How To Navigate the Craziness of Troubleshooting

If you are like me, the end of 2009 could not come soon enough. To put it mildly, it was a tough year for the decorative concrete industry. When you really think about it, this is an industry built on value-added products and services. Color, stamp and stain are not necessary when placing concrete – gray works just fine. Not a good place to be when money is tight and “finding the absolute lowest-cost product or method to get it done” is the builder’s motto. Even with all the doom and gloom (I hear 2010 could be as bad or worse than 2009) you must have levity, the ability to look at the bright side or find some humor in your day. Don’t be afraid to smile or even chuckle. After all, laughter is the best medicine.

I get on average 50 troubleshooting questions per week (outside of my regular job) split between e-mail, phone and face to face. I absolutely love being a go-to guy in the industry, and I really enjoy helping those in need solve problems. The tougher the question or situation, the more excited and involved I get – it’s just the way I am wired.

With 2,500-plus questions per year coming across my desk, every so often there are those that stop me in my tracks, not because they are difficult or have me stumped, but because they are so ridiculous they make my eyes cross. I think e-mail is partly to blame – it’s so easy to use, the author hits the send button before realizing what they sent is borderline absurd. In defense of the industry, a majority of the “goofy questions,” as I like to call them, come from homeowners and nonindustry people who are not up on the basics of decorative concrete. So, with all due respect to those goofy question posers (who will remain anonymous), let me share the lighter moments of troubleshooting decorative concrete in 2009.

It never ceases to amaze me how common sense can so easily go out the window. How does the saying go? “You can’t see the forest through the trees”? This past summer I received an e-mail question from a guy with a concrete house on one of the small islands of Hawaii. This was not an ICF (insulated concrete forms) house, but rather an 8-inches-of-solid-reinforced-concrete house – floors, walls, and roof. His question was pretty straightforward –

“The roof and ceiling of my (8-inch-thick) colored concrete house has a big crack in it. The crack runs the length of the ceiling and is so wide that I see daylight, and water runs into the house when it rains. Should I fix the crack?”

I know Hawaii has pretty nice weather, and there are no biting insects, but in an effort to avoid a river running through your living room, I say YES, fix the crack.

I know everyone is busy, but the next question really pushes the envelope of procrastination. One fine afternoon this past year the phone rings. The contractor on the other end sounds normal enough. There is no sense of urgency, and after some small talk he gets to the meat of the question –

“I have a job where the homeowner wants colored and stamped concrete. I bought some of your throw color (color hardener) and I rented stamps.”

As a side note, when I heard color hardener referred to as “throw color,” I knew this was going to get interesting. He continued –

“I need some advice on how to use this throw color and these stamps.”

Having done this long enough, I speak the code. “Advice” in this context means “I have no clue what I am doing, I have spent way too much money already, I am too proud to admit it, disaster is looming, and by the way, please save me.” The conversation continued –

“By the way, the concrete truck just pulled away, and mud is on the ground.”

The first thought that crossed my mind was the look of surprise the homeowners were going to have when they realized their stamped patio was the test pour for a bunch of first-time stampers. For the next 10 minutes, I did the best I could trying to teach a contractor thousands of miles away how to color and stamp concrete via the phone. My last comment to the contractor before hanging up –

“Do the best you can, and plan on ripping it out tomorrow.”

Information has become the currency of the 21st century. Just look at how fast and easy obtaining information has become. Most of us can access the world from a hand-held phone or PDA. In contrast, it seems like providing basic information when you’re the one asking the question can be like pulling teeth. Case in point was an e-mail, like many I receive, asking for advice on how to fix a color issue. The e-mail read something like this –

“How do I fix a color issue on my floor?”

These types of e-mails remind me of answering questions from my 6-year-old. It’s a game of “answer a question with the absolute least possible amount of information provided.” In all seriousness, how can anyone help you if you don’t even know what the problem is? Try this next time you go to the doctor and see how far you get –

“Doc, it hurts.”

These e-mails usually end up in back-and-forth exchanges, lasting for days, with me painfully extracting little bits of information. In the end, I usually ask for pictures of the problem, and fill in the details myself. When asking troubleshooting questions, the devil is in the details.

Along the lines of information or lack thereof, the other culprit is the “holdback.” This is the person who goes into excruciating detail, either on the phone or e-mail, only to leave out some obvious and critical detail. A case in point was a conversation I had with a contractor last spring. The issue revolved around a sealer failing. I knew the contractor was based in Florida, so I ruled out cold temperatures – my mistake. They went on and on about how they had been doing this type of work for 20 years (translation: they may have been doing it wrong for 20 years), and they followed the application guidelines to the letter, and it’s the product, etc. After 25 minutes of back and forth on the phone, I was borderline stumped. It was then that the contractor mentioned in passing that the job was at his buddy’s house in Ohio where the temperature at time of application was 38 F, and it rained and snowed for five days after application. Those are 25 minutes of my life I can never get back. Brain damage is pretty easy to come by in this line of work.

Last, but far from least, are people (often homeowners) that want to condense our trade into a paint-by-numbers kit you should be able to find on the shelf at the local big box store. The e-mail that best exemplifies this comes from a homeowner who spent time researching stained concrete on the Web as well as in publications like Concrete Decor. They loved the look of stained concrete. They were drawn to a picture of a floor that incorporates multiple colors seamlessly blended into one another, with an intricate Southwestern pattern saw-cut into the surface. They solicited multiple bids from local artisans who, combined, probably have 60 years of experience doing this type of work. They freaked out when they see what it actually costs to have this type of work done, and turned to me to solve their dilemma –

“I want my concrete to look like the picture attached. Tell me the steps involved so I can do it this next weekend.”

I have a boilerplate standard reply that is about five pages long. It contains detailed instructions that are enough to scare the daylights out of even the most hardened do-it-yourselfer. I usually end that long e-mail with a reminder that even if they do everything exactly by the book, there is a 99.5 percent chance the floor will not look anything like the picture. In most cases a contractor ends up with the job.

I am an eternal optimist at heart, and always give people the benefit of the doubt. I am looking forward to 2010 and the new opportunity it brings. I can also be sure that there will be a new round of questions that will make me shake my head and sit back and chuckle.

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