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Developing the skills to quickly and accurately troubleshoot hydronic systems

By Roy Collver

Time to wrap-up this series of four articles on troubleshooting – for now. Technicians and designers in the mechanical industry seem to come as one of two basic personalities. Those who strive to learn everything they can and rise to the top – and those who are happy to just cruise along and do whatever it takes to get their pay-cheque. This fourth article is written primarily for those in the first category.

I really believe most people in our industry are in the first category if they don’t have to climb over too many roadblocks. Not being a psychologist, I won’t hazard a guess as to how a person comes alive and develops the kind of curiosity required to drive them to get better and better at what they do, but I do know there are common traits and strategies that are required. Here is a short list of the most important:

Curiosity – you want to understand why, to be a problem solver. If you have ever left a job site with a serious itch in your head because you weren’t able to figure out why something was not working right – you are one of us. Don’t let that curiosity get squeezed out of you. It can be annoying at times – like waking up in the middle of the night, still trying to figure out something, but it is the essence of a good troubleshooter. These problems are what makes you good – work them like a dog with a bone.

Trades and engineering people don’t get out of school knowing everything – they are just getting started. The best ones fully understand that and never stop learning. Learn the basics. Basic math, basic electricity, basic heat transfer, fuel utilization – the list goes on. Then go out and get experience applying what you’ve learned, repeat. Discover where to find answers when you get stuck.

Industry and professional organizations have never offered more opportunities for continuing education than they do now – take advantage of these resources. Read this magazine and others, technical books, manufacturer’s literature, and on-line resources. Try out the new website sponsored by this magazine at and see how easy it can be to connect with a variety of training opportunities. Most important of all, try and find yourself some mentors who are willing to help you – people with more experience and knowledge than you – an employer, fellow worker, code official, manufacturer’s rep, or educator.

Aim to excel

You have a desire to excel. This is an ego driven thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is a great feeling when you solve a problem that has stymied other people. Don’t be shy about letting people know about it either – some of those people might want to hire you some day. But don’t get too cocky. Soon after you start to think you have it all figured out – something will surely happen to remind you that you have a long way to go – I speak from experience here.

Seek out a work environment that encourages you to learn. This can be a tough one. Some mechanical contracting firms don’t really want to get involved in fixing things. They are keen to get the new construction and the easy retrofit work but will call a service company if something doesn’t work because they don’t have the expertise or don’t want the responsibility.

If you want to really get better, you should be looking for an employer who is more service oriented because you will have an uphill battle if you are doing piecework all the time. Even service companies that want employees to learn and get better face business realities that often get in the way. Unfortunately, the realities of day to day often conspire against those who want to learn more.

The boss wants you to finish the job and get on with the next one; the customer doesn’t want to pay to have someone try and figure things out. To have an employee spend too much un-billable time learning on the job can cause economic hardship for a company and there must be a balance – which brings up point no. 4:

Be willing to invest in yourself. You can’t expect your employer to foot the whole bill for your continuing education; you must pitch in too – this may include giving away some working time by not billing for it. Discuss this with your boss, with your union if you are in one, or if you own your own business – with your bank balance.

On-the-job training

On the job training is the best kind of training you can get. You learn more deeply, hone your instincts in real-world situations, learn by making mistakes, gain confidence, and learn how to think fast on your feet (you don’t want to give away too much time).

Invest in the tools of the trade and gain proficiency with them. Quality diagnostic tools are expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and it takes a lot of time to learn how to use them properly and accurately. Trial-and-error troubleshooting is even more expensive, however, as you try to guess your way through problems (it doesn’t look all that professional either).

Find out early where the gaps are in your skills and knowledge. Make a list. When you are aware of what you don’t know, you are on your way to finding a way to learn it. Check out available training but be careful – there is some pretty dodgy information out there, especially on-line. Many technicians are weak in electrical troubleshooting for instance – does your local technical institute have any continuing education classes, or can they recommend where to go to top up your knowledge?

Customers for life

Care about your customers. Some people see their customers as a revenue stream; others see them as partners, even friends. Be honest and fair with your customers; treat them with respect and they will ask for you by name. Your customers should be for life. Learn how to explain what you are doing in plain language that they can understand. Talk to them about what you are doing – if they want to watch what you are doing, that’s great! Make sure they are aware of where the instruction manuals are and encourage them to read them. Show them what they can do to keep their equipment happy and healthy and show them what not to do.

We have all seen the “sting” operations some of the consumer programs have televised. Loose thermostat wire – technician replaces a fan motor and gas valve and bills the customer hundreds of dollars. Don’t be one of those bandits, and don’t work for a company that allows this kind of nonsense. Thankfully it isn’t all that common, but unfortunately it does happen, and it gives us all a bad name.

Be willing to take responsibility for what you do. When you walk into a building tasked with the job of installing a system, fixing a system or simply servicing a system – you should want to “own it”. I developed that attitude early in my career and it has served me (and my customers) very well. “This is my boiler room now so let’s make sure it’s up to snuff.” Pay attention and notice everything about the mechanical system and the health of the building, not just the immediate task.

I have included a few photos that illustrate where this should take you. One shows a side-wall vented gas fireplace vent. Notice anything amiss? If you’ve been called to look at the air conditioner at this house, should you be pointing out the fireplace problem to the customer? You must! You might just save someone’s life.

Next photo. You’re called in to fix a pizza oven in a commercial kitchen. You can hardly open the front door because it is sucked in so tight against the frame. Inside the dining room, you look up and see that air from the attic is being pulled in through the electrical boxes in the ceiling. Do you tell the owner that there is a problem with their make-up air supply? Yes, you absolutely must.

Make sure you document this stuff, note who you talked to and when. In serious situations, you may have a responsibility to shut an appliance off and/or call the gas inspector to make sure the problem gets dealt with. For any problem you encounter, you have a responsibility to not only fix it, but also to find out why it happened and take the steps necessary to prevent it from happening again. If you aren’t willing to do that, you are in the wrong business.

Follow the advice I have listed above, and you will never be out of work for very long. And you will also sleep well at night (except those times you wake up and try and solve a problem during what I call the “night shift”).


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