By Roy Collver
The very first article I wrote for the Mechanical Buyer and Specifier magazine was in September 1996. Back then, the editor was Ron Shuker. Under the care of Simon Blake, the magazine morphed into the Plumbing & HVAC magazine, which can be read today. When I was recently going through my article catalogues, I realized that this article marks number 200 and thought this would be a good milestone to bring my regular magazine contributions to a close.
In that initial article, I challenged the industry to up its game towards the training of hydronic professional installers, service technicians, designers, and salespeople. Over this 25-year journey, I have set out to do something about it. The need will never go away. Training resources and methods have evolved to make it much easier for individuals to continually upgrade their skills and knowledge.
Professionalism has always been about the quest of individuals to be as good as possible. I was proud to get my start in this industry as a tradesperson, but I never let that term box me in and neither should you. Lifetime learning makes you a professional — embrace it.
While it’s important to always remember the basics behind the arts and science of hydronics, always keep in mind that going beyond is still necessary, depending on how you specialize.
For fundamentals and calculations, it’s important to know those related to heating, cooling, domestic hot water and auxiliary loads (heat loss/heat gain), heat transfer, fluid flow, air flow, building science, hydronic specialty equipment, controls application, installation, integration and set-up, equipment and system testing and commission.
Going back to the basics, know the fundamentals of plumbing, gas, hydronic distribution, electrical, refrigeration, heated and chilled air distribution, and ventilation. And for all of the above, know your troubleshooting and diagnostic skills, safety requirements and work practices, and applicable code requirements.
How much do you want to know? How far do you want to take this? Trade schools and technical institutes can get you started on the journey. The traditional way to learn the basics is through an accredited school along with on-the-job apprenticeship training. Academic training alone just won’t cut it, but on-the-job learning alone can leave you short of the academic skills needed to progress.
The best engineering programs for hydronic designers should also include real-life work semesters to give academics practical knowledge of the work environment and an appreciation of the types of problems that seem to constantly jump out at you every single day.
Moving beyond basic training requires discipline, drive, and commitment from the individual. Training takes time and although it can’t be expected to be all on the employer to bear the full cost of additional education, they should help out and be accommodating. Some of the very best training can consist of using the “stop, look, and listen” method, especially when diagnosing system problems.
Back in the day…
Hydronics training has improved dramatically in scope, options, and quality from the dark days of the late 1980s. Industry groups, with the enthusiastic support of the manufacturers and distributors, have jumped into the training vacuum when the “new hydronics,” like radiant floor heating, weren’t up to par.
Manufacturers continue to develop excellent and up-to-date content and are heavily invested in a variety of methods of delivery, especially with the last twenty years of internet development.
The options are now amazing. Online training was given a major boost during the recent COVID-19 troubles and the industry has been getting more comfortable learning via this method.
Manufacturers continue to develop excellent and up-to-date content and it isn’t just all sales talk these days. Expect them to promote their particular products, but that speaks to the discipline. Develop the critical skills to sift through the presented information and go for what makes sense to the situation. Expect to give new ideas a try before jumping in with both feet. For me, that normally means printed books and training information, including but not limited to John Siegenthaler’s hydronics textbook, which is usually my go-to resource. The new fourth edition, Modern Hydronic Heating & Cooling, is a great place to start. Additionally, ASHRAE handbooks, training manuals, and manufacturer’s technical training literature are good resources. The list is very long these days and usually, if you ask, they will send support.
Service and troubleshooting experience is a must and the best way to get better faster. Don’t forget to ask the old guy or gal before we are all done. Have a bit of patience, some of us do ramble, but you can learn unique and valuable information unavailable from other sources.
Beware of unfiltered and poorly moderated online forums, chat rooms, or information from self-declared experts — some so-called gurus can steer you in the wrong direction.
A great resource is Plumbing & HVAC magazine’s own Training Trades website, which can direct those looking for training towards a wide variety of courses, many of them hydronic-related and many of them are free.
Trade shows and conferences are a must, as is joining industry organizations and attending every conference and educational event. They often have very impressive seminar programs available either for free or for modest fees, and you get to see the latest products and talk with the companies that manufacture it. Bonus, they can also be a lot of fun.
Magazines are another way to stay up to date on the latest information. Don’t forget to check their archives and go through past issues you might have missed. This leads me to one of my favourite resources: manufacturer’s installation and operation manuals. Their technical specification and support literature is the best way to learn the fine details. “Read the darn manual” has always been good advice. Now widely available for download on most manufacturers’ websites, you can quickly skim through these manuals and locate the topics of greatest interest with a little bit of practice. There is nothing wrong with sitting down on a chair in a boiler room to read through a manual.
Years ago, after another company installed a new pump, we were called in to troubleshoot a problem. The pumping wasn’t performing properly, it was 2 a.m. and the building was starting to get cold. The owner saw me reading the manual and complained — “I thought you guys were supposed to be the experts?” I continued to read and replied — “We are and after I read through this manual, we will be even more expert-er.” I was able to figure out what the problem might be from reading the manual, switched some wiring connections, and everything start working properly.
The building became toasty warm in less than an hour. Then the owner complained about how expensive the job was, you can’t win them all.