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There’s a special place in my heart for the hydronic heavyweights of Chicago. Most of these guys fly under the radar, but I’d like to call attention to one of them. Some parts of the country get more credit for their hydronic expertise, but you can bet your Ridgid pipe tools that this town, my town, is well-represented in this category.
I’ve been living vicariously through them since I hung up my hard hat a couple of years ago — mostly through Instagram, where it’s all about the pictures. It’s next to impossible to misread a picture. You can talk the talk, but if you can’t walk that talk, it’s right there for the world to see. You see a clear picture of someone’s abilities.
And now that I live in the southwest with all its swamp coolers, I lean on these guys for my daily fix of boiler installations, pipefitting, controls and repairs. We’ve worked in the same trade, the same city, the same neighborhoods, using the same tools, and probably in some of the same buildings. And now I get to be part of their experiences from a distance.
One guy came to my mind immediately, a heavy hitter if ever there was one.
Versatile skills, valuable technician
Let me introduce you to Robert, aka @pipefitter71. Many of you probably know of him because he has a whopping 9,458 Instagram followers as of this writing. This guy is as good as it gets. He started like we all do, at the bottom, the way it should be. At a young age, right out of high school without any shop classes or family history in the trades, he started working in boiler rooms. He learned on the job and didn’t go to trade school until 10 years later.
The early years are always the toughest because there’s so much to learn and the physical demands put you into a whole new realm of toughness. Rob was thrown in the deep end right from the start in 1986, doing nothing but commercial steam boiler installations. Breaking down the old and assembling the new and moving 500-pound cast-iron sections is no joke. Sometimes it could be anywhere from eight to 30 sections per job, with usually two guys and a dolly.
But Rob was young, strong as a bull, enthusiastic and eager. He did a lot of the grunt work. “Bring that in.” “Clean that up.” “Thread that pipe.” Those humble beginnings gave Rob a wealth of experience. As time changed, so did the building owners. They started converting some of the hydronic systems to forced air. Rob evolved as the buildings did, adding sheet metal work to his skillset. He began fabricating RTU curb adapters and sheet metal fittings and designing duct systems.
The more versatile you are, the more valuable you are. And when you check out Rob’s work, you’ll see he’s as well-rounded a tech as there is.
This past week, I mentioned to Rob how our city gets so much bad publicity across the country. Here’s his response:
“I love Chicago. Sure, it has its issues, but what city doesn’t? Whose marriage is perfect? Nobody’s that I know of. We can all look through the window from the outside and cast judgment, but until you’ve lived it, you have no idea. I tell all our guys the same thing, ‘You are relatively safe while working, no one cares about some service dude or installer.’ Trust me, I’m from there. The majority of the people in every Chicago neighborhood from Roseland to Englewood, from Bronzeville to Boystown, from Uptown to Andersonville, from the Wild 100’s to Ghost Town are good, hardworking people.”
I couldn’t agree more. I love Chicago, too. Other than the summer humidity and the rough winters, I miss it: the culture, the blue-collar mentality, the diversity, the sports teams and 93.1 WXRT. In my experience, the people there appreciate that you’re working in their home, their apartment building or their church, helping them make things better. When I’m on a job and its break time, I like to talk to and get a chance to know the people I work for. They are some of the kindest and wisest people I’ve ever met.
Here’s another truth about the people in Chicago. For the most part, residents don’t think of this neighborhood as good or that neighborhood as bad. They think about the block they live on and their neighbors. They are not defined by the kids on the corner three blocks over. In 2004, I had my work van broken into and emptied three times. But it didn’t happen in the city; it happened in a suburb 30 miles northwest of Chicago. As Rob says, until you’ve lived it, you have no idea.
Install before service
Through the years, Rob has done everything from service to installs, wrenching 6-inch black iron pipe to hanging 8-foot lengths of ductwork. He now works for a large commercial company with territory ranging from southern Wisconsin to eastern Indiana. He’s a field service supervisor and, along with six other supervisors, provides field technical support for 120-plus technicians. 120 techs!? Talk about having a lot on your plate.
The bulk of his customers are decent folks who are just under too much stress. His job is to eliminate that stress and diffuse their agitated state. I can’t imagine the patience it takes to do that job effectively. Props to you, sir!
Just like myself, Rob has had his share of hard knocks in the trenches. Early in his career, he took on a monster multimillion BTU/hr. steam boiler replacement. It’s a tough job even for a well-seasoned veteran. He was already a good fitter, but the steam controls, gas train and some of the piping design were new to him. If you never go outside of your comfort zone, you’re not going to learn much. The best techs are always pushing those boundaries.
With a little help from his friends — four experienced pros — they got the job done in a weekend. It’s still in operation 30 years later. Rob didn’t make the money he thought he would on that one, but the lessons learned were invaluable and serve him to this day.
Rob stays invested in this trade simply because he loves what he does, and is still learning every day. That says a lot about a guy who is so knowledgeable and talented, yet remains teachable. His work ethic goes back to the guy who taught him steam boilers; he worked Rob hard and taught him to pay attention to detail. Rob tries to pass along that advice and knowledge to the new guys, as well as the seasoned guys in the trade.
Rob’s ideal world would require every service tech to be an installer for his or her first 10 years. I agree; installations should be the first step in this trade. I can’t tell you many times I’ve had to go on an after-hours service call because of the poor quality of the install done earlier in the day. If installers had to return to fix their mistakes, I guarantee they’d make sure everything is bullet-proof before heading home.
I admire Rob because of the lengths he goes to ensure a heating system is installed the right way, the first time. His work is beyond reproach — textbook material. When I look at his photos on Instagram, I see refrigerant hose fittings maintained, a bench grinder in his shop taken apart and repaired, top-of-the-line tools of the trade, near-boiler piping re-piped the correct way, condensing units taken apart and cleaned, his son heading off to college, tricks of the trade, and food.
Yes, food. Lots of food. This guy is not only a uniquely talented technician, but he’s also an incredible cook. I burn pancakes. Rob can do it on a grill, in a smoker or a cooktop. Crab cakes on the grill, chicken, ribs, steak, vegetables, breakfasts fit for a king — this guy does it all. I’d pay good money for all his energy; you’ve got to check this guy out. He’s the real deal and an inspiration to me — @pipefitter71. And he’s a Chicago guy.
This article is a part of our 2021 National Skilled Trades Day compilation
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