I’ve found most contractors to be very visual people. They see pictures in their minds rather than numbers.

I recently heard from a contractor who, for political reasons, is opposed to anything that has to do with the color green and energy conservation, which does seem strange for a heating contractor, doesn’t it? He told me he was against wind turbines because they’re all like big boat propellers.

“I’m a boater, Dan, and I know what big propellers can do,” he said. “These tree huggers are putting up these turbines all over the place. Those turbines are all facing the same direction because that’s the way the wind blows. And you know what?”


“The combined torque of those things is making the planet spin faster.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” I inquired.

“Serious as a heart attack, Dan. And you know what happens when the earth spins faster? The days get shorter! I tell you these things are shortening our lifespan and we’ve got to do something about it. We can’t just sit back and let it happen!”

How’s that for visual?

People often create analogies by comparing something they don’t fully understand to something they do understand. And if they really want to believe that something is true, they’ll set out to find visual proof of that, even if their analogy makes no sense. Turbine blades look like propellers. Propellers make boats go faster. Therefore, turbine blades make the earth spin faster. Just look at them spinning. Can’t you see it?  Don’t you feel older each day? There you go!

Believing is seeing and contractors are very visual people.


Taking the show to you

Some manufacturers understand this and use it to their advantage. Take Weil-McLain, the boiler manufacturer, for instance. To their credit, they drag around a trailer with a big steam boiler and a boiler-feed pump. They piped that boiler with about $5,000 worth of clear Pyrex glass so contractors can see what goes on inside a properly piped, very clean steam boiler when the burner fires.

They set it up at trade shows and conventions and let ‘er rip. A big group of contractors will stand back with jaws agape and watch what happens as steam comes roaring up out of that boiler along with a lot of boiler water. The water fills the Pyrex risers to a height of about 2 ft. above the boiler and then floods over into the glass horizontal header. All this happens at remarkable speed. The carryover water gushes along the header and turns down into the equalizer, heading back into the boiler. The steam screams by the water, blasts up and out into the parking lot.

The contractors who are close enough to the big boiler look into the porthole that Weil-McLain has cut into the boiler and they see what looks like a front-loading washing machine in action. It’s an amazing demonstration and it’s totally believable because it’s happening right before their eyes, and with great power and violence.

The Weil-McLain employee running the show explains the importance of proper near-boiler piping on modern steam boilers. The contractors nod fiercely in understanding. Even those who have piped hundreds of steam boilers nod in total understanding. They get it.

Back in the day, steam boilers contained lots of water and tons of metal. They had very wide sections, which allowed the steam to rise through the water without creating a lot of turbulence on the surface. The steam disengaged from the water into a cathedral-like space we called the steam chest, and it left the boiler through a hole that was never allowed to be smaller than 3 in. diameter. The fuel efficiency of these steam boilers was low by today’s standards, but the steam quality was superb. Hardly any liquid water left those older boilers.

Nowadays, steam boilers have to be at least 80% efficient on the combustion side and that means something has to give. The government forced the manufacturers to take water and metal out of their boilers. The new boilers are tighter and better insulated. There’s less heat loss and greater combustion efficiency. The manufacturers made the sections narrower because they had to. That means there’s now more turbulence as the same amount of steam rises through the tighter confines of the modern steam boiler. The steam chest also is much smaller as are the holes leaving the boiler, so now the velocity of the steam is much faster than it used to be.

Higher-velocity steam means the water can’t stay inside the boiler and that’s what Weil-McLain shows us with its demonstration. They show the reality of today’s steam boilers and then they tell the contractors if they don’t install these boilers with the proper near boiler piping they are going to lose a lot of money. The contractors nod. They believe because they see. They now have pictures in their mind’s eye. They do the right thing.

A long time ago, I stood at a wholesaler’s counter in Brooklyn and watched a salesman from Spirotherm set up a display that showed the Spirovent air eliminator in action. They piped it with a circulator, a tiny expansion tank and clear plastic tubing.

They included a bicycle pump so any contractor could step up and shove the plunger in and out. A huge slug of air would instantly enter the flow of water; the Spirovent would grab the air and spit it out like a piece of bad fish. The contractor would stand back, look, and then do it again. Before long, that guy was absolutely convinced this thing was the answer to every air problem he would ever have. He wanted a solution to his problem. He was sold.

Believing is seeing.

I once watched a video of steam water hammer happening inside a glass pipe. The video came from Europe and I think it was from Spirex/Sarco. The intended audience was engineers and contractors who deal with things that are either commercial or industrial. The water was lying quietly in the pipe when they opened the valve and let in the steam. Faster than my eye could follow it, that water rocketed down the glass pipe, making that distinctive clang that steam water hammer makes. It was startling and I carry that visual in my mind’s eye to this day. I believe because I saw it, and it made me better able to explain it.


Times have changed

Over the years, I’ve watched wholesalers, manufacturers and manufacturers reps set up gorgeous rooms at their places where contractors could go for hands-on learning. The best of these include some see-through piping because believing is seeing.

Lately, I’m seeing these learning centers take to the road in the form of trucks with live-fire demonstrators. A friend from a boiler manufacturer told me that they decided to go that way even though they have a terrific classroom at their factory because contractors are less likely to travel these days. This probably has something to do with the Internet and the different way we’re all learning nowadays. It’s also why fewer contractors show up at trade shows. We all want things to come to us. This manufacturer gets that and is responding with a great believing-is-seeing display.

Things are changing, but one thing will always be with us and that is the visual nature of mechanical contractors. Some will bend what they see to fit what they believe; others will see things clearly and become believers. It’s important to understand this as the technology gets busier and the systems grow more complicated. We need to show before we tell, to make the facts and the truth about products come to life and in a very visual way. 

 And please do it soon because those darn wind turbines won’t stop whirling, and we don’t have much time left.               



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