Dear Mr. Carney,
I just finished reading your June article on "The Quest for Comfort" and felt compelled to write. I was impressed by your dilemma, but I was even more impressed by what you probably left out of the article. The many calls back to the contractor, the failed attempts at fixing what is perceived as a simple problem and the late nights of discomfort for you and your family in the home.
I have been involved in the HVAC industry my entire life. In fact, I am the typical poster child for our industry. My Grandfather started the business in 1938, my father took it over and the son (that’s me) came along and took it over from him. In your article, Henry Sterling says that the industry is not properly trained, an understatement at best. Yet it goes much deeper than that. Back when my Grandfather was in this business it was more of an art form to work on and repair a heating system. I can remember times walking out of a dark musty basement with that glow of pride spreading across my fathers face because he was able to "beat" that big old steam boiler once again. That system of magical repairs worked very well up into the 1960’s when the systems started to become a bit more sophisticated. Even then the average heating man flew by the seat of his pants when it came to sizing and problem solving and most times they got by. The manufacturers and distributors started to have some warranty problems and traced them back to poor installations or maintenance and decided it was time to educate the service man so that these problems would not repeat themselves. A former service technician of mine summed up what these educational experiences really meant. I told him he was scheduled for a steam class at a local distributor and he replied "Great! They put on the best buffet!" Shortly after that I started testing my technicians and asking them to relate what they had learned at each seminar, the results were the same each time–they learned nothing but how busy other companies were and how much other service technicians were getting paid.
I cannot say the blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the service technicians because they are an end product of their environment. Long before they anticipated the main dining selection at the local distributors training session, they had been put in their place again and again by friends, family and customers who have a very low opinion of "heating guys". The manufacturers are just now catching on that education is only working for 5% of the entire industry. So for the rest of the industry they are building foolproof equipment that can practically install itself and repair itself. Consumers have been crying for better quality products for less money every year. This has not changed and will continue to worsen. As a homeowner, your story is in the minority. Most homeowners would be suing the original contractor who put the system in the new construction home. Even worse they would stiff the second contractor who was called in to repair the first contractors mistakes. Mr. & Mrs. Homeowner would say "You contractors are all alike, so if the second guy bills me $3,000.00 to repair my system, I will just not pay him so I can get back at the bad guy who put the system in originally!"
Is it the consumer’s fault? No. They are acting on the impulse of get more, pay less. An educated consumer is still your best ally, but that does not mean that after they are educated that they will make the correct decisions. I live and work on the Northshore of Chicago, per capita one of the wealthiest areas in the United States. We do not lack for Lexus’s, Mercedes and BMW’s running around the streets. Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren are the standard attire for all the kids and their parents. Yet if you can’t eat it, show it or impress your friends by it, these people do not want to spend money on it! I cannot tell you enough stories of the poor quality of the HVAC systems that are going into new construction homes around here. These homes are worth 1.5 — 2 million and the HVAC systems are not zoned, have no filters (except by the 1" drop in filter), are not humidified and have no set back thermostat. It kills me to walk into a marble entryway with a $15,000.00 crystal chandelier only to see a $5.00 contractors special thermostat on the wall. The builder wants the system installed cheaply, the homeowner wants the system to work, and the contractor wants to make money. How many corners do you think are being cut? Inexpensive equipment, cheap labor, inferior materials, short cutting on materials, the list goes on and on.
I have been reading and enjoying your magazine for more years than I can remember. I am sorry that the publisher had to find out the hard way what is really happening in the industry. Unfortunately the people who read your magazine are those on the top of their game. They are the men and women who make up the 5% of this industry who do it right. If you want a real trip, put on an old shirt and a pair of blue jeans and sit around your local HVAC supply house one afternoon. The questions and comments you will hear in that short time will send a chill down your spine. What it will also do is give you a glimpse into the actual workings of the HVAC industry.
What is the answer to this entire education backlog? Want. The HVAC technician has to want to learn. The old quote "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink" works very well for the average technician. The technician will not want to learn unless he/she feels there is something in it for them, money only goes so far, there has to be higher self-esteem and respect from those people that we call upon every day. I have fought to make every employee realize how important and valuable he or she is. In some cases it has worked. In others I have failed miserably. It has even taken years to get the message across to a few that they are in a noble profession. Once the message gets through, these are the technicians that you cannot hold back. But the message is not getting through to most of the technicians, and the way this industry is going it never will. Manufacturers would rather make smarter machines than smarter men would; distributors would rather design the system themselves and avoid the hassle of educating the technician who does not want to know. If the technicians do not watch out, they will be fazed out of the picture all together.
Education, knowledge, respect. They are wonderful things. The next time you are driving around your neighborhood and see a service technician with his gauges, a can of freon and a Igloo cooler in his hands he is probably heading to the back of your neighbors house to hook up those gauges and that freon so they can charge the system. The cooler? That has the cold beer in it so the technician can make sure to get the suction line "beer can cold" like their fathers taught them to do. I would love to see more articles on reality contracting like yours; I enjoyed it no end. Thank you for your time in reading my response. If you or anyone would like to contact me I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martin R. Boughner