Contractor trains techs - any techs - in centrifugals

DALLAS, TX — “We seem to do everything different. But somehow, it has worked out for us.”

Thus speaks Pat Rucker, a 66-year-old commercial hvac contractor who has helped change the landscape for big-system service technicians. During the past two decades, he has grown his business to its present $35 million level.

His business, Entech, has a distinct family flair. He runs the operation, his wife Bernetta is chief financial officer, and their nephew, John Mattes, is Pat’s right-hand man.

The 230-employee company is spread out over six locations in Texas.

One of Rucker’s innovations is a week-long training course that gets technicians into the teardown of centrifugal chillers and microprocessing systems.

He offers the course to all comers — even local Dallas-area competitors like Brandt Engineering, Limbach, and TD Industries.

Other students include those from overseas, and even the technicians that work for the chiller manufacturers’ regional service centers and those that work for local controls manufacturers, like Honeywell and Johnson Controls.

Taught by techs

Priced at $1,700 per student, the class is taught by Rucker’s own service technicians in a high-ceilinged building that was once owned by an Oldsmobile dealer.

Typical courses include basic theory, lubrication systems, purge systems, controls, and chiller capacity.

Rucker says he “doesn’t make a dime” on the process. He just wants to ensure that technicians who take on the daunting challenge of tearing down a 500-ton chiller get it right.

“We offer the training to take the mystery out of servicing large chillers, and to share vital information not always available from equipment manufacturers.”

His ability to offer this training stems from a lawsuit a decade ago (joined by another lawsuit by another group of contractors) which wrested from the chiller manufacturers their training manuals that weren’t readily available. But that’s all ancient history now, Rucker says.

The next niche

Rucker is one of those restless characters who constantly look for a niche. For example, he has drifted into the rental of chillers, ranging from 10 to 100 tons. Often, Rucker buys used chillers on the open market, retrofits them, and sends them out across the United States and Canada.

Another related field is water treatment, provided by Entech’s Aquatech Division.

Still another field is access control, security systems, and fire alarm systems.

A mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Illinois, Rucker started with Trane’s franchise in Peoria doing big systems hvac work, as well as warranty, start-up, and other activities.

In the early 1980s, he and his partner Mike Hunzecker decided the prospects in the “Rust Belt” didn’t look too promising, so they decided to strike out in Dallas doing business as Entech, while keeping their Peoria operation open.

Boomtown

That move coincided with the big oil bust in Texas, but they stuck it out, eventually riding the upward recovery in Dallas.

A lot of contractors went belly-up, and others tried their luck in other sectors of hvac. One contractor survived by doing “fit and finish” work in buildings that were just completed.

“But even as bad as it got in Dallas, that was like boom town compared to Peoria,” Rucker recalls.

Rucker and Hunzecker got an “amicable divorce” a few years ago.

From the beginning, Entech has specialized in service contracts for big systems with no new construction jobs.

“There has been no plan-and-spec work. We let others do that. All of our stuff is negotiated with the customer.”

Those customers include property managers like Trammel-Crow and Lincoln Properties, as well as national accounts like Southwestern Bell and EDS. One of Entech’s specialties is networking the hvac, access, fire, and security systems, which consume the time of eight Entech employees.

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