Hmm… Hmm…

Back in November, Nita and I tossed a coin on whether the replace our roof or service the furnace first. State Farm agreed the roof handled Hurricane Ike much better than it did the considerably less intense storms of this past August.  Roof replaced and paid for, we called our usual heating, cooling, and plumbing place. The plumber who’d been to our place before made some pitches for services and products, but nothing surprising. Our usual furnace tech came in, tuned up the ticking time bomb in our basement, and was on his merry way. He’s done this two years in a row, and we’ve been very happy.

This year, after delaying our service call three times – possibly because we were silly, replaced the roof first, and called in December – they sent Ernie.

They’d better not send Ernie again if he doesn’t want to leave in an ambulance.

Ernie had no sooner taken five steps into our house when he voiced his disappointment in our thermostat. No, not that it was ancient. (It is.) He was disappointed that it sat in a spot on the wall that would not fit the new thermostat he wanted to sell us.

“Well,” he said, without having even looked at a single component of the furnace or even asking if we had thermostat trouble, “I was going to suggest a new thermostat, but the new one won’t fit there. Hmm…  Hmm…”

Hmm… was going to become a truly annoying phrase that afternoon, not unlike “It is what it is,” the refrain to “Achy Breaky Heart,” or even the very tune to “The Macarena.” Ernie headed downstairs and proceeded to get to work. No, not on tuning up our furnace. No, he had a hard sell to do, and dammit, he wasn’t leaving the house until we’d not only had our tune-up, but agreed to a ten-year second mortgage to finance a computerized geothermal central air system that also does dishes and makes espresso.

I, on the other hand, was doing contract work at the time, which meant that unemployment was a very real possibility in my near future. That did not deter Ernie. He summoned me downstairs, his expression very grave.

He pointed to the burners in our furnace. “See that? It’s sparking. Your furnace is getting ready to blow. Now, if you’ll just sign here, I can replace the burners today for only $350.”

“That’s funny,” I said. “Your technician was here in the spring and replaced those same burners for $175 as we are members of your maintenance club.”

Ernie didn’t bat an eyelash. “Hmm…  Hmm…”

He opened his mouth to point at the impeller motor when I said, “And I know the impeller motor doesn’t have a cover on it.  I took it off. Apparently, I just bought this furnace another five years.”

“Hmm…  Hmm…”

Upstairs I went, sorely tempted to let the dog back in the house. Gurl doesn’t like maintenance people. Before I came along, Nita had to toss her outside or lock her in the bedroom whenever the Duke Energy guy came around to read the meter. (Duke has since moved us into the 21st century with electronic meters readable from the street.)

Ernie finished up about half an hour later, his face still grave. “That furnace has some major problems. I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t last the month. You definitely won’t get any heat out of it. Here’s your savings if you sign an agreement with me today to have a central air unit installed. I would seriously consider it. Seriously consider.”

I asked him just how expensive he thought that would be since I’d paid the same amount as his discount to replace the central air at the old Rancho Winter. Chateau Nita is a one-story postwar cottage with two bedrooms. Rancho Winter is a three story townhouse with a finished basement. Ernie’s response?

“We have financing plans.”

My response?

“I’ve been laid off since June.” Technically true. I was on contract at the time.

Ernie’s final response?

“Hmm…  Hmm…”

Ernie tooled off to the next would-be sucker.

A couple of weeks later, Nita came downstairs.  It was one of the first really cold days of the season, and Nita asked me to come back upstairs. The living room was hot. We actually had to turn the thermostat down to almost sixty. Never mind that it was ten degrees.

“So the furnace is about to blow,” she said. “Doesn’t feel like it.”

“I would seriously consider paying off our credit cards before we buy a new one,” I said. “Seriously consider.”

“Paying off our debt before taking on more?” said Nita. “Hmm…  Hmm…”