The Farm House Journal

Volume 4: It's The Old Army Game

Chapter 3: Fields Had It Wrong

Part 3: Follies

Once I got back to work in April, as I was saying, we were eager to wrap things up with the contractor. Even after the serious problems we'd had with them, we felt confident that we had more than enough leverage to see the remainder of the work done to our satisfaction. This leverage consisted of a large final payment still due to them, and the promise of a good recommendation thereafter. We were willing to give a good recommendation because the majority of the work had been done quite well, and we would be able to deduct the cost of the work that wasn't while still leaving a larger sum than they could rationally afford to abandon. We resolved to deal with them cordially, while watching them like hawks. With this, we set up an appointment with the contractor and his foreman for the following Saturday to walk through the place and make a list of all remaining work.

In the meantime, I started to knock off some of the odd chores that had collected during my vegetative state. I went down to the basement to check out the cable connection, because our television reception had been poor. The cable guy had hooked everything up when we moved in, and since then I'd been too busy or too sick to wade through the junk to get under the stairs where the cable connections were.

Circuitry roomWhen I found just one cable going into the wall towards the outlets, I was confused. There should have been six, each leading directly to one of the outlets in the rooms above. This is called "star" wiring, and it is the method that was specified explicitly to the contractor. I went upstairs and opened up one of the outlets to see how it was wired. Instead of one cable terminating at the outlet, I found a cable connected to a two-way splitter. One of the splitter outputs went back into the wall, and the other led to the outlet.

This method of wiring is called "point to point", which is a thoroughly unsatisfactory and very amateurish way to wire coaxial video cable. The signal carried in coaxial cable is fairly weak, and each connection or splitter introduces noise and loss of signal. Our cable box was connected to the third outlet in the series, so the signal was going through three splitters and seven connections before it got there. No wonder we were getting such a bad picture.

The proper wiring of the coaxial cable had been a particularly important matter to me from the beginning of the project. I wanted star wiring not just because it provided the best possible signal path, but also because it would give us the flexibility to send different signals to each outlet if the need arose, say if we wanted to install a security monitor system and send its feed up to the computer room.

I had made a real pest of myself during the wiring work to make our expectations clear and ensure the cabling was being done properly. I asked the electrical contractor, "Are you doing star wiring?" He said yes. I asked the foreman, "They're doing star wiring, right?" He said yes. I even asked one of the electricians as he worked, and he too said yes. And yet, the hard evidence said no.

The contractor had some explaining to do. With the walls all sealed up, rewiring the coaxial cable properly was as a practical matter impossible, as it had been to rebuild the fence to proper proportions once the code violation was revealed. I did however feel that it was his responsibility to do everything possible to improve signal transfer through the system we were now stuck with, and to hire an expert to determine exactly how to achieve this. Beyond this, I was eager to hear his explanation of why point-to-point wiring had been done in direct contravention of my clear and emphatic instructions, and why the truth of the matter had been so universally misrepresented. I knew from experience that it was bound to be fascinating.

The meeting came in due course, and we saved the matter of the cable wiring for last. The contractor, the foreman, Lydia and I descended into the basement. I led our little party around under the stairs to the service panel, held up the lone cable lead, looked the contractor right in the eye, and asked calmly, "What happened here?"

He replied, "What do you mean?" Deny, deny, deny.

I was determined to remain calm here, but I could feel my composure slipping already, so I cut to the chase: "This is point-to-point wiring. I made it absolutely clear that I wanted star wiring."

A big smile came over his face. "But this way, you can hook up everything to the cable at once!"

Must. . .remain. . .calm. "But the electrical contractor had to have known you never hook up coaxial this way!" I turned to the foreman. "Look, I asked you at least a dozen times whether they were doing star wiring. I asked the electrical contractor directly. I asked one of his guys. You all said yes. What gives?"

The foreman replied, "They didn't run the coaxial wiring. I did."

In the split-second before the veins in my forehead started popping out, an old vaudeville joke flashed through my mind: A cop on his beat comes upon a bum sitting on a bench, with a dog sitting next to him. The cop asks the bum, "Does your dog bite?"

The bum replies, "No."

The cop reaches down to pat the dog on the head, whereupon he receives a nasty bite. He exclaims, "I thought you said your dog didn't bite!"

The bum replies, "That's not my dog."

I love that old joke, but I didn't like finding myself playing the cop in it. Like the cop, I'd asked the wrong question, and like him I'd gotten a nasty bite. I couldn't believe I'd let the foreman weasel out of telling me what he knew full well I wanted to know, because I'm usually quite good at cross-examination. With the foreman, sadly, I had made the fatal mistake all along of assuming that he was a friendly witness.

I hadn't realized that he had run the coaxial wiring because I'd never seen him do such work. He had in fact commented several times how much he hated to run any sort of wiring through walls, and in any case this work is customarily done by electricians. I know this because my uncle and his father were electrical contractors, and I was familiar with their work. That's exactly why the schematics for the coaxial, phone and network go on the same page as the electrical schematics, and not anywhere else.

We were out of town attending my father's funeral when the wiring started, and by the time I came back the electricians were running the network wiring, which terminated in the same boxes as the coaxial cable. From then on I was there all the time, and I hadn't stopped to inspect precisely which kind of cable the electricians had in their hand as they worked. It suddenly dawned on me that the foreman had already completed the coaxial runs before I started asking about them. Why, then, did he not simply tell me so, and claim that star wiring of the coaxial cable wasn't in the contract, so to do it would cost extra, as he did many times later with other tasks? The answer was inescapable: because he didn't want to take the chance of having to do the extra work. Hard on the heels of this revelation came another: I had been a fool ever to consider him my friend.

My mind was reeling from all these epiphanies exploding in the space of a few seconds, and I was red-hot with anger besides, but I struggled to maintain my composure for Lydia's sake. I turned back to the contractor and, as cooly as I could manage, I asked, "Well, what are you going to do to fix this? It's unacceptable is it is now."

He and his foreman stepped away and conferred softly between themselves for quite a while. At length, the contractor looked up and said to us with great magnanimity: "Tell you what: you pick one room downstairs and one upstairs where you really want cable, and the foreman will run cable directly to those outlets."

Red-hot instantly became white-hot. What a shameless SOB! This was the third time he had tried to get out of a major screwup with minimal consequence to himself. The first two times, I had refrained from taking him to task for it, but this was the third strike, and we were going to have it out.

I don't recall exactly what came out of my mouth then, but according to Lydia, it went something like this: "You guys knew exactly how I wanted the coaxial done, and you knew precisely where I wanted it to go. You had my electrical plan. I put cable outlets just where I wanted them to be. And you say, 'Pick two rooms'--! I mean, what if we were talking about electrical here? What if you'd screwed up the electrical circuits and hid the fact from me until the walls were sealed up? Would you then say, 'Pick two rooms where you really want light?"

I then recall thinking that whatever I'd just said, it was the first cogent thought I'd gotten out successfully for months, and unsure whether I could keep it up, I beat a hasty retreat up the stairs. According to Lydia, the looks on the faces of my two targets indicated strongly that my arrows had flown straight and true, and they were left gasping for breath. Pulling himself together, the contractor said quietly, "Well, I'll pull this list together and get some people out here as soon as I can." They filed up the stairs and out.

Other than a brief appearance by the foreman a few days later to check out a short in the garbage disposer circuit, that was the last we ever saw of any of them.

We continue to be astonished by the contractor's willingness simply to walk away from such a large chunk of money. Even with the deductions we planned to make, they still stood to come out ahead by completing the project as contracted, both monetarily and in terms of the future business a good recommendation from us would have meant to them. We've fielded several serious inquiries from neighbors regarding our contractor even with the house in an unfinished condition, but we have scrupulously refrained from giving out the contractor's name, citing the non-completion of the contract. Just imagine what a great advertisement for their services the Farm House will be when it is done. What a shame we cannot in good conscience recommend them.