At the end of last month’s article, I’d mentioned that I’d be spending a day with a top- notch hydronics/HVAC equipment service technician. I was honored to spend the day working with a young technician by the name of Oscar Varela. Oscar works for Advanced Hydronics, Inc. in Denver Colorado. Advanced Hydronics, Inc. is a specialty contracting firm specializing in hydronic based, radiant driven comfort systems.
Since its inception, the company has been driven by delivering heating comfort needs through its distribution of radiant panel systems, including panel radiators, radiant floors, walls and ceilings. It has also begun servicing the needs of air-based customers as well. Their offices and training facilities are radiantly cooled, and cooling work is quickly becoming a specialty of the organization.
This air side service addition was dictated by the consumers’ needs for air conditioning (cooling), and up until now radiant distribution typically hadn’t been considered for delivering cooling comfort. Oscar is one of two full time service employees working for AHI, under the direction of Dave Phillips, who has significantly increased the amount of service business performed by AHI.
Oscar began his career in the construction industry up in Vail Colorado, where he started out doing general construction. He became well versed in the typical construction critical path methods, and eventually mastered all phases of general construction. When the economy went South, and major construction came to a screeching halt, he went to work for a local plumbing contractor, doing plumbing rough ins.
This piqued his interests, and he decided to invest in his future by attending a local NATE training program put on by noted instructor Don Leonardi. He had to commute from Vail to Denver on a regular basis, which is no small task; Vail is about 2 hours away from Denver, when the weather and traffic are good. He took some serious technical HVAC courses from Mr. Leonardi and learned all of the nuances of both heating and cooling equipment. He eventually connected with another local plumbing contractor in Vail, Jim Harper, owner and operator of Plumbing Systems Inc.
Jim took a chance and hired Oscar, and began the process of training him to PSI’s business manners. PSI is a flat rate service company with a lot of business and a lot of employees. Oscar became well versed in all aspects of flat rate service work, and excelled at doing repairs to hydronic heating systems, the majority of the systems in the Vail valley. Jim made additional investments in Oscar’s training, sending him to numerous manufacturer sponsored classes provided by burner manufacturers, boiler manufacturers, control manufacturers and more.
It became quite evident to me early on in my exposure to Oscar that he has an insatiable need for training and education. He is constantly striving to increase his educational portfolio, attending classes sponsored by manufacturer’s representatives and other training opportunities. And he has learned how to apply these skills quite well in the field.
During my time in the field with Oscar, I had the opportunity to watch him skillfully troubleshoot a hydronic heating boiler that was experiencing inadvertent relief valve discharges. Most technicians would probably have just changed the relief valve and left it at that. Oscar didn’t stop there. He fully diagnosed the operation of the appliance, reviewing all of its programmable settings, all while asking the consumer questions about comfort, noises, previous service etc.
If all service technicians had the gumption that Oscar showed, and his knack for constantly keeping abreast of these constantly changing variables, business owners would be better able to sleep at night.
He determined that the expansion tank’s bladder had failed, causing the system pressures to rise when the water was being heated. He also noted that the expansion tank was not installed in an ideal location, and also found out from listening to the system that it wasn’t doing a good job of air elimination. He kept the consumer engaged in the process, explaining his every move, and showing the results. He performed a combustion analysis and determined that the appliance was healthy on the fire side of the system, explaining to the consumer his findings. After a thorough analysis, he quickly prepared a quotation for the consumer.
The consumer was very thankful for his thorough diagnosis, and agreed to have him perform the required repairs. The consumer was so impressed with Oscar’s thoroughness, that he promised to begin sending his service needs for his commercial printing operations to AHI, making this service call a win-win-win for everyone involved.
As I watched Oscar going through the parameters of a boiler that is not his company’s usual choice, it dawned on me that he has to have the ability to go through a bunch of boiler controller programs. It’s almost akin to having to speak numerous different computer languages, and a need to know the nuances of each boiler’s control logic and system needs. When I first started in the field, controls were binary in nature. They were either on or off. Today’s controls are loaded with so many variables, and they are all monitoring the many moving targets that are typical of today’s systems.
If all service technicians had the gumption that Oscar showed, and his knack for constantly keeping abreast of these constantly changing variables, business owners would be better able to sleep at night. Today’s HVAC service technicians need to understand not just the typical parameters associated with the binary controls, but they also must be able to use, read and understand many digital instruments associated with their trade. It’s not uncommon to have two to five thousand dollars tied up in personal instrumentation, all of it necessary for doing a proper job of diagnosis and repair in today’s world. And that cost doesn’t include the portable laptop PC’s needed to read the deep memory of some of these sophisticated controllers.
I enjoyed my day in the field with Oscar, and it reminds me of how quickly our industry has moved in the 42 years that I have been involved. It’s not just a matter of owning a bunch of expensive tools. It also comes down to having the initiative to further your education, and to learn how to interpret the readings that you are seeing. Oscar exemplifies what is required of today’s HVAC service technicians. He also has a keen understanding of the cost of doing business, and strives to not just be “over head,” but is continuously looking for ways to make himself and his company more profitable.
Oscar is a rare find in today’s fast-paced, constantly changing world of service and repair. I look forward to working with Oscar and the rest of the excellent folks at Advanced Hydronics, Inc., as I return to work for them, and will do my best to educate Oscar, and the rest of the crews associated with this excellent company.
Some of my future articles will be dealing with the day to day work lives of their installers, designers, business managers and owners.
Tune in next month as I continue my series on “A day in the life of....” Until then, Happy Summer Hydronicing!
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