IT STILL AMAZES me that some mechanical contracting firm owners who don’t have project management or field backgrounds think that a project is a project is a project. Many human resource people in most mechanical firms think the same thing. Whether the job is HVAC, plumbing or piping, some managers see no substantial differences in how each respective trade’s projects need to be managed.
This is important because upper management and HR need to assign the right project managers with the right backgrounds, skill sets and temperaments to the jobs best suited for them.
Fundamentally, HVAC projects require a PM whose mindset is more technically oriented. An HVAC project manager needs to have more of an engineer’s mindset whether he’s a degreed engineer or not.
Plumbing projects require someone who tends to think outside the box to be able to solve correctly, in real time, problems that quickly turn into profit opportunities.
Piping projects normally need a PM who is more concerned with watching every labor penny, has a production mindset and is fanatical about doing all work right the first time because mistakes in piping can be more costly than their trade cousins.
If you’ve been an HVAC project manager in your area for some years, then you should know all the equipment factory reps and major subcontractor personnel from allied areas such as controls and TAB. You know whom you can depend on to make sure equipment arrives at the jobsite exactly to the hour when it’s needed and not a minute before. You know who always gives you excuses when it’s not there when you need it. You know whom you can depend on to put some extra manpower on the job on the weekends at no extra contract cost to you and help bail you out of a jam. And you know who wants to nickel-and-dime you to death for each little request that’s not specifically covered in their subcontract.
Because HVAC contracts are so typically equipment-driven, equipment orders need longer lead times than is typical for common plumbing fixtures or for stock piping. The orders need to be generated from contract-line-specific purchase orders.
An HVAC project manager must have a detailed technical understanding of the equipment involved, how it’s manufactured, how it is to be installed and why, and have a good working relationship with the local factory or manufacturers rep since a true partnership is at work there. A lousy relationship with the factory rep will lead to problems with the job and subsequent lower profits.
The space available above finished ceilings for HVAC ductwork has become increasing tighter over the years. Nevertheless, physics is still physics and always will be, and a highly engineered amount of conditioned airflow is required by code to be delivered to various points within the building.
The only way to get it there is with a series of precisely volume-calculated ducts. Consequently, an HVAC project manager needs to be able to do real-time engineering calculations to come up with onsite solutions for potential ductwork redesigns, which, yes, will ultimately require approval of all parties involved.
In the heat of the moment, an HVAC PM needs to solve a problem in a way that saves the company money and is a correct solution if not the correct solution. Having such a technical mindset is required for good HVAC project managers, but not for plumbing or piping ones.
A successful plumbing project manager knows that as long as water gets into the building and sewage eventually leaves it, then everyone will be happy. He will use this basic disrespect for his trade to his advantage.
Since the law of gravity hasn’t been repealed and almost all contract language states that gravity piping such as drains and sewer lines take precedence over all other trade work in above-ceiling and other spaces, a plumbing PM has to be able to think outside the box. The PM must do so in a common sense but basically non-technical visualization manner.
Project managing contracts for mechanical piping (not co-related HVAC work within the same contract) is a completely different animal. Piping jobs are so labor-intensive with little, if any, equipment or fixtures involved to help cover contract costs. A piping PM needs to be a real slave driver, watching every single moment of production labor like a hawk even more so than within allied trades.
A piping PM has to be more quality-oriented and have a do-it-right-the-first-time mentality, because redoing mistakes tends to eat up huge chunks of labor that often are 70%-plus of a contract’s value.
Process piping can have some major safety concerns. Such installation work can place workers in situations where accidents are more likely to happen and be worse when they do happen. A piping PM needs to walk the walk on safety issues, since a single accident prevented can save the company, literally.
As managers, you must recognize the differences between different types of mechanical contract work. Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your project managers, mesh the two, and everyone involved will be happier, healthier and, one would hope, a tad richer come bonus time.
H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master’s licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He can be reached by calling 919/851-9550, or via e-mail at [email protected].