In an attempt to explain by way of personal example, why we make bad decisions as consumers and my ideas on how to prevent doing it, I’d like to share my story about my consideration of a whole-house home water filtration system. Although I am not advising against it, and there are certainly homes with certain types of water that would benefit from one, I share this story as a word of caution so you can be prepared on how best to deal with anyone trying to sell you something.
My house needed some plumbing attention, so I used Angie’s List to find what I hoped would be, a reliable plumber. I consider Angie’s List to be extremely helpful in finding contractors for any type of service because those who have used the contractor rate them on many different factors and share what amount they paid, what they asked to have done and what they got done, along with their own personal review of the company. The contractor I called was Greenstar Home Services.
The plumber who came to the house was very friendly. He used booties to protect my floor and got right to work. The repairs are a la carte priced so whether it takes an hour or four hours, I pay a flat rate, even when he had to drive to Home Depot for parts, which I prefer. Hourly rates encourage slower repair times, obviously. While I was there, the plumber informed me that a representative from their whole-house water filtration sales office was in the area and would I be interested in hearing about the products they offer. Would I be willing to listen to a sales pitch? Sure. I have my coffee. I’m in a good mood. Bring on the sharks.
This young individual arrives. After introductions and more booties, we go to my kitchen sink where he takes out a small, clear plastic cup and fills it half way with tap water. He then pulls out a dropper bottle and puts a few drops into the water (was it one dropper or two, I can’t remember). He lets it sit for a minute while he talks to me.
“Do you buy bottled water?”
“No,” I say, “we have a PUR water filter pitcher, and the refrigerator has a filtered cold water dispenser.”
“Well if you bought bottled water,” he says, “you’d be wasting thousands of dollars on them you could avoid with a home water filtration system.”
My first thought was why did he just quote me a cost avoidance strategy for a cost I don’t incur? He could equally have advised me how much labor I would save by not having to walk down the hill and get my water from the well that I don’t have.
We stop for a moment and he shows me the clear drinking cup, the water within now yellow. He claims that the yellow color I see is what happens when the reacting agent he dropped into the water reacts with chlorine. He admits that most city water has chlorine in it, but that chlorine is bad for you and should be removed by a filtration process. He then, now this is important, proceeds to swish the yellow water around in his mouth for a moment and spit it back into the cup. Like magic, the water is clear again. He then claims that the tissues in his mouth and tongue absorbed the chlorine in just those few seconds he swished it around and explained that this is what happens when we are exposed to chlorinated water in or on our body.
Noting that most of my drinking water is being filtered, his tactic changes to water that is most commonly unfiltered such as the water in your shower or bath. He points out that hot shower water produces water vapor in the air, which means the chlorine is also vaporized and being inhaled. And of course, by his magical example, I must also assume that taking a shower in chlorinated water means as the water runs over me, my skin is soaking up chlorine like a Sham-Wow. I can’t help but have visions of all those summers submersed for hours in the highly-chlorinated public pools or those months in my high school gym glass swimming laps. Scary thought, right? I mean, it sounds like I should have died years ago. He makes this point regarding the showers, and we continue on to the types of units available and their cost.
Without getting into too much detail, there were basically three types of units. Not unlike the three types of gasoline available; there was a low-grade, a high-grade and a grade in the middle that you have no idea why anyone would use and yet its existence persists. The low-grade used filters that needed to be replaced every month for a nominal cost. The high-grade used a single filter that needed to be replaced annually. Their costs ranged from about a few thousand dollars up to around ten thousand dollars, installed.
I pointed out some obvious concerns such as it makes no sense to filter the water I will be using on my lawn, or the water in my toilet, unless the government has done a study on the effects of vaporized chlorine water on my ass. His response was that they can sometimes connect the filter somewhere in-line after the pipe for my lawn. Of course, I have a lawn in the front and the back, and he said “sometimes” which in sales pitch lexicon is closer to “almost never,” so I am sure I would end up running my lawn and toilet water through these filters.
I take the marketing materials, thank him for his time, and let him know I would think about it.
He leaves. Before the plumber leaves, he shows me some rubber components he replaced in my toilet that are all degraded and falling apart. He blames the chlorine, and leaves.
A week later there is a problem with one of the repairs. The plumber comes back. With him is an uncited marketing piece from his company pointing out that drinking chlorinated water increases the risk of birth defects. He is aware my wife is pregnant and hands me the article. I see it now…I think to myself…you get a piece of the action on the sale. Got it. I read the paragraph as he repairs the toilet. He refers to the article and points out his wife is pregnant and that he had already ordered the low-grade filter for his own home. I thank him for the repairs, he takes the article and leaves.
I am not stupid, and I know it could certainly be possible that chlorine is bad for you, for babies, and for rubber. I can not stress enough however, that whenever you deal with someone who stands to make a profit based on your decision, you must assume they are biased and you must consider that bias in making your decision. Society generally assumes this when you consider the analogy of the used car salesman, but we fall down when it comes to anything new, or something more complicated or technical, surrendering our “bias defense” in lieu of an assumption that the more technical or new the product or service, the more intelligent and therefore somehow more trustworthy, the representative.
My Dad is a major appliance repair man. He is the best at what he does, and I know this because he has been doing it forever, I went on dozens of calls with him when I was young, I helped him in his store, and he is a good and honest man. I saw the customers that trusted him, and many that did not, especially when he tried to advise them which can sound like up-selling. The times that my Dad did try to help in this manner, he was honestly trying to prevent additional future damage. A classic example involves the electric burner element on top of an electric stove that often burns out. Obviously, the customer wants to buy just the replacement burner element. The stove, being electric, also has a component called a block, that the burner plugs into. The burner is designed to be removed so you can take the shiny drip pans out from underneath them and clean them. But what happens when you constantly plug and unplug something a few hundred times? The contacts on the block spread open over time which forces the electricity to arc from the terminals in the block to the terminals on the burner. This arcing causes the terminals on both parts to erode and carbonize which eventually makes the burner not work. Knowing this, what happens when you plug a new burner into the same block? The arcing continues, and in no time at all, the new burner goes bad too. You can imagine the many irate customers that stormed out of his store when he tried to explain this to them. Ironically, my Dad stood to make more money if he said nothing as they would be back in six months for another burner, and possibly, a block.
My Dad’s example in this post is to provide personal experience from both sides, the service provider and the consumer, as I have been on both sides of the fence. My Dad is a good man, but as I will talk about shortly, I don’t believe there are as many good people as we would like to believe there are. The challenge as a consumer is to listen to what the provider has to say, whether that is about a burnt out burner block or a water filtration system and apply common sense, ask some questions, do a little research. In my Dad’s case, all the consumer had to do was go home and take the block out with a screwdriver, or just look at it closely. They would have seen the corrosion and realized my Dad was right. It is this balance between blind trust and indignant denial that we need to achieve.
Considering this, what kind of society makes up our reality? One where there are three types of sales people. The first is made up of honest people that learn to keep their mouths shut for fear of irritating and losing their customers who could have greatly benefited from the advice, the second is made of honest people that share the useful advice anyway incurring the ire of some of their customer base, and the third is made of people who are either ignorant of the information you could benefit from, or don’t care and just want to make the sale. The first type incurs cognitive dissonance, a negative emotion, disturbed by the fact that they must retain useful information to continue making money, the second incurs lost revenue and lost customers directly, the third makes money hand over fist. If we continue this exercise a bit further, and consider what types of people are attracted to professions where money can be made hand over fist if ethics can be surrendered at the door, then what types of people do we get in those professions? Exactly the kind of people that we don’t want to buy from. And so which type makes up the majority of this profession? The last kind. And yet, this is reality.
Returning to my earlier point, we draw unfounded respect from authority from our unguarded respect for teachers, scientists, politicians, movie stars, police men and fire fighters. We should respect them for being good at what they do, but should they utter a single word outside of the narrow definition of their professions, our respect for what they do should never be applied to what they say as they are absolutely not qualified to discuss it. They can only opine. And yet, we make this error in judgment constantly. You need look no further than your television when you see an advertisement to support a law that forces you to buy a low-flow shower head because it is “better for the environment” and that this law is somehow fully supported by the police, teachers and fire unions. What does a fireman or a teacher or a cop have to do with how much water I want in my shower? These are examples of how we are manipulated to think, so be wary of these tactics. For those who have taken a course in Logic, this is known as argumentum ad verecundiam, or the appeal to a false authority.
I know people like to think that most other people are generally good. We like to think this because we prefer to live in a “good” world, and not an “evil” one, and everyone is stressed out enough already without thinking that humans in general are malefactors. I am going on almost 40 years now and perhaps pessimistically so, because I believe no such thing. I think the group of people that actively try to do the right thing is smaller than the group of people who actively do the wrong thing and the group that only does the right thing for fear of punishment. I am also a firm believer in “truth through omission” which I have talked about a lot on this blog. Truth through omission allows a person who would prefer to be moral, circumvent their ethical dilemma of outright lying to someone by simply being ignorant of the whole truth, withholding the whole truth, or deciding unilaterally that the “good” to come from what they are saying or doing outweighs the “bad” of withholding all the information from you, which of course is their opinion, not necessarily yours. It’s a fine line, but people have justified greater crimes with far less, and humans are significantly imperfect beings on their best days.
With this in mind, I researched the incident of birth defects due to chlorinated water and discovered a few relevant facts. The tests that were done that I was actually able to find were all performed in the United Kingdom because for whatever reason, they use significantly more chlorine in their water than we do here in America. I also discovered that the federal limit on chlorine in drinking water is around 4 ppm (parts per million), however most cities use significantly less than that, around 2ppm. The UK however was 4ppm or higher in these studies. Additionally the incident rate of birth defects in the study showed an increased rate of defects starting from an insignificant fraction of a fraction to a slightly larger insignificant fraction of a fraction. By example only, it was moving from something like 0.01% to 0.02% which makes it statistically insignificant, and that was at a high level 4ppm+ of chlorine.
With this in mind, I proceeded to order a home water test kit from Amazon.com. When I received the kit, it was the Christmas holiday so my parents were here visiting. In addition to discovering their hidden talent of sawing a tree branch off a tree that was touching my neighbors roof, my Dad decided to perform the test on my water with the test kit. Thankfully, the test reported no pesticides, no nitrates or nitrites, no lead, an acceptable pH, some water hardness and less than 1PPM of chlorine. So if you consider the statistically insignificant amount of birth defects from 4ppm+ of chlorine, clearly having less than 1ppm made it absolutely irrelevant.
A few more weeks went by and I needed another service call from the plumber. This time I was not home, but my wife was. I had made her fully aware of the filtration system they offered me, my research, and she had seen the test results and was perfectly fine with not buying a filtration system based on all of this. The plumber was barely in the door and upon realizing I was not home began a campaign of fear with the dangers of chlorine to the unborn, how he bought one for his pregnant wife, etc… Just hearing this made my ears hot since I knew he was purposefully trying to manipulate my wife assuming she knew nothing of the chlorine issue and would turn on me like a badger when I got home for not protecting my family.
My wife largely ignored him and he completed the repairs. As he was leaving, he made one last attempt to leverage her fear but she had had enough. She told him that her husband had decided not to buy one because there was very little chlorine in our water. The plumber, almost stammering, could not believe that and emphatically assured her that they had tested it and there was. She said that her husband had used a more “reliable and technical test kit” than what they had used and it showed almost no chlorine in the water.
The plumber, exasperated, ran out to his truck and grabbed a dropper and a clear plastic cup. He came in and went to the same kitchen tap, measured the same amount of water as the other guy had done and put in several drops of the reactant. After several minutes….NOTHING happened. He added more drops. Still nothing. Sensing defeat and an awkward situation, he said, “I guess your husband was right. Okay, thanks” and he left.
Luckily for me, in his frantic attempt to escape, he forgot his dropper bottle so of course I researched the reactant.
I repeated the test for myself and of course, the water did not change color. The reactant is used to test chlorine in pools and is very inaccurate. It is also very carcinogenic. Remember when the guy swished it around in his mouth to “absorb” it? Many questions remain…
- Would someone knowingly absorb a carcinogenic on a daily basis to make a sale? I don’t think so.
- Was it possible he put chlorine in my water first and then the reactant? Possibly. I have a recollection that he used two droppers, not just one.
- Is it possible he put something in my water that reacts to something other than chlorine that is guaranteed to react? Possible.
- Did my original repair by the plumber really break or did he not fix it completely so a second chance at pitching their filtration system would be possible?
- Was his wife really pregnant or was that just useful in identifying with me and providing a peer from which I can draw a relationship and infer his actions should be my own as well?
- How much money do they make from their little snake oil charming performance, how many people are duped?
I leave it for you to draw your own conclusions.
Author Note: I apologize for not citing the studies, but this research was done on the fly and I had no intention of posting anything on this blog until the last visit by the plumber, which was well after this research was done. It is possible there is more information out there, but suffice to say, the time I spent on it uncovered enough that I felt comfortable ignoring the risks.