s home. As I mentioned before, we have an old house perpetually in need of work, and so we call people who know how to use tools. I can’t even count the number of times someone’s finished a job and left something behind that I’m sure is needed for another job. This can’t be good for business, and yet it happens so often, I’m starting to wonder if it could possibly be intentional – a trick to get you to call them back, perhaps?

Let me just describe one such case. Some years ago, we had the exterior of the house painted. The painters were here for weeks, prepping, scraping, and finally, painting. It made no sense for them to haul their ladders back and forth on a daily basis, so they would leave them chained in the back yard alongside the garage. On the final day, we inspected the job and were satisfied, and so they picked up the balance due, packed up their stuff on their trucks and decamped. Except for that one ladder they left behind. We noticed it a day or two later but when we called the painting company owner, he told us the crew was off in Mt. Ranier, or maybe it was Mt. Airy, and couldn’t come back for it right away. We were not thrilled about having a ladder visible in our yard for anyone passing by to see, and possibly use to access a second floor window late at night. Not that they would be able to get in that way – the painters had left all our windows securely painted shut. Still, we didn’t want to give anyone ideas, and so we moved the ladder into our garage and locked it. Weeks went by before the painters showed up to claim it. And of course, they forgot to call first and tell us they were coming. Eventually, they made arrangements and took the thing away.

Okay, that was an extreme case. But in the intervening years, we’ve had any number of wrenches left by plumbers and ended up with yards of coaxial cable left by the cable installers. The tile man left us a bucket, which we discovered quickly, only because he also left the outside hose running, too. (Needless to say, the bucket was more than full.) After various carpentry jobs, we’ve found at least three different types of hammers, plus a good assortment of nails, screws, nuts, and bolts, as well as a 25-ft retracting tape measure. Most of the time, a call to the owner of the tool has resulted in a speedy pickup of the forgotten item. But on occasion we have found a tool days, weeks, or even months afterward, and when that has happened, it’s been impossible to determine whose tool it was – so the finders keepers rule has applied.

I have to wonder, though, about the economic viability of a business that doesn’t keep track of its supplies. I know that surgeons always do a count of their instruments before and after an operation. Well, the purpose there is not to avoid having to buy more instruments but to avoid the harm done if a clamp is left inside a patient. Still, a misplaced wrench can, on occasion, do some harm. That was the case when I took my new car in for a quick (I thought) repair. I’d had it just a few weeks but it was running very rough, and the engine was noisy. The dealer, who was down 395 in Springfield, VA, said I should bring it back and the work would be done while I waited. An hour later, they told me the noise was no more, and I got in my car and drove off. Ten minutes on the highway, and I heard an ominous rattle, much louder than the noise that had brought me back in the first place. I turned right around and headed back to the dealership. By the time I pull into the service bay, the car was making a ca-chunk-ca-chunk that could be heard by all as I rolled in. They opened up the hood, and it was instantly clear what was causing the noise. The mechanic had left his tools under the hood and they were banging against the engine as I drove. The mechanic looked slightly sheepish and apologized, as he collected his wrenches, and I was able to leave in a car powered by a now quietly running engine.

This happened before the invention of GPS (not that it would have helped). Maybe instead of a lockbox for tools, what we need is a tiny GPS tracking chip that can be embedded in valuables that are vulnerable to theft. You would enter a tracking code into a computer and see a map displayed with a flag showing the object’s present location. That way, if thieves stole construction equipment, the police could go get it – and them. Until such a thing becomes commonplace – if it ever does – I guess it’s “toodleloo, tools.”

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