By Norman Hall A competitor recently asked how we can afford to spend so much time and money training our employees and our customers. My response is, “How can you afford not to train your people?” I would argue that education should be a prominent expense item for all contractors, wholesalers, and representatives in the Read more
By Norman Hall
A competitor recently asked how we can afford to spend so much time and money training our employees and our customers. My response is, “How can you afford not to train your people?” I would argue that education should be a prominent expense item for all contractors, wholesalers, and representatives in the HVAC and plumbing world. In this industry, where product and technical information can feel like a tsunami, customers rely on us to act as trusted advisors guiding them to the best solution. Our staff cannot simply exist as a walking, talking brochure. Arming our people with the knowledge and empowerment to think critically and to act with integrity has resulted in a thriving business and a dedicated customer base here at R.L. Deppmann.
“OK, Show Me the Boiler and I’ll Help you out.”
A few months ago, I was at lunch with a commercial mechanical contractor. By the way, it was a real lunch, not a Zoom meeting. The contractor started asking about the importance of the R. L. Deppmann seminar series for the winter season. He told me the story. Last fall he purchased some equipment for a project from a competitor. The equipment was installed and ran fine for a short time. In the spring he received a call from the owner. There were complaints of sporadic shutdowns of the boiler. The younger salesperson who took the original order was called out to the jobsite to assist in troubleshooting.
The rep stood in the mechanical room and asked the contractor to take him to the equipment with the trouble. The response was, “it’s right behind you.” Imagine the look on the contractor’s face. The young salesperson was embarrassed and the customer lost confidence. No one wants this to be a story in their company.
Starting in the Industry
Employees are valuable assets of any successful company. Today, it appears there are more positions available than people to fill them. The result is a younger work force that is changing jobs and careers. The person you are hiring may have little knowledge of the industry and certainly little knowledge of your company.
Exposing this new employee to knowledge about the company, the job, and the growth opportunities is paramount. The new employee will leave you or you may leave them if they are not successful in a short time. There is a roadmap to training if you are willing to invest in it.
The New Employee Education Road Map
Our company, R. L. Deppmann, is a successful manufacturer’s representative of hydronic, steam, and plumbing products in Michigan and Ohio. Our customers call us to help them solve problems because we have, and teach, the knowledge they need. How does this happen? Our hiring pool on the sales and engineering end is no different than other companies, but the training program is.
- Start with core values and what the company is all about. Our new employees are purposely exposed to the company business and culture three times in the first few weeks of their career. The HR department presents, the managing supervisor presents, and a senior manager describes the business and culture.
- Know the team that supports you. Our customers are contractors, wholesalers, and owners. It is important for the new inside or outside salesperson to understand the various departments of support.
- The new sales rep spends a short time in the warehouse, learning, seeing, and touching the products. They also begin to learn the ERP and CRM systems.
- Next, they move into the startup and warranty (service) department. Here they begin to see installed products and how they are commissioned. With the Service Tech as their mentor, the employee will gather knowledge of the terms used in the industry, proper installation, and troubleshooting. There is also a chance to interface with customers.
- Customer service/inside sales is the next stop. Here they begin the process of satisfying customer requests. They learn product, parts, and our business systems. They work in a team with open conversation about the hundreds of different product types and customer issues. The employee learns to help the customer make a better decision about what they are asking for.
- We have a strong new construction business. The salesperson will learn the plans, specifications, proper selection and sizing, proper detailing to avoid issues, and pricing. Here there is the baseline process of speaking with contractors, wholesalers, engineers, and coordinating with other employees.
- By this time, the employee is well into their training period. They now go out on calls with a senior sales rep. They are prepared with some understanding of product, installation, troubleshooting, selection, and quoting. Daily discussions with the senior rep will fill in the features, benefit, and competitive landscape for company and individual success.
- Now the employee is prepared to be a resource for their customer. They understand who knows what and the resources available to satisfy the customer’s needs. The new employee feels like they are part of a team. They may have developed a friendship with other employees. They feel like they belong.
Getting Started: How to Create a Training Program
This program may seem difficult to start. We developed this over many years. The departments a new employee is exposed to changes with their job. An accounting employee will go through the core ideology training. They may not experience the customer service department but warehouse experience in return goods or the purchasing process knowledge may help them do their job better.
Start with that core ideology process. Make sure the employee understands who you are, where you fit in the industry, and what to think about when making decisions. Next, just pick one support department for the job and list what they need to know about it. Communicate with all the department employees what the goal is and just try it out for a couple weeks. You will develop your own program.
Next quarter I’ll share the continuing training program we use once the employee is in the job full time.
Norman Hall is an engineer and leader at the R. L. Deppmann Company, a manufacturer’s representative, in Michigan and Ohio. Norm has assisted in the design and troubleshooting of hydronic and steam systems for 45 years.
The latest version of HydroSketch – a simple, intuitive cloud-based software for making piping and electrical schematics is now available at www.hydrosketch.com. Version 2.0 includes several enhancements including: • A much larger drawing canvas to reduce the need for scrolling. • Vector-based graphics that allows component symbols to be scaled over wide ranges while maintaining Read more
The latest version of HydroSketch – a simple, intuitive cloud-based software for making piping and electrical schematics is now available at www.hydrosketch.com.
Version 2.0 includes several enhancements including:
• A much larger drawing canvas to reduce the need for scrolling.
• Vector-based graphics that allows component symbols to be scaled over wide ranges while maintaining “crisp” appearance.
• New component symbols.
• Additional resources such as YouTube tutorials.
A free 30-day trial version of HydroSketch 2.0 is available at www.hydrosketch.com A single user license, valid for 3 years from the date of purchase remains at $US 99.
Existing users will automatically work with version 2.0 when logging in. The original version of HydroSketch will remain supported through the end of 2021.
Fall is here and winter is approaching. That means we are officially in heating season. While accidents happen, there are a few ways to remain cautious for a safer, incident-free winter. Working in colder climates has some obvious challenges. For one, HVACR professionals deal with extreme weather while working long, tiresome hours near components that Read more
Fall is here and winter is approaching. That means we are officially in heating season. While accidents happen, there are a few ways to remain cautious for a safer, incident-free winter.
Working in colder climates has some obvious challenges. For one, HVACR professionals deal with extreme weather while working long, tiresome hours near components that could be red hot. They also deal with potentially deadly gasses like carbon monoxide, propane and natural gas.
Here are some ways to make sure technicians work safely around the most common HVACR industry hazards faced:
• CO Exposure — This is the biggest danger, both to you and to the homeowner or building occupants. Carbon monoxide (CO), a natural byproduct of burning natural gas, is an odorless, colorless gas that is rightly known as the silent killer. While prolonged exposure can lead to death, breathing air saturated with CO for even a short time can quickly overwhelm and incapacitate you. When working around heating equipment, you should use a CO tester to confirm you’re not being exposed. Be sure to follow all safety guidelines while installing a system to ensure no CO gets into the home or the conditioned space.
• Burns — There are multiple ways an HVACR tech might burn themselves — especially in the winter. Working close to open flames and hot elements, heating systems can put out a lot of excess heat. Plus, techs often find themselves needing to solder connections and other components — the opportunities for burns are endless. The best way to stay safe is to know where the sources of heat are and work carefully and deliberately around them. Don’t rush your work and don’t guess if something has cooled off enough to touch.
• Fatigue — Getting tired comes with the territory when crawling around in the dark and lifting heavy equipment. To avoid fatigue, get plenty of rest before starting your workday. Also, working safely is often the first thing overlooked when working tired. While shortcuts to remove extra steps may sound like a better option when exhausted, this can lead to incidents that put yourself or others in harm’s way. If you’re too tired to work safely, you’re too tired to work. Don’t risk it.
• Extreme Weather — Until furnaces start shutting down, you’re most likely working in cold crawlspaces and attics, and on slippery surfaces like ice-covered sidewalks. When the temperature drops this time of year, dress for the conditions. Durable, warm work boots can give you firm footing on icy steps. Also, cold fingers can easily drop tools, so wear warm gloves.
• Electrocution — If you’re working around electrical circuits or with live wires in an HVACR system, it’s best to turn them off at the panel. Then, hang a tag at the panel so no one accidentally turns it on. If you work with live wires, wear the correct PPE and follow all safety precautions.
Heating season is no joke. Your safety, and the safety of others, is in your hands, so keep these tips in mind when conducting service and repair calls.
By Tony Gonzalez Technical Training Manager for Fieldpiece Instruments. Tony has more than 20 years of industry experience with Fieldpiece developing new products. Most recently, he led the Job Link® App development team and developed Fieldpiece’s wireless power clamp meters. He is committed to training on best practices to help the HVACR professional do their job easier, faster and better. Tony enjoys road cycling and rooting for his hometown LA Dodgers.
Conversations about the skilled labor shortage have become commonplace. And though high profile champions, like Mike Rowe, have given new visibility and importance to the looming challenge that threatens all trade professions nationwide, articles typically bemoan the lack of young people entering the trades while offering few solutions. The need for qualified technicians isn’t the Read more
Conversations about the skilled labor shortage have become commonplace. And though high profile champions, like Mike Rowe, have given new visibility and importance to the looming challenge that threatens all trade professions nationwide, articles typically bemoan the lack of young people entering the trades while offering few solutions.
The need for qualified technicians isn’t the only concern facing the trades, though. Others issues – such as quality of work and the time in which it’s completed – are as much a symptom of the first problem as they are challenges in their own right.
Many proactive, growing companies have squared off with the workforce shortage out of necessity, dealing it blows where they can. This often comes in the form of a bolstered recruiting game, or a train-your-own technician approach.
Local advocacy in high schools helps, too, though positive results come gradually as part of a longer-term effort. And, some companies implement systems and QC measures that help, to a degree at least.
If Baker Group, in Des Moines, IA, wasn’t already a mechanical force to be reckoned with over the past half century, this changed dramatically in early 2017.
Managers within the 650-person design-build firm, already intimately familiar with the advantages of prefabricating plumbing and mechanical systems offsite, made a bold move to expand their manufacturing space by nearly 150 percent. This, they say, has helped to solve several high-level concerns.
Manpower, quality, timeline
The decision to expand was made in order to produce higher quality products, in less time, without creating an unrealistic need for additional skilled manpower.
The firm’s new, 144,000 square-foot facility contains offices as well as manufacturing space, and is called Baker Group Advanced Manufacturing. As many as 75 craftsman can work during a single shift.
“We’ve done prefabrication work since the 1960s,” said Rob Cross, operations manager at Baker Group. “We added a large shop in 1998, and since then, we’ve steadily gained momentum. Our growth necessitated this new expansion last year.”
“The dynamic of the entire construction industry today is built on quality and speed,” says Tom Wengert, VP of Baker Group’s sheet metal business unit. “With this facility, we can prefab systems in a controlled environment, which improves quality while reducing labor costs.
“Additional benefits include increased safety, less congestion on construction sites, less jobsite trash and better scrap material recycling,” added Wengert.
While speed and quality are two major advantages to having a large manufacturing space at your disposal, the efficiency of off-site manufacturing means that fewer employees are needed to accomplish the same task.
Much of the in-shop sequencing implemented by Baker Group at the new facility was adapted from the automotive industry. For example, the flow of materials comes in west side of the shop and leave on the east side.
More than sheet metal
Completed in March of 2017, Baker Group Advanced Manufacturing includes 80,000 square-feet of fabrication space with almost 9,000 of that dedicated to multi-trade prefabrication alone.
The multi-trade space is located centrally among the sheet metal, piping and electrical shops. Here, trades work collaboratively in a weather-controlled environment to build to specifications and then ship to the job site.
The space features a 10-ton crane, allowing workers to construct large assemblies. By reducing on-jobsite time, this moves the entire construction timeline forward. The approach increases value to clients, and more than doubles Baker Group’s production capacity.
It’s in this centrally-located, multi-trade space that the various trades come together to assemble systems, sometimes even full mechanical penthouses. Welders work on framing and dunnage while pipefitters connect boilers, chillers, pumps and other equipment. Electricians wire the components and control technicians prepare everything to plug into a BAS.
“A good example of how we build to exact specifications in the shop can be seen in fabrication of gang restroom assemblies,” said Cross. “We can complete an eight-stall bathroom assembly in a little over a day, where it would take nearly a week onsite.”
Welders create an angle-iron framework, perfectly centering all the Watts closet carriers. Once assembled, the system is piped and hydro-tested. Waste water is also tested before the assembly is broken into several pieces for deliver to the job.
Baker Group has used the Watts back-to-back wall mounted, floor mounted and single closet carrier configurations for a wide variety of projects.
“We’ve standardized on the Watts carriers because the fab crews prefer them and they can be rapidly assembled,” said Cross. The Watts “industry standard closet carriers” come out of the box pre-assembled. The carriers feature a patented compression sealed nipple, which provides fast installation without the need for additional sealants. Adjustment is much easier than when threaded nipples are used.
“We never have any trouble with the closet carriers once they’re in the field, and the support we get from Jeff Howe, at Mack McClain & Associates – our manufacturer’s rep agency – is fantastic,” he continued
Cross has been with Baker Group for 23 years, and the relationship with rep firm Mack McClain goes back as long as he can remember. The firm supplies most of Baker Group’s plumbing components, including toilets, eyewash stations, backflow assemblies, drains and water heaters.
Still adding capabilities
Toilet carriers aren’t the only plumbing systems that Baker Group prefabricates though. Like their ability to assemble boiler and chiller systems offsite, mechanics also build water service entrances, backflow assemblies, pump skids, pressure reducing stations and water purification systems. Once assembled, these items are broken down only as far as needed to be palletized, and the kits shipped to the jobsite.
“Every year we add something new to what we fabricate here on site,” Cross says, adding that Baker Group’s mechanical capabilities now include fabrication of ASME-rated vessels and components. “We’re equipped with the skills, knowledge, equipment and space to do this intricate and very strict code welding work.”
“Give us your biggest problem; the answer lies within the body of knowledge our people possess. We’ll find the solution,” he continued.
Filling the new shop
While Baker Group Advanced Manufacturing allows the company to provide more capacity with reduced manpower, the need for new hires to fill the shop still requires ongoing effort.
“We’re a big local advocate for the trades,” said Cross. “We visit high schools and technical schools, invite people to take tours or do job shadowing programs. But we still can’t hire fast enough to fill the need.”
Baker Group is one of the largest, most capable design-build contractors in the Midwest, and they take that title seriously.
The content available on their website and YouTube channel speaks not only to potential clients, but also potential employees.
If the company’s dedication to recruiting parallels their insistence on delivering the best solution on time and on budget, staffing the new shop won’t be an unsurmountable task.
For residential-only contractors, multi-family heating projects have a unique set of challenges. These jobs progress like commercial projects and need to be designed as such. Of course, they’re still residential in nature, but for the most part, it’s commercial work. J.A.M. Plumbing & Heating, Inc. has built an interesting space in the skilled workforce of Read more
For residential-only contractors, multi-family heating projects have a unique set of challenges. These jobs progress like commercial projects and need to be designed as such. Of course, they’re still residential in nature, but for the most part, it’s commercial work.
J.A.M. Plumbing & Heating, Inc. has built an interesting space in the skilled workforce of Rockland County, N.Y. The company is small, when compared to most commercial/industrial contractors in New York. And they’re very good. The owner, Joe Mezzasalma, started the firm in 2003.
“People don’t hire J.A.M. if they’re simply price shopping,” said Tom Dwyer, at rep firm Venco Sales, who has known Mezzasalma for 12 years. “Joe is a craftsman. People hire him because they know he can make a difference.”
J.A.M. never works outside of Rockland County. In fact, the four-person crew, which includes Mezzasalma, is almost exclusive to five towns; Orangeburg, Sparkill, Tappan, Blauvelt and Piermont. There’s more than enough work without travelling farther.
Multi-family service and replacement
One of J.A.M.’s areas of expertise is multi-family housing. And there’s plenty of it in Rockland County, as far as suburban areas go. Blue Hill Commons is a condominium neighborhood built in the 1970s with 15 buildings. They range in size from four to 12 units per building.
“We’ve done service work at Blue Hill Commons for more than a decade,” said Mezzasalma. “Each year, we assess the health of the boiler systems and, if needed, schedule replacements.”
After 30 years in service, the boiler in building #3 was showing its age. The nine-unit condo building was served by a single large boiler and an indirect tank. Fin tube radiation is installed with zone valves on each apartment, one zone per apartment.
“Tom Dwyer visited the job with me in September of 2020,” said Mezzasalma. “He sized and designed the new system. It was his idea to use two boilers instead of one, for efficiency and little redundancy.”
Dwyer’s plan was to install two, 140-MBH X-2 boilers, made by U.S. Boiler Company. Because the budget didn’t have room for condensing boilers, the new system could still have two stages of input by placing the cast iron Series X-2 boilers in a lead-lag-rotate configuration with an external staging control.
Work began in October and was finished in two weeks. Heat wasn’t needed at the time, and DHW was temporarily supplied with an electric water heater.
The hardest part of the job was getting the old boiler out and the new boilers in. The basement mechanical room can only be accessed through a tight stairwell. The existing chimney was used to vent both X-2 boilers, and J.A.M. installed a new indirect water heater.
“This was out first time I using the X-2, and I’ll use it again,” said Mezzasalma. “It’s everything a cast iron boiler should be; simple yet compact, with easy-to-access controls.” The Series X-2 is available in seven sizes from 70 to 280 MBH. Design of the American-made, cast iron heat exchanger promotes turbulent water flow for efficient heat transfer, providing an impressive 84 percent AFUE.
Because four buildings are tied to the same gas meter, there was no way to quantify gas savings. After one winter in service, and a winter in which many residents stayed home, no complaints came in.
“No news is good news,” said Mezzasalma. “You never get positive feedback, either, so silence is golden. I have to hand it to Tom on the design of this system. He didn’t want to want to replace one large boiler with another single boiler, and I know, whether the gas savings are immediately evident or not, we’ll be saving gas in Building #3.”
Shortly before J.A.M started the Blue Hill Commons project, the company was busy with a larger project at St. Thomas Aquinus College (STAC), in Sparkill, NY. College expansion required a new dorm building.
“We’re on the college’s preferred contractor list, so we got a call when they built the new 36-room dormitory,” said Mezzasalma. “The engineer actually asked us which condensing boiler we preferred to use, and he designed the system around that, U.S. Boiler Company’s Alpine mod-con.”
J.A.M.’s work on the dorm included all plumbing in addition to the hydronic system, which serves the building’s common areas and provides DHW. The two common areas each include a fan coil unit, and individual dorm rooms are heated and cooled with PTAC units.
Two, 210-MBH Alpines boilers were installed on the second floor, along with a 34-gallon instantaneous indirect tank.
“Weight was a consideration for everything in the mechanical room, due to its second story location,” explained Mezzasalma. “That’s one reason we installed the Alpine boilers and was also a consideration when the water heater was selected. The Alpine boilers each have a five-to-one firing ratio, so by pairing them, the system effectively has a 10-to-one turndown. The 410 MBH input provides ample capacity to heat the space and create 15 GPM of domestic hot water. After all, there are 36 bathrooms in the building.”
Other than weight, we chose the Alpine because we trust the unit,” he continued. “We’ve installed them in much larger multi-boiler systems before. The controls are great, it’s easy to service, and it’s very efficient.”
The project started in March of 2020 and culminated in August. COVID halted progress entirely at one point, and created scheduling conflicts throughout the project. Weather was an issue too. As luck would have it, heavy rain complicated the outdoor plumbing portion of the job.
Tom Dwyer conducted system start-up before the fall semester began. The building was ready, whether or not students would return, or learn from home.
Today, J.A.M. Plumbing & Heating, Inc. is currently installing two more Alpines at the college and rezoning the Romano Student Center. Stellar craftsmanship, paired with solid product and design support, wins and keeps big customers.