No matter the experience level, there always is knowledge to be gained.

Tim McElwainruns the Gas Training Institute in Warren, R.I. I don’t think there’s anyone better than Tim when it comes to teaching about gas. He’s been at it for decades and is an industry treasure.

He posted this on the Wall atHeatingHelp.comand I wanted to share it with you because it goes to the times in which we live, and I think it will affect your business in the days ahead.

“I was recently approached to do some gas training for a trade group. They asked to review the material I would be using to train their people. I obliged with all the material we use. The finding from their education committee was as follows:

“Upon review of the material you offered, we find much of it is not necessary for persons who have a license. All personnel understand venting, air for combustion, fundamentals of combustion, basic wiring and electrical diagrams. The basic hydronics is too elementary, as we are looking for training on new 80% mod/con boilers.

“I explained that 80% boilers are not mod/con.

“Anyway, without going any further, I challenged them to have five of their handpicked personnel take one of my exams. The five all graduated at one time or another from a local trade school. I told them they could use books or manuals to find the answers, take the exams home to work on them, and even get help if they needed it.

“They had the exams for two weeks. I got them back and corrected them today. The top score was a 52% by one person (70% is passing in my classes). All the other scores were under 40%.

“All of these folks are licensed as Masters. I would never say who they are or where they come from, but the people on the education committee were shocked and wanted to see the exams. I will deliver them tomorrow for their review.

“I find that many who work in this business fall into this category of not knowing some of the fundamentals that are so necessary, especially with all of the new equipment. So maybe the fundamentals are not so fundamental after all. Maybe I should call them advanced learning.”

Never heard of it

In 1994, I wrote a book called “Pumping Away.” It’s about hydronic systems, and it focuses on piping the circulator so that it pumps away from the compression tank. Piped this way, the circulator can build a positive pressure on the system, which drives air bubbles into solution. Most of the time, the contractor doesn’t have to go upstairs to bleed radiators if the circulator is pumping away, and that’s the main advantage.

When I wrote the book, I was sharing knowledge that had been around since the early 1960s. But the other day, I was doing a seminar for a bunch of contractors and about a quarter of the people in the room had never heard of this. And these weren’t young people.

I’ve gotten used to this. I talk to a moving parade of people. I always weave hydronic basics into my talks, and I do it with stories about myself. I make myself the brunt of jokes. It works because it’s a gentle approach, and no one in the room has to admit they don’t know something.

Have you ever explained something basic to a contractor who has more years in the business than you do? You should be happy that he asked because most won’t. Often, the contractor’s lack of knowledge comes back to you as a “defective” product.

Eugene Silbersteinis a college professor who teaches HVAC in a degree program here on Long Island. He has authored and coauthored a bunch of famous textbooks. He is very good at what he does and he posted this in response to what Tim McElwain had written:

“I feel your pain, Tim. I was called to do some in-house training for an out-of-state company. Before heading there, I spoke with the company owners to get a feel for what type of training they were looking for, and how I might best serve them.

“The owner had very high expectations for his technicians and wanted me to spend the two days doing advanced electrical and mechanical troubleshooting.

“As usual, I arrived at the location a day early to poke around and get to know the techs a little. I visited with them on a job or two to get a feel for what they knew and how I could best help.

“Even the most experienced techs at the company seemed to be lacking in the basics. When I mentioned this to the company owner and suggested that we start at the beginning, he was shocked.

“The moral of the story? No matter how much people tell you they know, everyone can use a brushup every so often. I like the term ‘advanced learning.’”

I also like that term. It’s gentle. It shows respect to those who have been around, and it presents a challenge to those who are new to the trade. It’s one of those terms that you can define for yourself. I think everything I learn today is advanced because I didn’t know it yesterday. Or maybe I used to know it but some gentle teacher just reminded me about it.

A bunch of people added their comments to Tim’s thread on the Wall. Some were angry at the state of learning in our industry. Others wrote that some people just can’t learn or don’t want to learn. That, too, is anger.

The right type of learning

A few days later, Tim came back with this:

“I have been invited to look at four jobs that some members of this group have been having problems with for several months. No work or labor on my part, just offering some consulting on what I think may be wrong with these jobs. Two have been in for two years and the complaint is high gas bills and insufficient heat in some zones. Two others are constant problems with nuisance shutdowns. This should be interesting.

“It seems the issue here is that they have spent money on outside training and have found it to be inadequate. Their personnel still can’t resolve many of the problems they are encountering. The two training venues they used are advertised as ‘gas experts.’

“In fairness to this association, the people on the education committee are not professionals, but a part of the executive committee, hired by them to operate and manage the association. They are very polite and seem to want to resolve their problems. They are just not sure how to go about doing it. They’ve made a financial investment in education during the past few years, only to find it is not up-to-date on today’s technology. They feel that good money was spent, and what they needed was not addressed. They are up on codes but not on actual installation, setup and servicing of mod/con systems.

“I must also say that much of the service now done in Rhode Island on gas is done by an outfit called Gas Doctor. The company is owned and operated by one of my former students at the gas company. They do excellent work on all phases of gas systems, even small white-goods appliances. All their personnel have been through my 240-hour program and the additional follow-up program of 120 hours of advanced classes.

“Some of the tradesmen who own businesses rely strictly on them to take care of gas issues. But in these tough times, the money is not there to use an outside outfit to take care of their problems. They want to be able to do this work themselves.”

So there’s the challenge. An association invests in training, but perhaps not the best training. Modern equipment confuses its Masters and a specialty company springs up to take those calls as a subcontractor.

But then the economy tanks and there’s not much money for knowledgeable subs. Nor is there money for proper training, which doesn’t come cheap, and doesn’t happen in a couple quick sessions. And there’s the grand assumption that all licensed contractors understand the basics and need only advanced training when what they need is advanced learning. 

And without advanced learning, new products get a bad reputation, contractors drop out of associations, and you get the return goods.