Over the last few months, I’ve had several inquiries from people eager to get into the hydronics industry.
Many are young adults studying at two- and four-year colleges. Most are looking for careers as system designers. They want to work with CAD software, iPads, and cell phones, and be seen as “white collar” professionals that direct the actions of “blue collar” workers.
They want to work in clean offices with perhaps an occasional visit to a jobsite to verify the nice drawings they’ve made are being properly converted into installed hardware. Ironically, many have had little, if any, experience with the nuances of putting that hardware together. After all, how hard can it be? It’s just like snapping together Lego blocks made out of copper, brass and steel. Right?
The column that follows was written several years ago following similar inquires. It remains just as valid today, perhaps even more than when it was originally written. It’s advice that probably runs contrary to that provided by college professors, but it worked well for me, and I offer it up again for consideration by would-be design professionals.
Didn’t think it mattered
I was fortunate to grow up in a family where both of my parents lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. Surviving that period in American history established strong traits in both my mother and father. Neither of them was very keen on throwing away anything but absolute garbage.
My father, in particular, was a champion of the “waste not, want not” ideology. He was born in 1901, and was 55 years old when my twin brother and I arrived.
He grew up on a dairy farm, then learned how to be one of the first electricians in rural upstate New York. Eventually, he taught himself how to build cabinets, install plumbing, lay blocks and even build entire houses.
He was proud of the set of “The Practical Handyman’s Encyclopedias” that sat on display, in a bookcase he built, in the living room of the house that he also framed, roofed, plumbed, wired and trimmed.
That house sported a 1954 vintage Iron Fireman SelecTemp steam heating system. At the time, this approach was a radical departure from traditional steam heating. Steam was delivered to each wall-mounted convector through 1/4-inch soft-temper copper tubing. Condensate returned to the boiler though 1/8-inch copper tubing. The pressure of the entering steam was used to spin a very small turbine inside each convector. The turbine shaft connected to a small blower wheel that pushed air through the coil. My dad put it all together and kept it running.
The project I remember best was when he salvaged the pedal-powered John Deere toy tractor that my brother and I had outgrown, and combined it with the guts from an old gasoline pump, and an old lawn mower engine, to make a gas-powered insecticide sprayer for our fruit trees. By then he was in his late 60s. This rig got towed behind the lawn tractor. It allowed him to keep tending those trees without lugging around gallons of spray on a back that paid its dues over many decades of hard work.
Watching and often participating in my father’s projects was one of the best preparations my brother and I could have had for eventually becoming engineers. I didn’t realize it at the time. Quite the contrary, I thought that some of the recycling efforts my father used to make old things do new tricks were just a way to use up time in semi-retirement, especially when he could have just bought something for the same purpose. Now, I know that my father’s bootstrap engineering was often far more creative, and a lot less costly, than some other product development efforts I’ve witnessed. It was also pretty darned “green” by today’s standards.
Plan A and plan B
I grew up about 10 miles from Rome, New York, then home to Griffiss Air Force base. At the time, Griffiss was a Strategic Air Command base, ready to respond to a doomsday scenario if necessary. During the 1960s it was common to see bombers and fighter jets flying over our house, sometimes at speeds that created sonic booms, which I thought was very cool. Growing up around all this air power really kindled my interest in airplanes. My career ambition during high school was to become a fighter pilot, but the Air Force had a problem handing the keys for a fighter jet to anyone with less than 20/20 vision.
So when I got out of high school in 1974, I settled for plan B: Designing airplanes. I was one semester away from a degree in aeronautical engineering when I finally realized that most of the associated jobs would take me a long way from where I grew up, and where my soon-to-be wife and I had our roots.
The next sunrise
At about the same time, my father was getting interested in solar energy systems. He would read about them every month in Popular Science. I’m sure he was formulating a plan on how he could build his own collectors and put them on our roof.
I started looking over his shoulder at these solar heating systems and had one of those “lightbulb” moments: I realized the thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, heat transfer and mathematics I’d been studying could apply to something other than designing airplanes. I became increasingly interested in home heating systems, especially those involving solar collectors. Any time not devoted to finishing up that last semester usually found me sketching ideas for a solar-heated house that I planned to build for my new wife — like my father did for his.
In 1980, I started building that house. My wife and I spent our second anniversary nailing 2x12 floor joists in place for the floor deck. We moved into a barely habitable shell in November 1980, and kept working toward finishing it. In the process, I got better at much of what I had watched my father do, but consciously had not taken too seriously as a teenager. I framed, finished, plumbed, wired, laid bricks, finished drywall, built kitchen cabinets and assembled my first solar thermal combisystem.
My father passed away in 1978, and never got to see any of this. Still, if the years separating us had been fewer, I suspect he would have been right there beside me pounding nails to create a “solar house” that might even look good on a cover of his favorite magazine.
Plenty of mistakes were made along the way. Some of my home-brew energy experiments worked and some didn’t. Some have long since been shut off and removed, while others just “keep on tickin” like that preverbal Timex watch.
Having a chance to build things, both as a child playing with leftover materials, and a young man trying to build his first house, was immensely helpful in improving what I now do as an engineer. It revealed the “big picture” of how structure, insulation, windows, building orientation, shading and thermal mass all interact with the home’s heating system. It also reinforced the reality that despite doing the calculations correctly, theory doesn’t always predict what happens in the field. It taught me how to deal with the reality of construction vs. the sterile number crunching often associated with engineering courses. I learned to maintain a balance between the two, using sound scientific principles and practical experience to guide decision-making.
If you know a young person who’s thinking about a career in building or HVAC design, encourage them to get involved in projects where they’re forced to get their hands dirty and where they learn firsthand what a day on a construction crew is like. Where they see that everything they design in AutoCAD or SolidWorks doesn’t always come together as planned onsite. They will learn how to deal with things such as crooked lumber, shorted wiring, bent tubing, surfaces that are not level and plumb, and materials that just don’t look and perform on a jobsite like they do in magazine advertisements or on websites.
Having taught at a community college for 27 years, I’ve worked with plenty of young people who planned careers in engineering or engineering technology, but had little if any opportunity to get their hands dirty building or repairing things before they arrived at college. Many of them could deal with things such as an electrical schematic on paper, but could not physically assemble that circuit using real hardware. Most had no idea that a standard 2x4 measures 1 1/2-inch by 3 1/2-inch, that a concrete block is 3/8-inch shorter than its nominal dimensions in all directions, or how to strip and attach two wires with a wire nut. I doubt if any of them had every burned their hand on a hot solar collector, stepped on a drywall ceiling from the attic side, fallen off an improperly placed ladder or accidentally cut through a live electrical wire.
Some educators think that all such bloopers are avoidable if we force young people to read about them in textbooks, or perhaps simulate them on an iPad. From my perspective, there’s no substitute for true hands-on learning, especially when it makes you dirty, sweaty, tired and sometimes scares the #### out of you.
Put down the phone, pick up a hammer
If you’re a young person aspiring to design buildings, heating systems or maybe even airplanes, put down your smartphone for a while. Take out a sheet of paper and draw something you want to see created. If you don’t know how to draw, check out a book on drafting, and learn how to sketch and draw in ways that can properly communicate your ideas to others. Take pride in making those drawings. During summer break, find a contractor who is willing to let you work on a construction crew. It’s not about the money you’ll earn, it’s about experiencing what it takes to create something as complex as a building.
You’ll likely feel whipped after a long, hot day on a construction site, but that experience will be invaluable. Take pride in your labor and what you helped build. If it doesn’t come out as expected, find out what went wrong and do it over the right way. It may not be evident at the time, but every day on such a job will make you a better designer, technician or engineer.