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Early in life I knew that college was not meant for me. I believe this to be true for a high percentage of those who pursue a career in the our skilled trades.
Throughout my K-12 education I was bored and often got into trouble. During parent/teacher conferences my parents frequently heard the same comment, “We know he is smart enough, but he just needs to apply himself.”
I just wanted to do things that involved using my hands. So I did what I had to do to get the credits needed in order to graduate.
When I first entered high school, I had a plan, believe it or not. My father was a master plumber, and my parents were 50 percent owners of a plumbing business. I planned to work there as soon as I graduated. My older brother had already started his apprenticeship.
How does that quote go, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry?” What happened, you ask? The answer: major early-1980s recession. Unfortunately, my father and his business partner could not keep the doors open anymore. They sold off everything in the fall of 1980.
In 1982, I graduated from high school, and still wanted to work in the field of construction one way or another.
I was lucky, however, to get a job with a local masonry company owned by a father and his sons. They needed a mason tender. I worked for them for four years. I moved to Madison to be closer to my soon-to-be-wife while she went to the University of Wisconsin. There, I worked as a cement finisher for another four years at two different companies.
Finally, a chance to get into the pipe trades came along. In the summer of 1990, my wife got a job teaching school in our home town. So we decided to move back to be closer to our families.
At this time, my father was working for a local plumbing and heating shop. He informed me the shop had enough work to take on a plumbing apprentice. I am very thankful to my dad for helping me. Over the years, I gave him no reason to convince his boss to hire me! My dad only saw me as the kid who didn’t apply himself in school. I know he had some reservations, but thank you, dad!
After four years of required courses and work hours, I was ready to write my journeyman’s test. This would be the longest test I had ever taken. I was very confident going into that room. I felt good after completing all the sections. I was amazed to find out that I had passed all sections with well above average scores. One and done, baby!
During my apprenticeship, I needed to make some extra income. As a starting teacher, my wife made less than a first-year apprentice. I also had ambitions of building a house for our new family.
To make this happen, I picked up quite a few side jobs pouring cement slabs. This was the first time I ever poured concrete over PEX tubing.
Being an inquisitive guy, I wanted to know more about tubing and concrete. So I started doing some research, and I was hooked. Unfortunately, I learned all this after I had built our first house. I began the house early in 1992 and finished in March of 1993. We moved in just before the birth of our beautiful baby daughter who was born on April 23, 1993.
After working 14 years for others, I wanted to work for myself. In the spring of 1996, I decided to go for it. I felt I was ready because of the many jobs I did on the side while I was working toward my apprenticeship.
For instance, when I built our first house, I did about 90 percent of the work. We planned ahead when we purchased the land for that house. It was a double lot. So I used that lot to build a spec house. I bought another lot and started to build another spec house. I had some plumbing jobs lined up for new houses. I got to know some general contractors over the years when doing the concrete side jobs.
These GCs planned to still have me do the concrete and the plumbing. I decided to call my business: SS Plumbing & Contracting. Now that I had more control over the work I was choosing while building houses, I was able to focus on radiant in-floor heat.
Obviously, one just does not instantly know how to properly install a radiant in-floor heating system. We all know this has not stopped some people from doing it anyway, but that’s not me.
Of course, I had the experience with all the boiler jobs I did as a plumbing apprentice. I would like to thank a plumber turned pipefitter named Charlie. I worked with him for many years. He taught me the many do’s and don’ts of how to install boilers, and the best piping practices for hydronics. Thank you, Charlie!
Plus, I went to as many hydronic training classes as I could, and got to know some of the reps who were using hydronic products like HeatLink, Uponor, Tecmar and Taco.
Then I heard about the RPA. At that time this new organization was known as the Radiant Panel Association. I became a member right away, and bought a great book they had been written by the amazing John Seigenthaler. I took a class taught by Siggy. The information was mind blowing, and he was a great presenter. I bought his book, Modern Hydronics, and I still reference it today.
At some point, I attended one of Dan Holohan’s, “Wet Head Round Tables,” in Minneapolis. This was a great experience talking with many like-minded people in the industry.
Other great experiences and learning moments happened while attending an RPA Conference. It gave me the opportunity to walk the floor and talk with all the vendors about their products. The RPA Conference also provided opportunities to sit in on informational seminars which made this trip all the more worthwhile.
A few other expos and conferences are memorable as well. The first time going to the ISH conference in Germany was the ultimate for me as well as for any Wet Head! I traveled to Toronto and Edmonton, Canada for expos, and attended many AHR Expos. To me, I still believe to this day that getting education is key to keeping sharp and up-to-date on new technology.
Train the Trainer
Along my journey, I also learned about a program offered by the UA called, “Train the Trainer.”
I thought teaching others would be a good experience. By completing this program, I could then be a trainer for my local union. Once a year, for a five-year cycle, the UA puts on classes at University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. It’s a one-week commitment for a total of 40 hours in the classroom. We learned teaching theory, presenting skills, computer programs like PowerPoint, how to write learning objectives, and much more.
To become certified, I went there for five years and completed 200 hours of classes. All courses were 10 hours long, except one which was 20 hours long. There are a total of 19 classes to complete. I earned one B and the rest were As. I graduated on Aug. 18, 2000.
As I progressed in my knowledge and work in radiant, our local planned to build a new 10,000-square-foot union hall and training center. At a meeting I asked about the plan for the heating system. I almost fell off my chair when they said, scorched air!
I said, “Do you realize how dumb that is when we are plumbers and pipefitters?”
I offered to design the radiant floor system and put a quote for materials together.
“We can use this as a training class for our apprentices by having them help on the install,” I added.
The training coordinator contacted the UA training department and presented the cost of the materials. The UA could see the value in this, so they gave our local a grant to cover the cost. I went to our suppliers and was able to get some of the products discounted. I approached some manufacturers to get some controls for the different mixing methods I wanted to use.
At this time, cast-iron boilers, using mixing, was really the only option. When I designed the boiler room, I used a four-way mixing valve, variable speed injection, and two-way valve injection. There were three different zones that could have used all the same temperature, but I wanted to show other methods.
The apprentices installed everything in the boiler room during their day school hours utilizing my schematics.
After the building was completed and the training class started, I began instructing a few classes. I also wrote a 20-hour course on radiant floor heating. This was offered to all of the members.
Running my own business, however, I was finding it hard to find people willing to pay for a good quality radiant system. I hoped to do more and larger systems. I made a small active radiant display on wheels and hit many home shows.
One such show focused on log homes. I was a presenter there talking about radiant floor and hydronic systems. I talked about good practices, types of radiant methods, and things to look for when getting a quote.
This was a national show, so I wasn’t expecting a lot of work from it. I did get a nice log home project, which called for radiant heat throughout the house. Most of the projects called for radiant heat in the basement and, maybe, the garage.
Speaking of which, in 2003, a town near my home wanted to build a new municipal garage. This was 33,000 squarte feet, and officials wanted in-floor heat! This was a public bid, and the print stated the heating was bid as “design-build.”
In my area, there were not many contractors capable of doing a system of this scale. In the end, only five bids were submitted. The city council wanted to meet with each bidder so they could explain their design.
Basically, the way it turned out, four of them used the same design supplied to them by a local wholesaler. And the fifth design was mine.
At this time there were not too many condensing boiler options on the market. The four options from bidders, who used the local wholesaler design, were using cast-iron boilers, primary/secondary with a runaround loop. They also had many zone pumps in the mix.
The council asked me why the others had 15 pumps listed, and I only had five. I said, “I can sell you 10 more, but why buy what you don’t need?”
I used only one 1,000 MBH condensing boiler, five pumps and zone actuators to take care of the small zones they wanted in the office area. My price was slightly higher than everyone else, but I was the low bidder on the plumbing quote. We combined the two quotes to get the contract. A few years later I went back and everyone was very happy with the system.
In 2002, I was approached by a rep firm and asked if I would work for them as technical support. It stood to reason for them since I was buying all the radiant floor materials from one of the manufacturers they represented in addition to their boiler line. They were growing and really needed help technically.
This offer for me was another way to expand my experiences. At this time, I still had work scheduled and a few guys were working for me.
We agreed I would run my business as well as do the work they needed. I continued to do this until 2006 by reducing down each of those years. It would not have worked to quit cold turkey.
I’m a full-time manufacturers rep now working for a different firm, where I’m able to use my training and my installer experiences. This kind of work caused me to travel a lot, which was hard on my wife and kids. On the upside, it also allowed us to go to new places together occasionally. I thank my wife for taking care of the kids during this time.
As they got a little older, they were able to travel with me as a combination of work and a vacation. The two kids are on their own now, and we are empty nesters. My wife has retired and now can travel with me more often. Working as a rep was the right move, and I have enjoyed it very much. I hope to meet some of you in the future, and please look for more articles written by me in future issues of PHC News. Thank you!
After running his own business for many years, Ted Schmelling made the switch to becoming a manufacturers rep. He’s currently territory sales specialist at Hot Water Products Inc., Milwaukee, Wis.