Service technicians, like the rest of us, want to do their jobs well and quickly. And when things go wrong, it’s usually the basics, such as training or communication, that make the difference between a system that works and one that doesn’t. I recently spoke with Richard Schuster, author of two books on the HVAC industry. His first book, No Ducks in the Attic, gives simple, practical tips to help technicians do their jobs better and more effeciently. Schuster’s latest book, 101 Ways to Suck as an HVAC Technician, relates some funny (and frightening) anecdotes from his many years in the industry. Above all, Richard stresses the importance of training. He says managers often take for granted what their techs know — or don’t know.
What are the most common goofs you see HVAC technicians make most often?
The majority of mistakes come down to training — or a lack of training. Most of my writing focuses on making examples out of something and trying to teach somebody about what to do or not to do. For example, somebody was drilling the hole in the side of a house to run refrigeration wire, but he didn’t look where he was working, and he drilled through electrical cabling and started the house on fire. There are so many hundreds of examples of guys hanging flue pipe with string instead of the proper hangers. It almost always comes down to training. Most of the technicians who are out there start out as helpers during a summer job. The mechanic or the manager assumes they know something that they don’t know. There’s so little formal training out there. It’s really a problem.
What are some other big problems and issues facing HVAC and field service companies?
I see air conditioning systems that are twice as big as they should be. They’re completely inefficient and don’t work properly. Excess inventory is another example. I recently spoke with a manager who was complaining about cash flow and having to lay somebody off. While he was talking, he was straightening out shelves in the office that were full of tens of thousands of dollars of inventory that the company wouldn’t use for whatever reason. If the company could get its inventory problems under control, nobody would have to be laid off. Most managers don’t understand that. They make the mistake of assuming that their techs know something they don’t know. In my first book [“No Ducks in the Attic”], I describe installers I worked with who would write “duck tape” instead of “duct tape.”
Companies always talk about training and having manufactures come in and train employees on new equipment and technologies. Most managers aren’t aware that their technicians don’t know the basics. Even in the best shops, managers assume techs know the basics, but they often don’t.
I used to interview techs from the technical schools. I worked for a relatively large shop, and we were constantly hiring people. We would get these guys from the vocational schools who, after going through their classes, would come in expecting to get a job as a technician right away. It quickly became apparent that these guys knew the academic stuff, but they couldn’t identify parts. They didn’t realize that they didn’t know 99 percent of what was out there. You need both academic and practical experience. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and every day I realize how little I really know.
What technologies are essential to the job?
Very basic communication of any sort is absolutely essential. I’ve spoken to technicians out there who don’t have a cell phone, so they have no way to communicate with the office. I see companies all the time now that are going really high-tech: computers in the trucks, technicians who are able to print out bills on the spot. At the same time, while I see some companies with really big technology, some of the technicians don’t have the basic tools they need to properly diagnose the problem. For example, they need basic tools to test gas pressure and electrical circuits in the units themselves. Management’s focus is sometimes not always in the right place. It sounds so ridiculously basic, but it’s still a problem every day.