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More Advice for Technicians

The following are "spotlight" pieces of advice from David that have been gathered from various different places. At the moment they aren't organized or categorized, but I think there's a lot of information in here that many technicians can benefit from
   – Ky Patterson



Swelling of board in summer

When the pitch is low in the winter, don't we tend to blame low RH (relative humidity)? "It's dry and the pitch dropped"; or "It was so dry the wood cracked".

A more accurate view is to consider the change forced upon the wood. Cracks eventually appeared because swelling crushed the fibers, and left less material when the wood returned to the low-to-mid 40%'s RH range, the relative humidity needed to achieve a soundboard moisture content matching that of the manufacturers specs. The pitch was low because the swollen board in the summertime had strings stretched across it at the A440 level. As the board lowered to a more common position, the strings loosened and caused a reading below A440.

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Extra rods for extra stabilizing

One of the first steps technicians should take when dealing with an ornery piano - one that will not settle down in spite of having the Piano Life Saver System - is to add dehumidifier rods in late winter, spring or early summer to drive the moisture out of the board during the wet months. To put it another way: in this method the board is never allowed to take on any moisture that will cause it to swell. Consequently, when the dry season comes, the piano is still close to the correct pitch level.

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Think EMC, not RH

Relative humidity is handy when communicating with clients prior to installing the system. But once the system is in and you begin dealing with the science of stabilization, RH is not very useful. Technicians generally don't like to hear that relative humidity is not the critical factor. Take note: Equilibrium Moisture Content is what is controlling the quality and detail of the tuning. Measuring the pitch of the piano is a very simple yet very sophisticated way of determining how well the system is working to keep the piano stable. When you check the pitch level, you are witnessing the change in EMC.

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The system is slow-acting; accept it

Measuring RH at a given period is not very meaningful. Feeling the rods and waiting for the system to cycle is not very meaningful. If the cycling action is not effective, it will show up with a pitch reading or EMC measurement. Taking one snapshot of a part of the cycle will not paint a meaningful or reliable picture. The results in the moisture content of the board are what matters.

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Why is airflow such an issue in difficult grand situations?

Airflow is changing the relative humidity around the soundboard too quickly for the humidistat (or uncontrolled board, for that matter) to make meaningful adjustments. The Piano Life Saver System must rely on providing an average humidity level over a period of many hours or a day. The humidistat is there to influence the wood, and wood reacts very, very slowly to environmental changes. Even more defined parameters for the RH differential in the humidistat would not necessarily make any improvement in the board's reactions.

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Vents under grands

Picture the floor vent blowing air on a humidistat. That humidistat is working too slowly to affect the moisture content of the board immediately, a job that takes weeks more commonly than days. Now come blasts of hot air at intervals that relate to temperature stability and human comfort tolerances. Every half hour the conditions change so radically that the humidistat gets no chance to tackle its real job. And its real job is a slower one.

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Why the Smart Heater Bar?

For the conscientious client, it's an insurance factor and a backup if they go away for a long time. For the not-so-regular filler, it is their only chance at stability, since a dry Humidifier becomes a 24-hour-a-day 8-Watt Dehumidifier. Not only does the system work in reverse, it works continuously in reverse. Then when the system is finally filled, the piano tries to return slowly to where it originally was. But now two little "season changes" have taken place. Stability is destroyed with this pattern.

With the smart heater, the humidifier shuts down when dry. The system then cycles between dehumidifier and ambient room conditions. The cycling action is slowed and the control will be dulled, but the piano should remain fairly stable, depending on how badly moisture is needed that month. And it will certainly remain protected.

Now it's OK to say "Never unplug it!" Tell the client. Leave it alone. Go away worry-free.

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Some of the latest findings on soundboard change

When introducing the actions of the Piano Life Saver System into the piano environment, 80% of the change will occur in about 2 weeks; a further 15% of the total change takes place over the next 4 weeks, on average. So Equilibrium Moisture Content, which controls the pitch level and tuning through the soundboard medium, can still be settling 6 to 8 weeks after a change. This change could be an installation, the system being unplugged, the system being plugged back in, a drying out, a recovery from drying out, a component addition, or an altering of the placement of a system component.

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Don't expect piano owners to take it seriously

They will listen attentively, or at least politely. But little registers for them. To them, it's a tekkie thing. Consumers learn that tekkie service people have to talk about their tekkie stuff - then they're OK and they will leave the consumer alone. You know filling is important. Plus you work hard to get the piano closer over time. But it's just not fair or realistic to expect the average person to see the importance of the Piano Life Saver's ongoing situation.

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Don't expect piano owners to care like you do

Essentially, piano owners don't care about the system or even servicing. Do not assume that anyone else cares at all about the details of the system. In the majority of cases, once it's paid for, it's pretty much forgotten. They may love the piano. They may love their music. But chances are no one except you cares about the Piano Life Saver System.

In the real world: to many clients, the yellow light means that now they have to fill the system, while the red light means that now they REALLY have to fill the system.

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Don't expect piano owners to remember anything about the system

We believe the information is being relayed to them as they nod. We delude ourselves again. Assume nothing. Repeat everything.

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Detective work

There's a certain amount of detective work involved when trying to ascertain why you are finding the piano in a certain condition. When it hasn't reacted the way we expected, we become suspicious of the system's upkeep, as well we should.

Furthermore, the detective work appears in complex layers involving the owners and users, the pitch at A220 and A440, the variable pitch readings across the whole piano, and telltale signs relating to pad condition, housekeeper stories, and a possible same-day plug-in or same-day filling scenario.

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Use sales techniques that work

Help them get past their agonizing decision moment by learning one simple set of things to say. Pick techniques that suit your own makeup. No one can tell you exactly what to say. You must create it. Actually, you probably already know what to say, but are afraid to say it. Everybody is like that. The only solution is to try saying it anyway. Each time it becomes easier.

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List many closes

Write down what to say at the end. Give yourself five choices. If you can't find five, expose yourself to one simple sales text or audiotape or CD. When you are seeking a decision, you need efficient ways to move the process along as well as warm ways to finish the discussion.

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With what % of your clients do you pull out your tuning lever, muting equipment, and needling tool?

Wouldn't you like to be servicing pianos for real, just like that. Why doesn't voicing go automatically with tuning? Why is it amusing to speak of pulling out needling equipment every time we sit down at a piano? Answer: we are typically too busy to consider tone regulation. Pitch up. Pitch down.

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Changing pads

The Sontara [white] 55% Rayon pads have been eliminated in favor of a traditional blue cellulose-based pad material. This material does not normally require moistening to assure the starting of the "wicking" action. When removing pads for replacement, roll the material up in sections as you squeeze gently. Keep them above the reservoir. Avoid strings in uprights!

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Season change - 4 factors: dryness, mugginess, artificial heating, & artificial cooling

When you feel like you're fighting the weather in your work, remember that any dry conditions together with any humid conditions are still only 50% of the equation. Relative humidity will change every time temperature changes. Since our homes are designed to take the air from outside and change its temperature, artificial heating and artificial cooling both have tremendous impact on our tuning work and on our findings. They represent a change in conditions, both seasonally and in the fact that they continually turn on and off.

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Air conditioning myth

"We have air conditioning, so we don't have any problem with high humidity." Ever heard it? It's tough to respond to this. The name "air conditioning" seems to speak for itself. At least it's great for that industry that people are so thoroughly convinced that it is the complete, final solution. But when a piano owner discounts our comments with this ol' standard, we can't disagree. Disagreeing with people doesn't work, because their belief system controls what information they can successfully take in. Besides, it's not too polite.

Changing their ideas is a slow, delicate process. Let them know at some point that 70 degree air holds two times as much water as 50 degree air. If you cool air down, there is a massive amount of water left over that will not fit in that air. Your air conditioner may remove massive amounts of water. HOWEVER, it hasn't necessarily lowered the relative humidity. RH may be the same, and it may even be higher.

Depending on your area, almost all technicians have witnessed high relative humidity in summer, with or without air conditioning. With it comes the sharp pianos. In many cases, the air conditioned environment is noteworthy for causing more wild low tenor changes than a "non-conditioned" environment.

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How many of your clients are on their second system?

Maybe you've been putting in climate control systems for 10 or 20 years, and have just come to accept many of the following: rusting humidifier brackets, decrepid heaters, old-fashioned lights, obsolete non-smart humidifiers for those clients who REALLY need the smart feature, tubes that look bad and get comments, baffles that have departed or won't stay in place. But how many products do you know or use that go on decade after decade without change? Don't feel sensitive about it. It's good service to let them know about replacement. Tell them it's time to upgrade. If they got the old one, they'll probably get the new one.

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Don't plug in a system

We now recommend leaving an unplugged system as is, if your service call is a typical request for tuning or a recurring standard maintenance. Ideally, have the piano owner plug in a system three to six weeks before your appointment, if a moving or similar situation has disrupted power to the system. However, if when you arrive you are told that they waited for your visit, don't plug it in for them. Or, if you find it unplugged, report the situation to the owner. You can say "technicians aren't supposed to plug in the systems or fill them up." Anything that influences tuning is not supposed to be handled by the tech. A technician who agrees to handle these 'tuning-influencing' tasks is in an unfair position. Yet free follow-ups to every person forgetting to plug in their climate control system is not practical, either. Using this wording with your clients will get them thinking of it in a more accurate way.

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Install systems in pianos you tend to visit regularly

If you habitually install climate control systems into pianos you maintain, you will surely be rewarded with outstanding stability and quality over time. For some reason, systems sold as a one-shot deal in rarely-serviced instruments are not usually effective. Perhaps the owner lacks commitment to doing his part, perhaps the pads get dry, perhaps they are unplugged more. In most cases, the benefits are not nearly as abundant as in cared-for pianos.

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Test yourself: When it rains, will relative humidity go up or down?

What was your guess? [Well ... the enlightened visit here] But most people immediately respond that RH will go up to 100%. Of course, it's raining! It HAS to be a hundred, right? Consider this explanation, concerning a subject that is very misunderstood in our society -- relative humidity.

When rain falls, it is travelling from a high area that is much colder than the air we measure near the surface of the earth. Because the drops are so cold, moisture from the air will condense on the drops and reduce the relative humidity. So the relative humidity decreases when it rains.

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What IS quality?

On one hand, we all deserve to pat ourselves on the back for having the ability to produce a specific result at a specific time: maybe it's fantastic tuning work, quick quality concert setup, bellywork rebuilding, regulation, or many other skills. But on the other hand, a piano's condition over a full 365 days a year is an inarguable gauge for quality. Most situations we are in relate to this type of quality -- the ones that beg the question "Can I walk in any day of the year and have that piano sounding as close to perfect as possible?" Climate control installers are more attuned to this aspect of our business. To have the piano sounding superb the day before we come may not be as exciting for our egos, but it represents a very high level of service. And that IS QUALITY.

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Yes, using a wrong 'treatment' in the humidifier water can damage a piano

Never allow the client to add anything to their water, other than Dampp-Chaser's Humidifier Treatment. This plea is far more than a promotion for the HT product. Some hardware stores offer 'humidifier descalers', 'humidifier additives', and many such products. If the piano owner selects one with hydrochloric acid -- and those products exist -- the piano can be completely rusted out in a matter of months. It has happened, and it can happen. It's one of the reasons we are so careful about implied warranties vis-a-vis use of the proper treatment. Help out the marketplace by refusing to encourage anyone who asks if they can just add such-and-such into the water.

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