The plumbing and heating industry is heading down a dangerous path
I was having dinner in Canada with some friends and we got to that point in the meal where the waitress asked about salad dressing.
“What do you have?” one of the guys asked and she recited the list like a prayer. “I’ll have the balsamic vinaigrette,” he said.
“That dressing played a huge role in Canadian history,” I said.
“Yes, the French are foodies, as you probably know, and they love their salads. They used to use plain vinegar, or as they say in France, vinaigrette, which is sort of like wine. The French also love their wine.”
He was listening attentively, of course, because this is a mighty fine story even though I was just making it all up as I went along.
“But they needed something to cut the pucker factor of the vinegar,” I said as I made that face and continued lying like a cheap watch. They needed balsamic, which is the perfect mellowing partner for vinaigrette.”
My other dinner companions, who now were hanging on my every word, all nodded. Balsamic gets a lot of respect no matter where it shows up because nobody really knows where it comes from. It’s like capers.
“The problem, though,” I explained, “is that there are no balsam trees in France. If you want balsam trees you have to go to Canada. In Canada, you throw a rock, you hit a balsam tree. And that’s why there are so many French people in eastern Canada. They sailed over, got the balsamic from the balsam tree bark. Balsamic is dark, right? Just like tree bark. And once they got what they needed, they saw no reason to travel further west. The English took over the west. English people don’t like balsamic vinaigrette.”
One of our younger friends looked skeptical but I’m pretty good at holding a serious stare. Another friend got on his smartphone and Goggled balsam trees. He read a few words, looked at a couple of photos, passed the phone to our younger friend who saw for himself, smiled and said, “Wow, I never knew any of this. That’s amazing!”
Behold the power of search. Oh, and of lies. Have you noticed that when you ask someone a question nowadays (and this is especially true of younger people) the first thing they do is reach for their phones and Google for an answer.
What’s the score of the game? How tall is the Empire State Building? How many Btu will that boiler put out? Whatever the question, we have all of the world’s knowledge in our pockets. But what if the answer is wrong? Who puts all that stuff in there? You think all that stuff is correct? Hey, maybe it’s me talking salad dressing in there. You never know.
I’m of an age where I remember library drawers organized by Melvil Dewey’s Decimal System. If I wanted to learn about heating systems or why they speak French in eastern Canada or what all this fuss was about Mr. Dickens or Mr. Hemingway or whatever interested me I went to the library and read whole books.
It was the way people my age learned. I read and grew older and developed a certain amount of perspective and a large amount of imagination. I now can tell a good story because I’ve read lots of books from cover to cover. That’s research. Research redirects you and forces you to learn big-picture stuff. Search just answers the immediate question. Search is veneer. Research is oak.
The path we are headed down
A young person asked me a question about a troublesome steam-heating system. I offered my best guess from my desk and some advice: Study.
“I don’t have time for that,” he said. “I just Google when I need an answer.”
“Oh,” I said. “Why are you calling me?”
“The answer I need isn’t in Google yet,” he said.
Before there was an Internet, I wrote a book I called “The Lost Art of Steam Heating.” I found everything I put into that book in dozens of old and yellowed books, and in the heads of people who were much older than I was at the time. That’s research.
As I read, I noted how the practice of steam heating was changing through the decades. The 1880s pipe size for a certain load was not the same as that load during the 1920s. Reading deeply and widely told me why this was. Required system pressure also changed as did methods of getting the condensate back into the boiler. The Dead Men were making up all this as they went along and they were explaining why in their books. I had to read all those books from cover to cover to understand how it all happened. I gained perspective and knowledge, and found truth. You can’t find truth without research.
“Here’s a good book for you to read.”
“Can’t you just answer my question? I don’t want to learn the whole thing. I just want to get off this job and get paid.”
“But how will you learn to troubleshoot, to reason, to think critically and analytically unless you approach the whole subject?”
“I just need an answer. There’s no time for all that.”
“You’re searching me, aren’t you. I’m your mini-Google right now, aren’t I?”
“What will you do when I’m dead?”
“I don’t know (shrugs). Search someone else, I guess?”
Look at the speed at which technology is moving. Look, too, at how many old buildings we have in America. Look at how consumers are getting their information. These are forces colliding within the American HVAC industry. Most people in the business are searching (literally) for answers. Few are doing deep research and gaining true knowledge.
And what are the searchers searching? They’re searching the stuff that the researchers put there. Push that thought forward a few generations. If few in this industry are doing research, what will be there to search in the future? You can’t take out what others don’t put in.
I think we’re quickly heading toward a time when the people who work on the equipment — both old and new — may not be able to solve the problems with those systems because, raised on search, they won’t know how to think critically and analytically. There’s no button for that on the smartphone.
They’ll be parts replacers. And anyone can replace parts.
I received this email from a woman I have never met. She finds www.HeatingHelp.com on the Internet — most likely though (ironically) a search. She writes, “My elderly parents and my elderly aunt both have vapor-vacuum steam systems in their houses, built in 1930. It seems everyone who comes to do work says the systems have to be ripped out. Is there anyone knowledgeable about how to fine-tune these creatures? Removal isn’t the best option for my elderly parents and aunt, and the systems are fantastic when they are running at their best. I am so tired of young heating guys rolling their eyes when they see these systems and telling me the only option is to totally replace the entire system.”
I found her a good contractor who has done research and taught his people well. There will come a time when guys like that will have no competition. They are the true heating professionals. The others will wonder why they don’t have enough business.
Try searching that.
This article was originally titled “Search vs. Research” in the October 2015 print edition of PM Engineer.