Wisconsin Plumber Handles Its Fair Share of Real Emergency Calls

Wisconsin’s Frasier’s Plumbing leaves nothing to chance to protect technicians from carbon monoxide poisoning
Wisconsin Plumber Handles Its Fair Share of Real Emergency Calls
Kyle Leighton, operations and service manager at Frasier’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, demonstrates a combustion analyzer (TPI) in the company’s training room. Each of Frasier’s technicians carry an analyzer in the event of a carbon monoxide leak. (Photograph by Cory Dellenbach)

On Jan. 7, 2015, Frasier’s Plumbing, Heating & Cooling in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, received an urgent call that caught their attention immediately.

“Hello this is James … we’re having problems with our heater. Uh, it’s making really ‘moaning’ sounds ... um … the house is really dropping in temperature, and both my wife and myself have extreme, bad headaches. We’re thinking we may have a carbon monoxide leak. Thank you for calling me back as soon as possible. If there is no response, just … send help. Thank you.”

Carbon monoxide (CO) leaks usually occur between November and March, but Jared Frasier, director of marketing and recruiting for the family-owned company, says they can happen year-round from improperly installed boilers or those that have malfunctioned due to exceeding the life span and a lack of maintenance.

“Three days before this call, the couple’s regular heating-service company had done work on the boiler, but left without finishing,” Frasier says. “Though it was freezing outside, the company would not return their calls during those three days. When the Frasier’s heating technician arrived, he found the wife, nearly unconscious, on the bedroom floor. The husband was already delirious from poisoning.”

The technician immediately contacted 911 for help and got them out of the house. The wife, in critical condition, was saved after being placed in a hyperbolic chamber at the hospital until her blood oxygen levels normalized. A local television station picked up the story, and Frasier’s received calls from homeowners concerned about their old boilers.

CLEAR RULES

While this was an extreme case, Frasier’s rules are clear — the lives of its customers and crews take first priority. Before technicians enter a home, they “zero-out” their low-level CO analyzer outside the home in fresh air. Then, they test inside the home.

“If the CO levels are extremely high, the technician immediately calls 911 and opens any doors or windows that they can from outside, and tells occupants to get outside to keep themselves safe,” says Frasier. “If CO levels are low, the technician opens doors and windows, and steps outside with the occupants. Once at safe levels, they quickly turn off the system leaking the CO.”

Technicians conduct the CO analysis using UEi analyzers. Only after it is deemed safe to work in does the technician go inside to conduct the inspection and repair work.

Every Frasier’s technician is trained to use analyzers to check for CO, with training for new and experienced employees refreshed annually.

“You hear stories every year of technicians going into a home and becoming victims, especially in northern parts of the U.S. and Canada,” says Frasier. “A combustion analysis is part of the assessment. We’re part of the best practices group Nexstar Network and we provide our technicians with the National Comfort Institute’s Carbon Monoxide training. Within those programs are a set of standardized procedures that technicians are expected to do when going into a home.”

The combustion analysis for CO can be done in a few moments, but if they don’t and the concentrations of CO are high enough, a technician could pass out by the time they reach the system.

SIMPLE MAINTENANCE

“We deal with CO leaks every year, either from a CO alarm going off or while checking on a malfunctioning system,” says Frasier. “Because of our winters, it’s very common. We’ve had to evacuate homes way too frequently. We’re proud to save lives, but it concerns us that leaks usually come from lack of maintenance or poor installation. People tend to not give water boilers as much attention as you would a furnace or water heater. Even though they expect to get decades of use from them, a majority do not have them maintained annually.”

Annual maintenance helps ensure there are no exhaust leaks from cracks in the pipes or unit components. CO leaks due to an improperly installed boiler can typically be made safe by fixing the exhaust. However, older boilers with critical cracks and other life span issues are usually replaced.

After Frasier’s completes repairs or installs a new boiler, customers are offered membership in its service partner program, which provides an annual inspection, tuning and system testing to make sure that everything is running properly. This helps to extend the life of the boiler.

“We strongly suggest maintenance plans and installing ‘low-level’ detectors for peace of mind,” says Frasier, “So then somebody is accountable for the status of the equipment.”

Being a fifth-generation family business, founded in 1918, the dangers of CO leaks are well known. When the technology to determine CO levels became available, Frasier’s secured it.

“Back in the 1950s and 1960s the sniffing technology did not really exist and it was a dangerous time,” says Frasier. “Particularly because of our rather remote location in Northern Wisconsin. I’ve got pictures of my grandfather working on old boilers from back then. They didn’t have the technology we have, but they had safety procedures built on common sense. It was and still is a question of protecting family and your friends and neighbors. In a small community like ours, customers and employees are often people that you went to school with and grew up with.”

Additional training opportunities for technicians are provided as Frasier’s has units set up in its shop that technicians can work on and practice mock combustion analyzing. CO analyzers are upgraded regularly. 



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