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Ed Johann, director of engineering and quality at U.S. Boiler, recently wrapped up a long career in the hydronics industry. While he joined U.S. Boiler just six years ago, he’s been pioneer in the heating industry since he started his career in 1981.
Over his career, Johann received a number of patents in combustion and heating exchanger design and played a pivotal roles in developing the first high-efficiency products for the residential gas and oil platforms.
At U.S. Boiler, Johann developed the U.S. Boiler Engineering and Technology Center, which opened in 2015. The new facility increased capacity over five times and added a new quality control lab.
At the center’s grand opening, the company presented Johann with an Award of Excellence.
Johann led an engineering team that designed and released more than 40 new products. He will continue to serve as a senior engineering advisor to U.S. Boiler.
PHC News: Why don’t we start by recapping your career, at least up until your time at U.S. Boiler.
Joann: I was born in Hannibal, Missouri, and had an idyllic childhood spending as much time as possible in and on the Mississippi river. I studied physics, mechanical engineering and electronics, attending school in Missouri, Wyoming, and Indiana.
Later on, I spent some time teaching at the University of Wyoming and yes, I was responsible for some contract nuclear development.
I got the “break” of my life with an interview with Weil-McLain and working for Bob Duggan vice president of engineering in 1980. I eventually became the vice president of engineering and marketing, and then the general manager of Weil-McLain International and Williamson-Thermoflo.
I did leave the industry for a while to be COO of a holding company outside our industry. However I lost my wife to cancer and felt a strong need to get “re-grounded” after that. Since most of my professional life was spent in boilers, I went back to my roots, first with ECR and then with U.S. Boiler.
PHC News: What led you to join U.S. Boiler?
Johann: I received a call from them, actually. They were looking for a person experienced in engineering and leadership to take point on some new product development and to help develop a new R&D facility.
All of that takes great teamwork, and team building has always been my most fulfilling activity. This was a perfect fit for my stage in life. U.S. Boiler is a great organization that values contribution from every level - that’s the right kind of culture to foster and grow the kind of teamwork it takes to really make these things work.
PHC News: We know you had a big hand in developing the U.S. Boiler Engineering and Technology Center. Tell us about what all went into opening the center?
Johann: To keep up with ever-changing market and product requirements U.S. Boiler was in need of a new engineering facility. This was a great project - U.S. Boiler management recognized the need and stood behind the project financially and with full executive support. We even won a design award for the design and project implementation.
These were our objectives:
PHC News: What are the major innovations that U.S. Boiler has brought to the market during your time with company?
Johann: Two new projects come to mind: Alta, an adaptive combustion gas condensing boiler and SteamMax, a new approach for gas/steam boilers, which is a pain point for our industry.
Market pressure and limited legislation have moved the industry from standing pilot bullet proof moderate efficiency boilers to very high efficiency advanced technology products.
Early condensing boilers could be “touchy.” U.S. Boiler has developed a boiler that focuses on these “touchy” issues. Reliability, ease of installation, serviceability and ability to remotely monitor are built into this design.
In collaboration with some of the top control, heat exchanger and combustion firms in the world, the Alta calibrates itself based on vent changes and gas constituents to continuously adjust the air-to-fuel ratio for optimal combustion. If things aren’t as they should be the boiler will let you know.
Keeping information current and understandable is a challenge. Rather than having cryptic information on a small display, the Alta will interact via a phone app that has actual English information vs “techno babble.”
As an additional benefit, changing from natural gas to propane only requires a simple lever change – no tools or kits.
Changing market requirements, government efficiency regulations, water quality and steam system age have presented challenges for “tried-and-true” cast-iron steam boiler designs.
Chlorine levels in our water, and older systems that need more and more make-up water combine to cause premature boiler failures. The entire industry struggled to balance new efficiency regulations with cost considerations. This led to designs with smaller castings which were more susceptible to poor water and excess make-up water conditions caused by older heating systems which tend to leak a bit of steam.
Our new SteamMax has taken this challenge head-on with larger castings, a bigger steam chest and premium burners. These changes are specifically designed to address the two-headed monster of older systems and poor water quality.
U.S. Boiler is making quite a statement by investing significant resources into a brand-new gas steam boiler design. Steam is a unique market, and I think it really shows the kind of dedication that this company has to the cast iron boiler business.
PHC News: What’s the most difficult part of being a product engineer?
Johann: Balance and focus. The paradigms for success are customer needs, cost, spending, third-party listings and timing. Setting the end point at the beginning keeps our whole team focused.
PHC News: What is the best part of working in an engineering team?
Johann: Working and mentoring with a group of smart, dedicated people with a strong value system. Thankfully, the culture of the company itself and in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area makes this easy to find.
PHC News: What is the best part of working in this industry?
Johann: Our industry is constantly changing with technical innovations and efficiency initiatives. What has not changed is the culture. People in our industry continue to do business with people they know, trust and like.
PHC News: Can you share a time when things didn’t go according to planned?
Johann: This is an easy question. Things never go completely as planned! The best part of being a “senior person” is that you have enough experience to know a lot of stuff not to do. Most of the time these issues can be addressed and the project moves ahead. In some cases, they become an “oh heck” situation, requiring a bunch of fixes, or even end up killing a project.
For example, take pulse combustion. On the surface, this seemed like a really good idea. Pulse combustion technology makes for higher efficiency products with less material, which lowers manufacturing costs.
The industry, however, sort of overlooked the possible impact on their customers from their excessive noise and the propensity for the heat exchanger to vibrate itself to death. Needless to say, we do not see many pulse products being sold today.
Another example is aluminum heat exchangers in the US market. The Europeans were moving toward aluminum and we followed them. But it turned out that US condensing products have a vastly different life vs their European cousins.
Contaminants from laundry rooms, pool chemicals, water softener salts etc. turn into acid as they pass through the flame and are combined with the condensed water from flue gases. We have found out as an industry that aluminum really does not like acid.
PHC News: What are the big trends that you have seen during your time in the hydronics industry?
Johann: Now, this is a big question. One must remember, when I went to college, we didn’t even have pocket calculators, and (very) low power computers were just coming into the world. Those first computers were programmed with plug boards, then we saw the “big leap” to card decks. Yuck!
Similar rudimental technology was the norm when I started in this industry. We had lower efficiency cast-iron gas boilers with standing pilots. They were simple and reliable. Oil boilers were low efficiency and had wide flueways, which made for easy cleaning and service. There wasn’t much innovation beyond that for a few years.
Efficiency started to enter the marketplace, and this really changed the game. Mid-efficiency boilers with induced draft premix started to show up. I worked on the design of some of those early models. High efficiency condensing boilers were the next step. Some of these were more complicated and harder to service, and, yes, some wound up having poor service life expectations.
There were a lot of growing pains that the entire industry experienced in those early years, but big strides have been made to address the short falls of those early condensing products, and we are still improving and innovating. The Alta boiler mentioned previously is one of those innovations.
PHC News: Where are things going?
Johann: Climate change seems to finally becoming a real issue in our minds. I expect this focus to grow over the next few years.
“Zero carbon emissions” is the latest buzzword. We need to keep our focus in order to make this change properly. It makes little sense to simply move the carbon emissions from the exhaust in our homes to the stacks at the power plant.
Efficiency with current boiler technology is just about maxed out. The next step is most likely heat pumps that can make leaps past our current power or fuel use.
There’s also a lot of discussion to move to hydrogen-based appliances. Hydrogen is nature’s fuel - it keeps the sun going. That being said, we have some considerable work to create “green” hydrogen that does not need fossil fuels to produce it. This can all be done, but it will take time.
Changing the current gas distribution network from methane to hydrogen will also take some careful work.
It is time we all accept the reality of what is happening. We can embrace these changes and make them happen. As a person who has spent a lifetime in engineering, I will miss not being a direct participant in all of these exciting changes, but I am thankful to have been able to contribute to the strides that the industry has made up to now.
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