Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘smoke-detectors

Pointless smoke-detector tests and waste of other humans’ time and money in Germany

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I have repeatedly written on both undue government interventions and undue invasion of privacy and other intrusions through various service/test/measurement/whatnot companies, e.g. in A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings ([1]).

Earlier this week, I had the yearly smoke-detector test: a professional service company (Objektus) came by, a man walked in with a broom stick (or something similar), used it to push the test button on the two smoke-detectors, noted that they made a hellish noise, and left again—after having spent likely less than twenty seconds in my apartment and doing nothing that I could not have done myself.

This for a legally mandated yearly check that involves paid professionals, a load of travel and bureaucracy, and which forces the victims to take large chunks out of their days to meet the dictated times, with direct and indirect costs that are in no proportion to the value* of the service.

*Even assuming that smoke-detectors bring significant value to begin with, to which I am at least somewhat skeptical (this appears to be more propaganda and lobbying than science and data, cf. parts of [2]); and even assuming that a yearly test, as opposed to e.g. simply swapping the detectors every three-or-so years, has more than the slightest value added, to which I am extremely skeptical.

For instance, this particular company dictates a yearly date with short notice (around a week) and allows one dictated back-up date with (this year) six days’ notice. At least the back-up date had a two-hour interval (12:15–14:15). For many, the time of day, length of interval, and a bit of a commute might well mean that half the work-day is gone. For someone with a longer commute, it might take out an entire day—in extreme cases, an entire week!*

*I have repeatedly done weekend commutes over very long distances, e.g. Düsseldorf–Munich. The current date was a Tuesday, implying that I would have had no realistic choice but to miss both Monday and Tuesday. With five-or-so hours of travel in each direction (main station to main station, not including “local” travel, not including time to deal with hotels, whatnot), I might then have been better off foregoing the entire week. Had the date been on a Wednesday, I more or less would have had to. If the lost time is not enough, consider the considerable travel costs relative the smaller amount of billable hours per travel.

Last year, at least, some actual work was done in that the smoke-detectors were swapped, but this is apparently not a yearly task. (I have owned the apartment for longer, but in prior years various factors have lead to no service at all taking place, including one case of my being entirely oblivious to the dictated dates as I did not occupy the apartment and one case of the service company simply not showing up on their own dictated date. But, apparently, the legal mandate extends even to uninhabited apartments.)

A much saner system would, as in the past, leave smoke-detectors to the discretion of those actually living in the apartments. Barring that, a system where a service company replaces them every X years and the inhabitants are simply mandated to confirm that “we pressed the buttons and a painfully loud noise followed” once a year, would be much better. Barring that, some better solution of date handling must be found (some variations are mentioned in [1].)

Excursion on opportunity costs:
The opportunity costs do not just involve time and money, but can also include lives—and I am far from convinced that this mandated yearly check leads to a net-savings in lives. For the check to bring value, we have to assume that the batteries run out (or some other problem occurs) between changes, that the inhabitants do not voluntarily make tests, that a fire actually does occur, and that the circumstances are such that the smoke-detectors actually would have saved lives in that fire. (Which they would not have e.g. if a crucial exit was blocked, if the fire was too small, or if the fire was discovered by someone awake before the smoke-detectors triggered—and I do suspect that most fires take place in the day time.) How many lives this will be per year, I cannot judge, but it will not be many—it might even be none in a typical year. Against this we have to measure deaths caused by the checks, e.g. through unnecessary traffic accidents due to travel by testers or inhabitants, increased stress at work,* negative effects through extra costs,* and similar. Here, too, I cannot judge the number of lives, except that it will be a low number. The relevant question is, will it be a higher or lower number? Here I would strongly suspect a higher number …

*Looking at aggregates over sufficiently many humans such factors are relevant, even if they are highly unlikely in any given case (and far less spectacular than a car crash).

Right now, there is also the whole COVID-thing to worry about. Considering how much else has been banned in wild panic, I find it inconsistent that the comparatively high-risk task of having service staff move from apartment to apartment and contact with stranger after stranger has not been banned. This, however, is likelier to be an issue with the Pinning the tail to the COVID-19 donkey approach to policy than with the current topic.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 28, 2020 at 10:19 am

Follow-up: A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings

with 2 comments

Last Friday, the exhaust inspection for my gas heater took place (cf. [1]).

My previous impression of a somewhat cooperative attitude on behalf of the chimney-sweep (responsible for the check) turned out to be very wrong.

Not only did the employee in question claim that I would be (illegally and unethically) billed for an out-of-hours visit, she also, for the second time in three years, tried to start a fight over my (calmly and factually) not agreeing with her often absurd claims—this time, that I pointed out that there was no legal justification for this bill. This is a highly unprofessional behavior that should be unacceptable in any service profession. (To which I note the difference between a factual discussion and the highly dubious behavior displayed here—she was an inch short of throwing a hissy fit.)

Looking at the bill issue, I note that:

  1. I had suggested a date and time within the narrow (cf. [1]) scopes that she had provided and that she had accepted them. Thus, either we were within regular hours or the out-of-hours aspect was solely her fault.

    I note (cf. [1]) that she had previously rejected a total of four suggestions: The 7th and 14th of June for being already booked,* the 19th and 26th of July due to company holidays. While the two former are understandable, the two latter are a pure own convenience. In effect: On the hand, customer suggestions are rejected; on the other, the customer is to be billed for a date and time practically suggested by her.

    *Here she had also explicitly mentioned that these (later in the day) suggestions were out-of-hours, removing any chance of applying the (already highly implausible) excuse of “because I did not state the opposite, you should have assumed that it was out-of-hours”.

  2. No mention had been made of any extra fee at the time of the agreement, nor had there been any reason for a reasonable third-party to expect an extra fee. This, in it self, rules a fee out.

    In particular, the day in question, I would have had no problem with arranging an earlier time—and would have done so, had there been any talk of an extra fee.

  3. The only possible angle of attack that she (and/or her employer) could have is that she had given intervals for possible times of day that would normally be interpreted as referring to the beginning of the visit, but which could conceivably be construed as referring to its end. If so, however, it would have been her responsibility to point out that the end of the interval was not an acceptable start time—but instead she accepted the suggested time… Moreover, considering the length of the visit, the latter interpretation would have been unconscionable in combination with a fee: subtract the delays through her belligerence and the visit could have been done in just several minutes, implying that just replacing 2 PM with 1:55 PM or, on the very outside, 1:50 PM would have put me within the interval.

All in all, and noting the reputation German chimney-sweeps (and e.g. plumbers) have, I suspect that this is just a trick to earn a few Euros above what the employer was actually entitled to. (German readers can look at e.g. a dedicated web-site/forum for many examples of disputable billing attempts and other problems relating to chimney-sweeps.

As for some claims made by her:

  1. She (again) went on about how hard the “late” Fridays were for her to arrange—at 2 PM. Apparently, she was now incurring over-time, needed a baby sitter (more expensive than her over-time pay), and whatnot (I do not remember all the details).

    Well, cry me a river…

    First, compare this to what many of the customers* have to go through every year because time ranges set for her convenience: What about all those who have to take several hours off work? Those that have to commute twice in a day? Those that are so far away and receive so unfortunate a time that they miss an entire day of work, as e.g. with me and my Cologne project? For the employed, the last amounts to using up a vacation day; for me, it would have amounted to a full day that I could not bill. For that matter, consider the potential negative effects on e.g. an employer. Or consider her complaints about arranging to have her children picked up from school—what about the children of the many customers who are force-fed an unfortunate time?

    *The word “customer[s]” is misleading, but I will stick with it for ease of use and the lack of something obviously better.

    Second, much of this is a pure luxury problem, amounting to “because of this customer, I do not get to enjoy an artificially short work-week” or “[…] a much earlier week-end than most others”. I note that the central collective agreement (Bundestarifvertrag) for chimney-sweeps sets the weekly hours at 38.5, whereas I have never had anything less than 40—sometimes with the expectation that overtime be performed without additional remuneration above the monthly salary. (Whereas the same source would give her her regular hourly pay + 25 % for every hour overtime.) I further note that by the standards of past generations (and some modern low-end jobs) even 40 hours a week would be a relief. Further yet, that when I have gotten off at 2 PM on a Friday, it has usually been because I have had a long weekly commute on top of my 40 hours. For instance, when I lived in Düsseldorf and did a project in Munich my weekly schedule was roughly: Monday, five hours of travel and another six hours in the office; Tuesday through Thursday, nine or ten hours in the office; Friday, five or six hours in the office and another five hours of travel—to which must be added time needed for hotel handling, time to pack and unpack, time lost due to unforeseen delays during travel, whatnot.

    Third, none of this is my problem—it is a matter between her and her employer. If she has a complaint, she should direct it at him—too “harsh” working hours, too little over-time pay, whatnot.

    My grand-mother, I suspect, would have called her a spoiled brat to her face…

  2. She claimed that her working hours would be regulated by law. Not only do I find this implausible, but I have also not found any support for this claim on the Internet. Moreover, other companies appear to have different working hours (and/or a different distribution between “office” and “customer” hours). For instance, a magazine article discussing the field in general says “[…] der Außendienst, der meist so gegen 16 Uhr endet” (“[…] customer visiting hours that tend to end towards 4 PM”). Another company lists time intervals from 7–7:15 AM to 4–4:15 PM for possible visits. In other words, it seems highly unlikely that there would be such a law—and her employer appears to be unusually restrictive.

    More likely than not, she is deliberately lying, with the expectation that the customer will just accept the customer-hostile situation “because its the law”. (I cannot rule out that she is deeply ignorant or that her employer has earlier lied to her.)

  3. She claimed that I should be happy that replacement dates were offered at all, because I would have a legal obligation to let her in at her convenience. It is true that there are some jobs performed by a chimney-sweep that have a quasi-governmental (“hoheitliche”) character,* and for which this claim could to some degree apply. However, the exhaust check is not one of these and this reasoning does not apply. Extending it to general tasks is like a land-lord claiming that “because I have the right to enter an apartment unannounced and on short notice when there is an emergency requiring immediate action, I always have the right to enter an apartment unannounced and on short notice”. Or consider a police officer who reasons that “because I can violate some traffic rules when on duty, I can violate them when off duty too”.

    *Due to a very unfortunate and highly outdated legal situation in Germany. To be specific, this does not refer to chimney-sweeps in general, but to the designated local “Bezirksschornsteinfeger”; however, this company happens to be Bezirksschornsteinfeger in my area.

    Again, she is likely deliberately lying to trick customers into compliance.

  4. She claims that the works would be done for my benefit and paints the situation as if she were doing me some type of favor. She is not—on the contrary, her employer relies on outdated and disproportionate regulations to perform a service for the government, which in many cases amounts to cheap money-making for the chimney-sweep. I have very little to gain from this farce, and am stuck with considerable extra efforts. This claim is as absurd as when governments claims that issuing passports would be a service to the citizens, when the need for a passport only arises because of governments and their artificial impositions.

    What benefit there is to gain, could be achieved much better by having e.g. the maintenance company* do the same check and/or doing the same check every five-or-so years—or by use of some type of detector**. Such a detector would actually be vastly superior through giving a timely warning, while the yearly check could lead to exposure over a full year before detection…

    *When this suggestion has been raised on the Internet, chimney-sweeps tend to answer that this would increase the risks, e.g. through giving the maintenance company incentives to approve its own work. This argument is not entirely without merit, but the benefits of avoiding this risk are not in proportion to the additional costs of the current system, making it specious. More likely, it is an excuse to justify own money-making than something honestly believed. In particular, the “incentives” part is highly dubious, because a maintenance company that does both work and check would be liable for any health damage without excuses, while the current system allows blame pushing between maintenance company and chimney-sweep.

    **I wish to recall having seen such in the past, but have not researched the availability and details. Even if I misremember, however, such detectors should be comparatively easy to provide.

    From another perspective, entering someone else’s apartment, outside of rare emergencies, is a privilege and should be treated as such—no matter the law. Indeed, even when a legal right is present, even e.g. when we talk of police with a search warrant, the self-invited visitor should show a corresponding humility and respect. The attitude displayed by this woman is entirely lacking in this regard. The same applies to the impositions regarding e.g. time: even to the degree that she might be legally entitled to force people to forego work and whatnot for her benefit, she should show a corresponding humility and respect, and realize that she causes a major imposition* for her own benefit—but she does not.

    *Indeed, so large an imposition that I consider it outright unethical, even to the degree that it is legally allowed. A more ethical company would still provide times for the convenience of the customers, not for its own.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 17, 2019 at 8:17 am

A German’s home is not his castle / a few issues around inspections and meter readings

with 5 comments

One of the great annoyances with living in Germany is the one, two, or more* service companies that invariably demand entry to one’s apartment every year—after having made a one-sided declaration of date and time, and usually with a comparatively short** advance warning. Moreover, this is usually done through simply posting a notice on the door of the building (often on the outside), with the implications that (a) people who are not currently present, including those who live elsewhere*** and those currently on vacation, might not have the ability to react in time, (b) the notice can be removed by another party, including playing children. Of course, this type of announcement could easily be done by a fraudulent entity who just wants access to the apartments.

*I have three myself, and it might have been four or five had not the gas and electricity meters been outside the apartment… These are two to respectively inspect the smoke detectors and the exhaust/chimney for the gas heater, and a third to read the water meter. (An earlier text might have claimed that the chimney inspection took place once every three years. This was an early misunderstanding on my part.)

**I have not paid great attention, but a rough guesstimate would be ten days for a typical notice. I have seen less than a week on at least some occasion.

***For instance, those who try to rent out an apartment and who currently do not have a tenant; for instance, those (like me, in the past) who spend months at an end living elsewhere due to work.

True, missing the date is not the end of the world, because these companies are obliged to provide alternative dates upon request. However, this is usually not handled well. For instance, many notices fail to inform about the right to request a different date, and contact information is usually limited to telephone* only. The chimney-sweep, whose recent notice is the trigger for this text, does have an email address, but fails to mention it. The notice does mention the possibility of requesting an alternate date, but it does so in such a different font size and color (compared to the rest of the text) that I actually did not recognize it before a closer inspection.** Moreover, it speaks of a “rechtzeitig” (roughly, “timely”) contact, which is very vague and in most circumstance would be taken to imply that the contact must take place before the scheduled date (which is not the case and would be unconscionable for the absent). The smoke-detector service, on the other hand, appears to have no interest in actually going through with replacement dates,*** implying that my smoke detectors have not been serviced since before I bought the apartment, because the previous owner apparently also had problems with it. A similar issue is present with some other apartments in my building.

*Which, combined with typical office hours, can be inconvenient for those who work during the day, highly troublesome for those who work during the night, and a severe obstacle for the deaf and mute.

**But, unlike many others, I was already well aware of my right.

***Presumably, either to avoid the extra cost of a second visit or to push the delay to the point that there is a pseudo-justification to request a billable visit. (By regulation, at least a first replacement date must not come with an extra charge to the apartment residents.)

Now, the chimney inspector was open to providing a new date, but this too was fraught with complications. On the one hand, no dates were available before July 12th (still more than a month ahead). My suggestions of the 19th and the 26th, picked to have a greater time flexibility than the 12th, were rejected due to “betriebsferien” (“company holidays”) between July 15th and August 1st… Moreover, the possible hours were restricted independent of date, including a 3 PM upper limit Monday through Thursday and 2 (!) PM on Fridays. Effectively, to get it done after work is not possible without infringing severely on typical working hours—not just leaving an hour or so earlier than the colleagues. While “before work” is a little easier and might work for most local workers (but not for all and not for many commuters), the end effect is that a portion of the regular work day must be sacrificed. (That Saturday and Sunday are out entirely is hardly worth mentioning in Germany.) This continues an idiocy already discussed for delivery services—a failure to adapt to the needs of the service recipients in favor of a strict adherence to “traditional” working hours, even when the result is more work for the service provider. Indeed, here the working* hours are even a sub-set of the normal working hours, making it even harder. As elsewhere, an outdated world-view (or resulting “legacy procedures”) might have survived through the implicit assumption that every apartment comes with a house-wife.

*The word “working” might be misleading, because the individual employees might have other tasks to perform at other times. The end effect on the residents is the same, however.

Even in those cases, however, when everything works as planned, these notifications are problematic through giving intervals of hours,* often in the middle of the day. For instance, the gas-inspection notice gives 9–11 AM, which implies that even someone who works locally might be forced to take half-a-day off from work—and, when working in Cologne, I would have been forced to take so much time off that I likely would have skipped work altogether.

*Which, obviously, do not state how long the individual visit will take. Instead, it is an understandable matter of “we could come at any time during this interval”, with an eye on questions like how long the visits to other apartments, or even apartment houses, take. The long intervals make this issue worse than the similar problem discussed a paragraph earlier.

Looking at possible solutions, at least some of this will likely take care of it self over time, through the spread of new technology*. However, improvements here and now still make sense. For instance, how about requiring a considerably longer interval for notification, e.g. that notices must be published at least one month in advance?** How about a requirement that notifications are also given per e.g. email (to those who have registered in some manner)? How about more reasonable hours and/or days of visit? Or how about my personal pet idea: Have each city (or some other unit) coordinate two*** fix, known-to-all, and non-adjacent days a year, for some sub-area. On these, the residents within the sub-area are required to give access to (legitimate) service providers; on others, they must not be bothered****. Notably, this would bring great benefits even to the service providers, because they could cut the costs for repeat visits and most of their own efforts to coordinate with absent residents—or actually charge for them from day one. This scheme would, obviously, require a considerable first effort of coordination, but later adjustments are likely to be small for a typical year.

*Notably, meters that can be read electronically without entering an apartment. However, like e.g. my own current outside-the-apartment gas and electricity meters, this comes with an increased risk of leak of data to unauthorized third parties.

**Note that anything less than two weeks is inherently problematic due to the larger risk that e.g. a vacation absence prevents the residents from being informed on time. In contrast, a full month would make it a near certainty that the notice is present in time for the residents to react. Moreover, the longer interval makes it easier to arrange for e.g. a work absence.

***Using two, instead of one, allows for a greater flexibility, e.g. to compensate for a strike or to make life easier on service providers with unfortunate day collisions for serviced sub-areas; however, each service provider would be expected to only use one of the two (per apartment and/or sub-area), just like it is one day a year today. Note that reserving two days a year will not increase the effort for the average resident, because the two days are the same for all service providers (but it will allow for far better planning).

****Among these annual (or otherwise recurring) activities: when we move to more ad-hoc matters or something requiring a short-term response, e.g. a burst pipe, a strict adherence will not always be reasonable.

I note that as far as solutions are concerned, it is positive if a portion of the burden is passed from the residents to the service providers, because (a) the current system is constructed to the very one-sided advantage of the latter, (b) not all of these bring an advantage to the residents, notably the borderline idiotic yearly smoke-detector inspections and many chimney inspections and whatnots (also see excursion), (c) the matter of entering someone else’s home should not be trifled with. As to the latter, I would personally very much prefer never to have someone in my apartment that I have not explicitly invited (and I would not invite many to being with); other relevant concerns include the extra cleaning efforts that many, likely in particular the “neat freaks”, will feel necessary to make the apartment sufficiently presentable.

Excursion on chimney-sweeps:
The problems are increased by regulations relating to chimney-sweeps, who are responsible for some tasks in a semi-governmental role—including at least some inspections. Among the many problems is that there is one “official” chimney-sweep who has the right to perform the semi-governmental tasks in a given area: I am allowed to hire another chimney-sweep to perform various tasks—but not all tasks. Because the official chimney-sweep still needs to involved, there is a strong incentive to just stick with him through-out. To boot, it can be disputed whether the exact checks* involved in my case really should be done by a chimney-sweep at all, or not rather the gas company or a service specialist for gas-heaters.

*Strictly speaking, it appears to be more of an emissions check than a chimney check, with the chimney only playing in as far as a blocked chimney would lead to dangerously large emissions in the apartment.

I read up a fair bit my first year in the apartment, but have forgotten most of what I read by know. However, there were several web sites and/or forums dedicated to problems around the flawed system. One recurring issue (that I do remember) was skepticism towards the reasonability of inspection intervals in at least some contexts, and some inspections that were outright nonsensical, e.g. that chimneys that were not even used still needed* a yearly inspection.

*In the eyes of the local chimney-sweep. That his interpretation was even formally/legally/bureaucratically correct (let alone practical), was not always a given.

Excursion on other means to calculate costs:
The use of meters to measure consumption of e.g. heating* is laudable from a fairness perspective and might or might not give incentives to consume less energy. However, it is not the only approach possible. For instance, in Sweden, heating costs are typically included in the rent in a blanket manner, and this appears to work well. The heating costs per apartment might be higher** in Sweden, but this is offset** by the costs for reading meters. Similarly, the overall environmental impact might be greater***, but this is partially offset by e.g. the environmental impact of meter readers traveling in cars.

*One of the more common German meter-types is the per-radiator meter that attempts to track the amount of central heating used by individual apartments, to allow a corresponding division of the overall costs.

**The degree varies depending on what is measured and on details unknown to me. If only the cost for the service company is included, it is likely only a partial offset; if the lost time and extra effort for otherwise working residents are included, at least these are likely see approximately a full offset; and if we look at the overall societal cost, it is almost certainly more than an offset.

***After adjusting for the effects of a colder climate, or it would be a near given.

Excursion on use of “layers” in texts:
A very common practice in e.g. notices, advertisements, prospects, web pages, …, is to give different types of information a different “look”. This is presumably with the intention of putting information in “layers” to be read independently. In my personal experience, this works very poorly, because people (like I above) tend only see one layer at a time, which implies that the information put into a different layer through e.g. a radically different (foreground?) color runs a risk of being overlooked entirely, especially when having a poor contrast. Such layers might sometimes be helpful when the reader is aware of them in advance, e.g. when comparing the descriptions of many products that have the same layering. More often, it is likely better to not try such tricks and to rely on a simple text flow, intended to be read as a single layer. This text, in turn, might then contain changes in (background?) colors to high-light a different purpose without causing a layer division. If in doubt, just put the different layers on different pages. (Disclaimer: This excursion is unusually “spur of the moment” and might be unusually open to revisions of opinion.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 6, 2019 at 4:19 am