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“We don’t have one.” I hated hearing that, but that’s the answer I was hearing far too often. The conversation would go something like this: “Hey Ralph, run out to the truck and grab a 3/4-inch black iron, street 90.”
Ten minutes later, Ralph would come back and say, “Yeah boss, we don’t have one. I checked everywhere.”
Puzzled, I’d ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m 100 percent positive,” he insisted. “It’s nowhere to be found.”
This is the kind of thing that can’t happen repeatedly if you want to be profitable, efficient, and running on schedule. Nothing changes, if nothing changes.
I can honestly say that I was never blessed with any extraordinary talent or skill. Like most, I’ve had to grind it out and scrape for everything I have. Sure, I would love to be able to shred a guitar like Eddie Van Halen or dominate baseball the way Mike Trout does, but it was clear early on that I was never destined to be on the cover of “Rolling Stone” or “Sports Illustrated.”
No big deal, not too many of us are destined for that, so we carve out our niche as best we can.
The way I etched my path was through a work ethic that was handed down to me by my parents, an eye for detail, and ways of organizing things that the “The Diagnostic Manual of Statistics and Mental Disorders,” would surely define as simply strange.
Strange, but efficient
True, it’s possible that I organize things a little more than most, but it’s made me very efficient in both my personal and professional life. And I’ve found an interesting byproduct in the actual practice of being organized. While sorting 1/2-inch copper sweat fittings, I find myself solving other problems while doing so. Let’s face it, it doesn’t take much thought in distinguishing an elbow from a coupling, so your mind can be working on other things at the same time.
I hear a lot of people in the trades say they don’t have the time to organize their truck or their shop. I say they don’t have the time not to. Most of us don’t figure this out until our hair is grey or we’re consuming Advil like we owned stock in it. Others never figure it out. I want to help you get there sooner than I did. When I was younger, I wasted a lot more steps than I needed to. Back and forth to the truck, back and forth to the supply house. It was chaotic. Efficiency and chaos don’t work well together.
For the last 15 years or so, I never felt rushed or felt any kind of anxiety to get the job done “right now.” Trust me, I was productive, and I expected my guys to be productive, but running around like a madman no longer made any sense to me. Organizational skills will save you time, aggravation, and money. I’ve seen guys going out to their trucks and emptying three five-gallon buckets to find one single fitting. Multiply that by only a few times and you’re already having a bad day.
Maybe as we grow older, we do it out of necessity because every wasted step or minute costs us more than what it did when we were younger. The back, knees, hips, lungs, and most every other body part takes a beating in the trades. Ask me how I know that. I’ve had a desk job for over a year now and I’m still dealing with major back problems. But I can tell you this with absolute certainty, the earlier you start working intelligently, the better off you’re going to be at 60.
Keeping it flowing
I’ve applied my organizational skills across every aspect of being an installer, serviceman, and mechanical contractor within the shop, truck, desk, computer files, and record keeping. The shop and truck stuff are infinitely more fun for me to talk about so that’s where I’m heading. And most of us are using the tools, pipe, fittings, and parts so it just makes sense to hit that first. Right?
First off, keep an inventory of what replacement parts you’re carrying, and re-stock that evening or the next morning.
There’s nothing worse than going on a night service call, diagnosing a cracked boiler flame sensor, and finding out you don’t have a flame sensor when your company installs hundreds of that particular boiler. Your night just got longer because now you’re heading back to the shop to grab one, assuming one is at the shop. Your customer isn’t going to be pleased either because now they have to stay up another hour or so, and they have to be at work in the morning.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say the boss isn’t going to be thrilled either. I speak from personal experience as a former serviceman, that last one is a tough conversation to be a part of. Sure, you overlooked the fact that you didn’t have a common part on your truck, but you also worked most of the night so hopefully your manager or boss is able to see the big picture. Just try not to make a habit of it. Repeating the same mistakes is never good.
I was really focused on the fittings, hardware, and other small essentials that were needed on a service or install truck.
At first, I used Stanley storage boxes until Milwaukee came out with its infinitely better stackable boxes. I usually kept 20 to 30 of those on my truck. That’s a lot, I know. But having a guy run for a Tapcon screw, 1-inch ProPress fitting, 3/4-inch sweat ball valve, or a tube talon in the middle of the day, in the middle of a job is the very definition of wasting time and money.
Don’t waste time and money. It’s bad business. Spend a little more money on the inventory, and the means to keep that inventory organized, on the frontend so you’re not spending three times that amount on the backend. Another thing I did was label the Milwaukee boxes for obvious reasons. The less time looking for something, the more time spent knocking out the job. There’s so much less stress knowing you have what you need and knowing where to find it.
For pipe, strut, and rod,. I did what most everyone else has been doing forever.
I had a couple of 6-inch PVC tubes on the ladder with lockable covers. For the most part, I stocked ½-inch, ¾-inch, 1-foot, and 1 ¼-inch copper pipe, ¾-inch PVC, ½-inch conduit, 7/8-inch strut, 1 5/8-inch strut, and 3/8-inch threaded rod. This would get us through most jobs, but it wasn’t unusual to need copper up to 2-inches as well. Stock what you’ll commonly use.
Another thing that I kept on my truck was a box of neatly organized three-ring binders.
The box sat between the two seats in my van and had a top that I could use to keep my lunch and other things on. I kept a binder for most every mod-con boiler that we commonly serviced or installed.
Yes, we all use smart phones and tablets, but when I needed answers right now and was getting poor connectivity, I wanted a backup plan. The less time spent being aggravated was more time spent on solving the problem at hand. For me, the usual binders were Viessmann, Weil McLain, Peerless, Burnham, Buderus, Mitsubishi Mini-Splits, and Trane TAM9 air handlers. If you’ve ever worked on a TAM9, you’ll understand. If you intuitively understand the TAM9, you’re not an HVAC technician. You’re an HVAC savant. If you assumed that I labeled the binders too, you would be correct.
I saved the best for last because most of us love our tools.
Here’s how I did it. Up front, in the cab, on top of the box of three-ring binders, I kept a small Veto Pro Pac TP-3 service tool pouch.
With just those few tools, I could diagnose most problems within a boiler room. I could repair a bunch of them, too. I did it this way because I didn’t know what I was going to run into, and I didn’t want to be hauling in half the truck for no reason.
If the repair was more involved, I’d bring in the big guns, which include two large Veto Pro Pac bags that have almost every service tool I could possibly need.
One of them was focused on control and component repair and replacement while the other was focused strictly on pipe repair. The one for the pipe repair had tape, dope, flux, solder, glue, primer, sand cloth, fitting brushes, and on and on and on. Fewer trips to the truck meant I had more energy throughout the day, I was more efficient, and I was less hurried. It also meant my current customer was happy, as would be the next one waiting on me.
You see how this works? There’s no downside to being on top of your game and doing what you need to be organized.
One more thing and then I’ll shut up. Get a cart, please. One with a top shelf and a bottom shelf about 3 feet long. This is, hands down, the one single thing that will save your back and knees more than any other tool you own. It will save you time, too.
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