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I grew up in this industry working for my dad. We performed plumbing and HVAC work in the form of new construction and service. From one day to the next, we never knew what the job for the day would be. I worked with an HVAC service technician one summer, and in a three-month period, we completed the following jobs:
• Demolished HVAC systems for a school renovation;
• Piped and poured a concrete pad for an air compressor;
• Installed heating water piping to VAV boxes;
• Replaced some hot water unit heaters;
• Ran electric controls for heat and ventilation in an airplane hangar;
• Diagnosed and repaired HVAC units, including compressor change outs; and
• Installed a new chill water fan coil unit with fiberglass ductwork (my least favorite!).
The point is that we had to know how to do a variety of tasks, and do them well. That was 37 years ago, and the industry is much different today. Service and new construction rarely mingle. There are service techs. There are plumbers. There are pipefitters and welders. There are sheet metal mechanics. There are equipment installers. But finding the whole package is a rarity.
In my business, we perform projects that are just plumbing or just HVAC, but sometimes we are fortunate enough to perform both sides on the same project. We have a single project manager overseeing the job and if possible, one foreman. But when you have an individual who is well versed in plumbing, for example, the learning curve to get them to grasp the concepts associated with HVAC is extremely steep.
We have a project right now that involves both plumbing and HVAC. I was reviewing the systems with my project manager (who has come up through the plumbing side of the business) and explaining the concepts of VAV, pre-heat versus reheat, air-handling unit versus a packaged unit with integral compressors, etc. The funniest comment during this session was the realization that you use heat in the summer time to reheat areas that may overcool (98 F in Georgia and the boiler is running?!).
While the curve is steep, it is critical that one be able to learn how systems work. So, how do those of us who are seasoned veterans in this industry transfer this information to someone just coming up in the industry? After all, none of us have enough experienced workers, and there are few out there to hire.
One of the best ways to learn is to do the work, especially if they must struggle a little as they do it. On commercial projects, specifications sections are typically divided into three parts — general, product info and execution. The general section usually outlines the submittal data required for that division. Use an individual who perhaps has a little experience in the trade to acquire, assemble, and to the best of their ability, determine if what is being submitted is the same as what is in the spec. Much of it may not make sense, but then again much of it is reading and finding the same info regurgitated in the submittal.
When you are explaining a system, device or piece of equipment to someone, find illustrations of what you are telling them. I recently had a job where I was asked to determine what side of an in-line pump I wanted the VFDs to be mounted. I copied my inexperienced project manager on all my correspondence on this project. He responded, “We will need another lesson on this.” I took the submittal on the pump and marked it up, showing where the VFDs would be based on their location in the piping. Once he got the submittal mark-up, he wrote and told me that he was crystal clear on what we were talking about.
One of the best ways I have learned why components of buildings get done in the sequence they do is by paying attention to the conversation in job meetings that do NOT directly affect my work. You would be surprised what you hear, and if you take some notes and then go out to the jobsite and see it being done, it “clicks.” This will help one understand how our work can possibly affect another trade.
When you are on a jobsite, make a point to not only engage with your foreman, but also the foremen of your subs. Ask them what they are working on; what their challenges are at that time; if they are thinking ahead to what is coming up on the project that may affect them, etc. Don’t pretend like you know and understand everything they are talking about. Ask questions; get further elaboration. You will get a lot more respect for caring about what they are doing and making the effort to learn than by faking it. The experienced guys can figure out quickly if you are real or a fake.
Pay attention to the milestone dates on the schedule, like when walls will start, when ceilings will start, etc. and think about what should be going on while those activities are in progress. For example, if ceilings are starting, that means that we should have all our overhead work complete. It also means we need to start installing ceiling grilles. You should make sure air distribution is here by that date so that your crews have everything they need to drop in right behind. Then think about what needs to happen next and get that in motion. Mechanical systems are just one part of making a project whole. Figuring out where your work fits during other stages of construction will help further your education.
Unfortunately, so much of the learning in the construction process is like drinking from a firehose. A structured training program would work so much better, but in the case of many small businesses, there just doesn’t seem to be the resources or time. Many times, owners end up paying for this education in go-backs and do-overs. The key is to learn from these mistakes and not make the same mistake twice. Also, we have two ears, two eyes and one mouth. Use your eyes and ears to learn about what is going on. Humility is a trait that your peers will appreciate, and you will find that they are much more willing to work with you to show you the way!