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Ben Weekley figures he taught boiler operations to around 60 people each year for the past 25 years in classrooms. “Boiler Ben,” however, figures he taught more people just six months after launching his YouTube channel than he ever taught in classrooms.
“I really didn't realize the scope of YouTube and soon found out my training was being viewed around the United States,” says Weekley, 74, a retired maintenance supervisor for the Detroit Lakes Public School District in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. “Since the launch, I have acquired more than 1,300 subscribers with close to 43,000 views and almost 9,000 hours of watch time.”
Plus, he’s gotten feedback from viewers in Africa, Europe, Canada and Latin and South America with many thanking him for instruction they’d be hard pressed to find readily available in person.
“The YouTube statistics I get back also show that 12 percent of my viewers are women,” Weekley adds. “When I first started teaching boiler classes, it was all men. So I’m just amazed at the response the channel gets.”
Before he became Boiler Ben, Weekley spent decades keeping boiler operations running smoothly as head custodian at six different school buildings all while also teaching licensing classes to other regional boiler operators.
“Nobody was offering this type of training in Northern Minnesota at the time,” Weekley says. “So I studied all I could, asked all the questions I could, and I put together the curriculum. While I wouldn’t say I trained everybody, I would say I trained a great deal of boiler operators within a 75-mile radius of Detroit Lakes over the years.”
After COVID protocols shut down his normal classroom training, however, Weekley launched the “Boiler Ben” channel in January 2021 to share his decades worth of hydronics knowledge.
“Boilers are in my blood,” Weekley says. “I always say I’m partially retired since I’ve never given up training others on how to keep low pressure systems working safely and effectively. That’s my expertise. When it comes to repairing boilers that are not operating effectively, that’s when you call a local contractor who is the expert in troubleshooting these types of boilers and steam systems.”
Weekley also gained additional hydronics know-how as the director of operations for a 140-bed nursing home in Detroit Lakes that used a combination of steam and hot water heat.
“But steam boilers are so much more fun to operate than hot water boilers,” he adds.
Weekley has had a Chief C license in Minnesota since 1992 and started training boiler operators in Northern Minnesota and Eastern North Dakota in 1994. He retired (partially) in 2013 from the Minnesota Association of School Maintenance Supervisors, an organization which also carries links to Boiler Ben’s training videos on its website.
The Boiler Ben channel includes an introduction to low pressure boiler operations; a nine-part tutorial on steam heating systems; and a final lesson on license requirements for boiler operators across the North Star State.
Weekley doesn’t charge anything to view the videos, which range from 30 minutes to 50 minutes.
“I consider the channel as a gift to the boiler operations industry that supported me for so many years,” Weekley adds, “which suffers from the same labor shortage that most every contractor in the plumbing and heating industry knows all too well.”
The YouTube series is meant to be used in conjunction with a couple of textbooks and a study guide published by American Technical Publishers, which can be ordered online or checked out from local libraries.
The 5th edition of “Low Pressure Boilers,” for example, contains 454 pages and 250 illustrations, which Weekley refers to throughout his nine-part tutorial. For his final video on licensing, Weekley uses the publishing company’s 214-page “Safe Boiler Operation Fundamentals: Special Engineer’s Guide for the State of Minnesota.”
“These are professional, well thought out textbooks along with a handy study guide that I encourage everyone to read thoroughly,” Weekley says. “My YouTube videos basically follow along with the chapters and the books, of course, help by going into even more detail that students can read at their own pace.”
Help from grandsons
Weekley got help setting up his YouTube channel, including filming and uploading the videos from his grandsons, Skyler and Bridger Weekley.
“Skyler actually has his own YouTube channel on rock collecting,” Weekley explains. “I got both of them interested in geology as a hobby when I would babysit them.”
Skyler’s YouTube channel, “The Midwestern Rockhound,” is what gave Weekley the inspiration to develop his own channel.
“I thought if a 14-year-old can do it, so can I,” Weekley adds. “And, of course, who do old guys like me need to do something like that? Yep, grandkids. So I arranged to have Sky and 12-year-old Bridger stay a few times at Papa's house and guide me through the process.”
With the boys’ help, Weekley spent a couple of months in preproduction filming the videos on his smart phone and editing them with the YouTube Studio app.
Help from Heating Help
Not surprisingly, Weekley got help for the teaching side of his career from Heating Help, the well-known website started at the dawn of the internet age in – believe it or not – 1997 by Dan Holohan and his wife, Marianne. They both retired in 2016, leaving the site in the hands of daughter, Erin Holohan Haskell.
“I have followed Dan since the 1990s while searching the web years back for anything ‘boilers,’ ” Weekley adds. “I loved the way he explained things in layman's language and his knowledge on boiler history was fascinating.”
Weekley learned more about hydronics off The Wall, the site’s popular message board for answering questions and sharing knowledge about heating systems, old and new.
“I’ve been fortunate to listen to a couple of Dan’s lectures online as well,” Weekley says. “I patterned my teaching in his style. Trying to simplify things and not always talk in text book terms.”
With COVID conditions improving this year, Weekley says he has also been back on the road teaching inside classrooms once again.
Weekley considers the people he serves as the “salt of the earth” and enjoys every minute he’s with them.
“It always warms my heart to teach in such a way that turns on the light bulbs,” Weekley adds. “For instance when I talk about steam traps, which are frequently not well understood even by some veteran operators, I start with this question. ‘What do steam traps ‘trap?’ I often get a blank stare from most. Then I tell them the answer is in the name and ask them, ‘What do mouse traps ‘trap?’ It takes a second before I see the light bulbs come on, then come the smiles. Then I ask again, ‘What do steam traps ‘trap?’ And in unison they reply, ‘STEAM!’ ” l