Remembering Post-War Industry – And The Veterans Who Built It

Remembering Post-War Industry – And The Veterans Who Built It

Lately I’ve been living in the past. 

A client recently asked me to write a company history for them. Before long, my research turned very personal. Like so many businesses throughout the country, the seeds of my client’s company were sewn during the post–World War II economic boom...

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Two Simple Goals for Effective AHR Tradeshow Exhibits

Two Simple Goals for Effective AHR Tradeshow Exhibits

I love a good product demo. I got treated to one recently while attending the NC Craft Brewers Conference in Winston Salem, NC.  (Yes, I was there for professional reasons and not just for the free samples; there’s a lot of product overlap in HVAC and breweries.) Anyway, one of the highlights of this excursion was....

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I Get a Lesson in Polypropylene Pipe Fusion at Wise Man Brewing

I Get a Lesson in Polypropylene Pipe Fusion at Wise Man Brewing

I love visiting jobsites and mechanical rooms whenever I get the chance.

Last week, I not only got to visit a job where contractors were in the early stages of installing Aquatherm polypropylene (PP-R) pipe for the glycol lines at a soon-to-open brewery in nearby Winston-Salem, NC, I got some hands-on experience with Aquatherm pipe fusion.

I’m no stranger to Aquatherm--I’ve been writing about the product for years; but I’ve never been able to actually see an installation take place.  Wise Man Brewing is just a short drive away from Greensboro, so it was the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal...

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Defining My Process as a Writer for the HVAC Industry

AdobeStock_112117660.jpeg

By Trish Holder

“Trish, what is your process?”

That was the question posed to me recently by a potential client.

I was kind of delighted to receive it. After all, I don’t get to talk about it that much. When people ask me what I do, I typically say, “I’m a writer for the commercial HVAC industry.” I have them at “I’m a writer,” but then I lose them right after the “for” part. I usually change the subject just to spare them the agony of how to respond.

I’m not sure anyone (even longtime clients) has ever actually asked me what my process was, at least not in this straightforward manner. I kind of wished I’d been more practiced at answering the question because it’s such a valid one -- and a bit more complex than the four simple words might convey.  

Here's what I suspect this gentleman was really asking:

“How do you propose to absorb what I know about this highly technical product and application, when I don’t have the time or resources to explain it to you, and THEN take what you’ve learned and fashion it into a message that not only does justice to the product itself, but intrigues an audience of highly critical mechanical engineers, facility professionals, and contractors?”

Like I said, it’s a valid question.

I think many marketing directors for HVAC companies get overwhelmed by the prospect of getting a new writer or PR firm up-to-speed on a product. And understandably so!  After all, we’re not talking about shampoo or condiments here. Developing marketing content about even the most basic HVAC equipment requires a certain knowledge about heating and cooling systems as a whole. How can one discuss say, flow balancing, if they don’t have a basic understanding of how a chilled or hot water pumping system works?  

As far as all that is concerned, it helps that I’ve been writing about these systems for over 20 years.  I’ve picked up a thing or two. But every product is different, and every project involves some degree of learning – sometimes a lot.

It’s the HARD that Makes It Great

My own process is to simply dig in.  I like to learn more than I need to know so I know what I can afford to disregard for a given project. I start with what I do know and build a path from there, adding little stepping stones of new information that eventually get me to the banks of a whole new technology. I go over documentation that the manufacture provides or already has online. I supplement with extra online research to get a feel for how a specific product fits into the current landscape of problems and solutions. Along the way, I form a lot of questions, most of which I discover the answers to on my own without burdening the manufacturer.

Basically I immerse myself in the topic and stay under until the water starts to clear. It ain’t easy, but to quote Tom Hanks from A League of Their Own (because I like to quote Tom as often as I possibly can) “If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

If anyone tells you differently, prepare yourself for a boatload of revisions.

So that’s it. That’s my process.

Glad someone finally asked.

Talking Tech to the HVAC Crowd

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By Trish Holder

Technology is in the air. Can you feel it?

In my husband’s line work, corporate IT, technology is always in the air. He doesn’t need to “feel” it because he understands it. For the rest of us, particularly those who work in the construction and/or mechanical industry, web-based technology can be especially intimidating.  We can’t shut down a breaker and take it apart.  It is intangible, and we like tangible. 

Even the terminology is weird and abstract:  The Cloud…Internet of Things (IoT )…Big data…. Techies toss these words around and gobble them up like bits of popcorn. The rest of us? Not so much. 

Still, most of us know we can’t avoid technology and remain relevant.  Over the last few years I feel like I’ve been watching an awkward dance between the intelligent buildings industry and the HVAC industry.  They approach each other cautiously, like tweens on a middle school dance floor.

A good example of this “dance” occurred with the introduction of the Nest Learning Thermostat™ a few years ago. Consumers were instantly enamored with its self-programming capability and hip design.  Those of us who had long since given up on programming our own thermostats loved concept of a thermostat that could actually “learn” our preferences. And gadget loving geeks were all over the idea of a thermostat they could control from their smart phone.  Contractors were less enthusiastic.  I remember reading their comments on HVAC forums, and as far as I could tell, most were certain this silly, bullseye-looking hockey puck would fail.  It didn’t.  The 3rd generation Nest was released last year and they’ve branched out into home security cameras and more.

The marketers of the Nest were clever enough to focus on the end-users (in this case, homeowners). In fact, it was almost as if they politely waited to let the homeowner make the introduction to contractors.  Pretty soon if you couldn’t or wouldn’t swing to the that beat of the Nest, it was clear you were going to have to sit a few dances out.  My own contractor, who remains skeptical to this day, installs them fairly frequently. He’s still not crazy about the product, but if the client asks for it, that’s what the client gets.

It’s All About the Messaging

The Nest and other companies that have had success marketing “smart” products for use in HVAC or construction have executed their messaging with surgical precision in how they have targeted it, but also in how they have crafted it.  This video from the NEST is so well-scripted it could convince the least handy homeowner in the world that even he or she could replace a thermostat.  

I also like this sketch pad video from Constellation HomeBuilder Systems, marketing their builder management software--even though I find it a bit long.  The product isn’t tangible, but the presentation lends a sense of tangibility. It’s visual and well-paced so as not to overwhelm.  It’s also easy on the tech talk.  

All that is easier said than done, and believe me, the latest web-based tools to hit the HVAC market are far more complex than either of the above mentioned products. But the lesson about messaging high tech to hands-on people remains the same:  If you can’t tell a relatable story, you’ll be dancing alone.  

Not Feeling Vegas – Even Though I’ll Probably Go

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By Trish Holder

If it were up to you, where would the 2017 International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR) be held in January?

As most of us in the HVACR industry know, it will be in Las Vegas – not exactly my fav venue, but I get it. It is not terribly expensive to travel to, the convention center can handle the Expo, and there are plenty of hotels, cabs, and restaurants to go around – not to mention casinos.  But like a lot of people who attend or exhibit at AHR, it’s not a town I personally love to visit.  New York, yes. Chicago, yes. Orlando, maybe. Las Vegas, nah.

Regardless of the location, I typically attend AHR each year to visit with existing clients, reconnect with HVAC publishers, and scope out new opportunities. New York and Chicago remain my favorite AHR venues. But Vegas is a place you either love or barely tolerate and I’m afraid I fall into the latter category. I’m not gambler. All the glitz and excess make me feel like I need a good bath and a juice cleanse. And it really ticks me off that so many of the hotels don’t have coffeemakers.

But like I said: I get it. 

AHR is a huge show, and there are only a few convention centers in the US large enough to host it. Still, I’d sure like to pay a visit to San Francisco, Boston, or Phoenix. New Orleans hosted the 2014 Greenbuild Expo at the newly renovated Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and it was awesome. I could stand to go back there again.

What about the rest of you?  Are you hankering for some new scenery outside the AHR convention hall?  If the decision was yours to make and convention center size was not an issue, where would you like to see AHR hosted?

Drop me an email to let me know:  mail@trishholder.com.

Could an Art & Design School Hold the Key to Renewed Interest in HVAC as a Career Path?

Photo courtesy of Billyv, Flickr

Photo courtesy of Billyv, Flickr

By Trish Holder

The Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) could find a way to make a paperclip interesting.

A recent tour of this extraordinary campus left me wondering what my own industry could learn from this extraordinary institution – particularly when it comes to attracting bright, young people into the HVAC field. 

SCAD calls itself "The University for Creative Careers," no doubt a bold rebuttal to the idea that art and design students are destined to be well-educated hobbyist rather than gainfully employed professionals.  After a few hours touring the facilities and listening to student guides talk about their own experiences at the school, I was convinced that SCAD has succeeded in blending “exciting and creative” with “practical and profitable.”

These students are going places. They are collaborating with each other and doing amazing things from creating the opening visual for the Super Bowl to a prototype for an urban living space of only 135-sqaure-feet.  Big brand companies are dipping into the school for talent to fuel their film studios, advertising agencies, architectural firms, publishing houses and so much more. This is not a school for future starving artists.  

So if SCAD can make something practical and profitable out of something that is exciting and creative, why can’t the HVAC industry make something exciting and creative out of what is already practical and profitable?

That was the question percolating in my brain as I looked at a SCAD photography exhibit showing unexpected perspectives on buildings. One photo in particular caught my eye.  Most likely taken using a drone, it was of the rooftop of an ordinary urban building.  Other than the perspective, there was nothing special about the image – just the usual rooftop equipment -- a cooling tower, some piping, and the concrete roof.  But from up above it looked cool.  Really cool.

Isn’t It All About Perspective?

It dawned on me how much our reactions to things are based on perspective, including certain careers.  SCAD, as a school, constantly encourages shifting perspectives – both visually and intellectually. That’s what is exciting to the students about the school and I suspect it is also partly to thank for the fountain of creativity that flows from it.

Is it so hard to imagine the HVAC industry, both the design and service areas, might profit from doing the same? 

Maybe--just maybe--it already is. 

A recent article by Mike Murphy of ACHR NEWS points to a few promising signs.  The article, entitled "Labor Shortage Answer Requires Cultural Change" suggests that a “demographic trend” may have already taken root. Murphy cited some of his own observations at a recent Service Nation Inc. meeting, including that of younger contractors in their 30’s and 40’s (young for this industry, anyway) talking less shop and more about changing technologies, such as home automation, home performance, home information, etc.  He also quoted one industry veteran who believes that the key to inspiring a younger generation of techs involves granting them more autonomy to engage with customers and make decisions, basically giving them the perspective of a business owner rather than just a service tech.

It was a good article that seemed to dovetail with some of my own observations at SCAD. 

The article also mentioned a new industry conference for contractors, Service World Expo, Oct. 26-27 in Las Vegas, which has my interest peaked. It’s pretty obvious that this conference is positioned to appeal to a younger generation of contractors. Judging by the clever graphics on the website, I’d say they are off to a good start.

The concept is fun, fresh, and exciting. Very SCAD-like, indeed.

Talking To Contractors

By Trish Holder

I interview a lot of mechanical contractors. Early in my career it was one of the most challenging and nerve racking calls I had to make when preparing to write an article or case study about a project.  Not only are contractors difficult to catch, most of them are unaccustomed to sitting and chatting.  They certainly aren’t eager to stop in the middle of their busy day to rehash the details of a project they’ve long since put to bed.

Over the years I’ve gotten better at making these interviews productive and even enjoyable. Being prepared helps. Contractors don’t like to waste time. Neither do I for that matter. By the time I call reach out to a contractor for an interview, I already know a lot about the project. I’ve talked to the engineer. I’ve researched the facility.  I’ve thought through the challenges from a contractor’s perspective. I’ve prepared and organized my questions with one primary goal in mind, to discover what made the project unique. Very often the contractor holds the key.

“And WHY are you asking me all these questions?” 

Even though I’ve no doubt explained that I’ve been hired by a manufacturer to write a case study about a product application most are still a little caught off guard.  Who is this woman and why is she asking me detailed questions about a job that was completed six months ago?  It takes a while for it to sink in that this could actually be a good thing.  

Gradually the apprehension begins to wane. Prompted by my questions the contractor starts to remember and share more about a project – what made it hard, or odd, or even funny.  And then something kind of amazing happens. It’s as though contractor himself starts to realize, “Wow, that really was a pretty neat project.”  It’s smooth sailing from there.

Unsung Heroes of Construction

I’ve found that contractors can be quite generous with both their time and expertise.  It’s fairly apparent that most like talking about their work once they sense that the person on the receiving end is genuinely interested in what they have to say.  They seem to enjoy explaining how things work and many are natural teachers.  They are also typically very pleased and appreciative when they finally get to read the resulting article. Good press builds good will. It strengthens B2B relationships and brand loyalty.

I believe that mechanical contractors need and deserve to have their stories told.  More often than not they are the unsung heroes in commercial construction.  Their work is hidden away in equipment rooms, above ceilings and beneath floors. Even if a building is world famous, its mechanical room isn’t likely to be featured in Architectural Digest.  So when a contractor see’s some of his handiwork work featured in a well-known trade magazine, it’s kind of a big deal.  

In fact, it’s pretty cool.