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You’ve spent a long day, maybe a week, and sometimes much longer stretches on one project. You’ve given your blood, sweat and everything else you have — except tears. What was promised to your customer has been delivered to your customer. For me, it was always a relief to close one out. It gives you a chance to exhale for a moment. It’s a physical grind to get to that point and mentally pleasing to know you’re almost there.
The lead tech is bleeding the little bit of air left in the system and programming the control. The other tech is cleaning up the jobsite and loading up the trucks. And then the magic happens. The modulating condensing boiler’s burner fires up and you can barely hear it; the same goes for the circulators. The supply piping starts to warm up quickly while the air separator makes quick work of ejecting the remaining microbubbles of air.
Your customer already said, “Wow!” within the first couple of minutes of the now-commissioned boiler. That moment is and always will be one of the most gratifying things about the job.
My last job in the field was in late-summer of 2018. It’s an easy one to remember not only because it was my last but because, for all intents and purposes, I did it solo. I got some help from my nephew Ryan, which I appreciated — thanks, Ryan.
It was a 24-unit apartment building where I swapped out two cast-iron boilers with a pair of Lochinvar Knights and 100 percent of the near-boiler piping. It was the second apartment building I did for this customer, and I’m sure there would’ve been more if I had continued as a contractor.
The thing is, I couldn’t. I was having trouble walking; it was getting harder and harder, even without rolling cast-iron boiler sections on handcarts. Groceries in shopping carts also were beginning to be a challenge. The decision to hang up the tools was not mine; my body wasn’t having any more of it.
My writing and hydronic design careers
The other thing that stands out about this last job was I started getting calls from this guy named Brad from PHC News. I was very familiar with the magazine because I’d been reading it for years. His messages were regarding me writing for the magazine. Huh? Me? A writer? Yeah, I don’t think so.
I wasn’t great at returning calls that weren’t directly related to my business, so it was a while before Brad and I talked for the first time. He was persistent and sounded like one of the good guys, so I relented and called him from the parking lot of this same apartment building.
Brad, publisher of PHC News, said Bob, aka “Hot Rod” Rohr, mentioned that he thought I should be the next guy for the hydronics column. Why Hot Rod thought this is anyone’s guess; he is more of a chance-taker than I thought. He’s also a darn good salesman because Brad had more faith in me than I had in myself.
A few months after that conversation, my first column appeared in the October 2018 issue of PHC News. I must admit, it was a proud moment for me because it had been a dream of mine since I was a little kid. I wanted to be the beat writer for the Chicago Blackhawks by the time I was 10. If my dad or his friends had questions about the National Hockey League, they came to me. I knew hockey, but it wasn’t my calling.
While writing, I spent the next year working as a boiler inspector for Elevate Energy in Chicago. There, I worked amongst many kind people, the lot of them smarter than me. My legs continued getting worse; I couldn’t use the stairs anymore and had trouble keeping pace with anyone else. A Chicago area neurologist determined it was because of disc compression, and surgery was performed.
It honestly wasn’t that big of a deal for me because I’d already had two neck surgeries; not much can be more painful than those experiences. Doc said everything went well, but as the weeks and months passed, it was clear that nothing was getting better. My legs were more problematic than ever.
It was then that I decided to start my hydronic design business. There was a lot of walking involved at the Elevate Energy job for those who did inspections — whether they be hydronic projects similar to what I did or lighting, air sealing and insulation, or any other types of jobs that we provided oversight for. I couldn’t do the walking anymore, especially while carrying a heavy backpack. It was embarrassing how I couldn’t keep step with the others.
It worked out, though; it almost always does. My commute to work was now literally 10 steps from my bedroom to my home office. I was back in the game again, where I belonged. I got to do what I felt was the easier part of a hydronic project, designing it. I had already been doing the designs for myself as a contractor, so the segue was effortless.
I used the same desk for both Minnich Hydronic Consulting & Design as I did writing a monthly hydronic column for PHC News, the best trade rag in the industry. I was in hydronic heaven, living the dream. I designed systems for people from every part of the country, and even a few in Canada, and enjoyed myself while doing so and not overtaxing my body.
Writing was different, but not in a bad way, not even close. It wasn’t something I did every day. Back in the early-1990s, I went back to college at night after work. I took classes such as chemistry and physics because I was thinking about becoming a mechanical engineer. I also took literature, English/grammar and writing classes. I got high Bs in the science classes, but in those other classes, I got all As.
I wrote essays with titles such as “The Concept of Duty in ‘Of Mice and Men,’” “The Psychological Effects of Insulin Diabetes Mellitus,” and “Technology, Friend or Foe?” I loved it from the get-go. Any ideas of being an engineer were shelved. If I were ever to have a career change, writing would be at the top of the list.
Chicago to Vegas
Not long after I started my stay-at-home desk job, my wife got a job offer she couldn’t refuse in Las Vegas. Her two sons already lived there, and she moved to Chicago for me eight years before, so I thought the right thing to do was to reciprocate. Looking back, it seems as if my health nose-dived about 30 minutes after our plane hit the tarmac.
My breathing, balance, strength, fatigue, inability to walk and many other things continued progressing in the wrong direction. To make this short, after seeing a cardiologist, pulmonologist, four neurologists, what seemed like hundreds of tests, a week in the hospital, and a few years of not knowing what was wrong, the fourth neurologist came to a diagnosis a few months ago.
Each neurologist referred me to the next-highest neurologist up the chain. I knew this last guy would be the one who solved the puzzle. He listened. He did not equivocate when he answered questions. He wasn’t cocky, but it was very clear to me he was head and shoulders above the rest in terms of knowledge.
I told him that the others seemed to think it was heading toward a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), which scared the hell out of me. The new doc said in no uncertain terms that it was absolutely not ALS. This was the first appointment.
At the second appointment, the new doc asked if anything had changed. I mentioned a number of things had, and then he heard me say: I was walking back to my truck with a cart of groceries at my usual slow pace. And then, I could not walk anymore. My legs didn’t buckle. I didn’t have any pain. My legs didn’t feel any weaker than they had, but I could not move. I couldn’t move at all. Not one inch.
I wanted to, but nothing happened, so I stood there for what seemed like an eternity until I could move again and make the last few steps to my truck.
Right then and there, my new neurologist told me I had Parkinson’s Disease. I asked if he was sure; he was certain and then some. I’d never been so relieved in my life. Based on what I had been told, I convinced myself it would be something much worse. I also was very happy to finally have an answer after not knowing for so long. The fact that my body reacted positively to the medication used for Parkinson’s further proved that this doc nailed it. For that, I’m forever grateful.
The next chapter
That said, this is no walk in the park. If you were to read about the symptoms — and I already have most of them — you’d see why. My entire life as I knew it has changed. I live on the lower level of our home because it’s safer not to use the stairs. The lower-level bathroom will be remodeled to make everything safer for me.
The only thing that bugs me about it is that I must hire a contractor, not something I would normally do.
In the garage, I have a refrigerator full of Pepsi, water and quick foods I like; a microwave and a coffee pot. This awesome garage also is my boiler room but, most importantly, it’s my new woodworking shop. I do well with short-stepping, and I have two bench stools out there and a thick mat if I need to lie down and rest. I absolutely love my new hobby of woodworking. I’m not half bad at it; almost good! (See Figure 1.)
My office has been converted into a reading and music room. Both are essential for me and will play an even larger role in my life now. I have a vintage Pioneer stereo from the ’70s and a state-of-the-art Marantz stereo in there. No TV allowed.
The unread books of Dennis Lehane, Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, Brendan O’Carroll and the McCourt brothers will keep me occupied when my large inventory of vinyl records and CDs aren’t spinning.
This may not read like a column about hydronics, but it is. I lived and breathed hydronics for my entire adult life. And now, I’m not. I can’t. The symptoms and their progression won’t allow it. What’s the saying? How do you make God laugh? Tell her your plans!
Work and my work ethic have always been part and parcel of my life since that first day of mopping floors at a hot dog joint for $1.45 an hour in 1975. And now the challenge is to live without it. I’m not asking for sympathy, nor do I want it. Life comes at you fast, so you better be ready for it.
There are times when I get frustrated with this new life of mine, but millions and millions of people have it so much worse. I’ve never asked, “Why me?” The question is, “Why not me?”
As I mentioned, I’m closing out another one. I’m moving on, wrapping it up. For those of you who have read my columns over the last four years, thank you! It’s been my honor. I hope you were able to learn a thing or two from my experiences without boring you to tears. I know it’s been fun for me. I have a big smile on my face right now because I still can’t believe I got this opportunity.
To Cate Brown, Brad Burnside, Steve Smith and Kelly Faloon: I cannot express my gratitude enough for giving me this opportunity. Thank you. Thank you!
Since I started in this industry in 1981, I’ve worked for only a small number of organizations outside of my contracting days. The ones I really thrived at were the ones who trusted me enough to let me do my thing. I take my work seriously; those who have tried to micromanage me never had a chance.
Not once did you ever suggest a topic. Not once did you ever kick back a column because of its content. Not once were you critical because there was too much of this or not enough of that. You simply let me be me. I’ll miss this more than you’ll ever know.