Bamboozled: Costly definition

John and MaryAnn Nolfi and their toilet went through something feared by most parents (and their plumbing).BB branding

It was an unexplained toilet clog. Typical measures didn’t clear the drain, and finally, the Nolfis extracted a declaration of guilt.

“Our 2-year-old son Ryan basically confessed to flushing a tennis ball or tennis balls down that toilet,” said John Nolfi.

The Roseland family called RotoRooter Plumbing & Drain Service for help.

When the job was done, the Nolfis had a bill that was nearly double the estimate, and a series of letters and phone calls to the company brought insufficient explanations and no satisfaction.


John Nolfi is a handy guy, so he took the toilet apart and tried to clear the blockage himself. Only after a closer look did Nolfi determine a specialized machine was needed to do the job.

“I was expecting a RotoRooter guy to come out, engage his machine in the cleanout of the sewer line, run it toward the street, hit the ball, grind past it and be done. A half-hour job for one guy at the most,” said Nolfi.

122909He was given a telephone estimate of a flat-rate price of $349, and Nolfi was willing to pay.

MaryAnn Nolfi was the one at home when the worker arrived. She showed him where he could access the pipes: in a space in the basement. To access the space, you’d have to step up 31 inches off the floor, through an opening that’s more than 34 inches wide, and once inside, there’s 48 inches of standing room from floor to ceiling.

The worker told MaryAnn Nolfi that a second man would be needed for the job because of the pipe’s location — in a “confined space.” Not happy, but needing the pipe to be unclogged, she agreed.

“I have worked in that space hundreds of times myself,” John Nolfi said. “There is no way two people are needed to work in it safely. Any person can navigate the area by walking. Crawling is never necessary.”

When the job was done, the Nolfis received a bill for $679.87, and they paid in full despite their displeasure.

Nolfi contacted the Middlesex branch. No satisfaction. That branch is not an independently owned franchise as are some RotoRooters, but it’s owned by corporate, so Nolfi turned to headquarters in Cincinnati. Again, no satisfaction. That’s when he contacted Bamboozled.

We contacted Paul Abrams, a RotoRooter spokesman, to see if we could unclog this disagreement. (Forgive the pun. Couldn’t resist.) Abrams did some checking, and then Nolfi received a phone call.

Middlesex general manager Anthony Natoli told Nolfi that crawl spaces cause safety concerns, so the presence of a second worker was required, but he would refund Nolfi the more than $300 in charges for the second person.

Why the reversal? Abrams said the general manager wanted to satisfy the customer so RotoRooter would be able to keep the Nolfis’ business.

Abrams said the general manager understood, after seeing photos of the crawl space, why Nolfi would object to the classification of that area as a confined space. Still, the general manager maintains that the crawl space still fits the definition of a confined space.

“The general manager feels he made the appropriate call because following safety procedures protects our employees, protects our customers and protects the company,” said Abrams. “Nevertheless, we try to be flexible enough to address a customer’s objections, and refunding the fee was just good customer service.”


So what exactly is a confined space?

According to a New Jersey State Police hazardous materials training document: “Examples of confined spaces include, but are not limited to: pits, pumping stations, pipelines, boilers, cupolas … ship holds, utility vaults, vats, trenches and excavations.”

The Nolfis’ space was none of the above.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) defines confined spaces, and it also defines “hazardous confined spaces.” OSHA regulations define 17 hazards, such as limited access that hinders entry and exit of emergency rescue (not the Nolfis’ space), poisoning from toxic gases and vapors (not the Nolfis’ space) and unstable walls (not the Nolfis’ space).

RotoRooter asked safety manager Kim Ohl to weigh in on the Nolfis’ space. She said the issue isn’t really whether it was a confined space, but whether it was a hazardous space.

“Looking at the pictures, it did not appear to be hazardous and one person could have probably safely completed the job,” she said. “If a service technician feels that his/her safety might be impaired, we want them to do whatever is necessary to create a safe work environment.”

She said many RotoRooter branches have a rule that a crawl space job is always a two-man job.

RotoRooter is finalizing a more standardized set of rules for entering confined spaces, which should help clarify to employees and customers what is and isn’t a confined space.

‘‘It ultimately comes down to whether or not the service technician feels safe entering such a space,’’ Abrams said.


Nolfi is happy to have his refund, and he doesn’t take issue with companies following certain safety rules — when it really relates to worker safety.

“I still don’t think it is right for them to double-charge each customer for their internal policy and without some type of consideration for real safety,” Nolfi said. “At the end of the day, it’s a $700 surprise charge for one man spending 20 minutes to clear out a clogged pipe with a machine while the other sits and watches.”

Nolfi also notes that unless he does some massive construction to his basement, if he has to call RotoRooter again, the job will once again be subject to additional charges.

But the Nolfis are doing their best to keep Ryan and the tennis balls (and the Play-Doh, and the Legos and everything else smaller than a drainpipe) far away from the toilet. Until he’s ready to graduate from the potty, that is.