12 lessons to make your job easier


Since I am now officially old, I get to pontificate on things that I have come to believe are always true in the hydronic-heating business, probably true in the rest of the heating business and certainly true when it comes to wet heat. Here, in no particular order, is what I have learned over the years:


If you can't find the time to do it right, you'll never find the time to do it twice.

Oh, how busy we are! And much of that busyness has to do with fixing things we rushed to get done in the first place. As I listen to my joints crack and watch my skin wrinkle, I have come to believe that multitasking isn’t all that we had hoped it would be. Want to save time? Slow down.  


Never work for your relatives, your church, synagogue or mosque.

No matter how good you are, these jobs will always fail and the people for whom you are working (and usually for free) will resent you and think you’re an idiot, which you are because you agreed to work for them in the first place. It’s just karma. You want to help; you want to do the right thing, but no good deed ever goes unpunished. Smile and pretend you can’t hear them.


Just when you think you've got it all figured out — you don't. 

Learning never ends. I once thought I understood all the nuances of those older steam-heating systems, but then someone sent me a photo of something I had never seen before. I still can’t figure out what this thing is. Since then, I’ve been surprised again and again by this topic, about which I am supposed to be an expert. You can never know it all. And that’s the truth.


Mother Nature makes no allowance for ignorance, arrogance or budgets.

I’m reminded of the rich guy who encased his old radiators in marble and then asked me why he was cold. I explained that he had encased his radiators in marble. He didn’t want to get rid of the marble and he didn’t want someone drilling holes in the marble. He just wanted them to keep him warm, in spite of all natural laws. How dare they defy him?

And as for budgets, Mother Nature believes that if you can’t afford it, you can’t have it. So there.


The problem and the solution are rarely in the same room. Leave the boiler room and be nosy.

The noise that you hear over there is probably caused by something over here. The day I started thinking about heating systems rather than heating-system components was the day I became a better troubleshooter. I once looked at this steam riser in an apartment building. None of the radiators on that riser would get hot. I wandered in and out of the apartments, which is always fun, and spotted the old radiator-supply valve on the top-floor radiator. I had the contractor pull the valve’s bonnet. As I suspected, the valve’s seat had rotted and fallen all the way to the bottom of the riser, effectively blocking the steam. Be nosy. See systems. 


The best tools a troubleshooter can carry are a very bright flashlight and a very open mind.

Which means you should never make up your mind as to what’s wrong while you’re traveling to the job. See everything and ask basic questions before you decide. Ask: If I were air, could I get out? If I enter that tee, which way will I leave? Draw two-dimensional sketches of the piping and trace the path of flow through the system. Trust only the arrow that you find on the circulator. Stuff like that.


High pressure goes to low pressure – always.

And that will tell you which way things will move. It’s one of those great truths of our business. It’s just like the weather. A high-pressure area moves into a low-pressure area and we get wind. In hydronics, we get flow but it’s the same principle. Trust it.


One incoming phone call will always generate a minimum of five outgoing phone calls.

The same holds true for email. Nothing will ever be as simple as it seems at first. This is why we have caller ID. I often wish we also had caller IQ.


When troubleshooting steam heat, always round up the usual suspects – air, dirt and improper piping.

Of these, I’d say air will be the culprit 90% of the time. That’s because we can’t see air so we usually don’t think about it, but where there is air, steam will not go. Again, leave the boiler room and trace the pipes, asking that key question: If I were air, could I get out? Dirt and piping are the other suspects because dirt loves to form in open systems (such as steam), and piping is always at the whim of the installer – in spite of I/O manuals. 


You can have it good. You can have it fast. You can have it cheap. Pick two.

I have never seen a situation where the customer can have all three. They’d like all three, of course, but it’s your job to get them to choose two. And that’s where marketing comes in. Strive for fast and good and then explain why these things don’t come cheap. Sell value.


When you do something stupid, you always will be rewarded in a small way, which leads you to do things of grander stupidity.

If you’re bleeding a radiator and you’re not getting any air, the urge to continue bleeding that radiator will be overwhelming. It also will be stupid because if you’re not getting air, it’s not an air problem. So that means you get a reward. The radiator gets hot and you feel fulfilled. The radiator gets hot because you drained the cold water from it, allowing the hot water to enter. But as soon as you leave, the radiator will be cold again because this isn’t an air problem; it’s a balance problem. Nevertheless, you will return and repeat the same procedure — again and again.


The two correct answers to any heating question you will ever be asked: 1. It depends. 2. Let me get back to you on that, OK?

The first one is just flat-out true. There’s very little black and white in this business so let the questioner know that it does, indeed, depend. And when your questioner asks what it depends on, use the second correct answer. That gets you off the job or off the phone and gives you the time you need to figure it all out.

And that’s the truth.