Justin Elkins and Nate Reno sit in the DeHart training room, which serves as the new school’s classroom. Reno was hired as a DeHart technician shortly after enrolling in the first course.

In Modesto, Calif., a new technical school has opened its doors to students seeking an education in HVACR, plumbing, and electrical maintenance. The first class of the DeHart Technical School began on March 1, 2010 - and made founder Rod DeHart’s dream a reality.

DeHart, who is the third-generation owner of DeHart Plumbing, Heating & Air Inc., had dreamed of starting his own school for the last 10 years. With a vision for the type of education he believes students need to succeed, he created a school that operates within the walls of his company.


Although DeHart had long been mulling the idea of starting his own school, in early 2009 he decided to take the leap. Back in 2006, he had built a new facility for his company that included a 1,200-square-foot training room. It had tables and chairs for up to 25 students, and as the plan for the school unfolded, it became the natural place to house the classroom. DeHart installed the room with an interactive electronic whiteboard and electrical simulation boards, but he didn’t stop there.

In the back of the parking lot, he built a lab for hands-on training in real-life work scenarios. The lab is a 14-foot-wide, 56-foot-long portable office with 14 stations that represent a range of residential and commercial equipment.

“Everything is live - live water, live gas, live electricity - there’s nothing dummied up in there,” DeHart said. He gratefully acknowledged that his company’s longstanding ties with suppliers and manufacturers led to generous donations of equipment for the lab.

Last fall he hired Jeff Painter as the school director to help the program get off the ground. Painter had previously started a technical school in the mid-90s, but he said this opportunity was special because of the high level of support and industry resources available to the program.

In addition to Painter, Joseph Glass was hired as lead instructor. Glass is responsible for running the classroom while Painter spends most of his time on administrative duties. With the staff and facilities in place, DeHart Technical School was ready to open in 2010.

The DeHart Technical School, which opened in March, emphasizes hands-on training. The first class of students includes (from left to right) Zach Boese, Alex Munoz, Kevin Wolf, and Mark Zaklan.


The first 11 students began class in March, and the second class enrolled in late May. DeHart expects the program to grow quickly. “Our student population by the end of May will be somewhere around 25 or 28,” DeHart said. “The vision going forward is that by the end of 2011 we could have a population of somewhere between 60 and 75 [students].”

But he doesn’t want to get swept up in rapid growth and lose the sharp focus of the program. “We could do more than one instructor and 15 seats, but I’m more of a steady growth guy. It’s quality before quantity, and keeping the integrity of the curriculum.”

The school is not yet accredited, but according to Painter it will seek accreditation after two years of operation.

Student Frank Alvarado follows along during lecture. The course is a 50/50 split between the classroom and the lab.


The curriculum currently consists of three building maintenance courses. Building Maintenance Course 1 is 480 hours, or six months of class held five days a week. It covers electrical, climate control systems, plumbing (water heaters), and a basic overview of system applications.

“Course 2 has the same content with a heavier emphasis on service plumbing and electrical maintenance, and it takes nine months to complete,” Painter said.

Course 3 combines Course 2 with an advanced training module on low-temperature refrigeration. Course 3 is a total of 848 hours and can be completed in 11 months.

The first class of students enrolled in Course 1 will graduate mid-November; those continuing through Course 2 will graduate early February 2011.

The goal of the program is a 50/50 split between the lab and the classroom. “We’ll stay in the class long enough for students to understand the concept,” Painter said. “Once they reach that point, we immediately move out to the lab so they can apply it.” He reiterated that the hands-on training is the key to success. “Too many programs rely on theory and computer simulator programs. They do not have the equipment or lab resources to give the guys the hands-on training that is imperative for success as an entry-level technician in this career field.”

During their course, the students will receive instruction to prepare for their U.S. EPA and R-410A certification. Upon graduation, they will receive a certificate of completion and be given one opportunity to test for North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification.

In addition to the classroom and lab facilities, the program will include field trips and other opportunities for students to learn about the industry firsthand. DeHart is currently setting up the proper insurances to allow students to do half-day “ride-arounds” with his company’s technicians.

“Another resource we have that is truly valuable is a lot of personnel with a lot of years of experience. My plan and intention is having my project managers, field managers, and top technicians occasionally come in and be guest speakers and present real-world experiences,” DeHart said.

DeHart also intends to keep the curriculum “fluid” by staying current with trends in the industry, such as energy reduction. His company just completed certification with the Building Performance Institute (BPI), and he wants to produce graduating students who have knowledge of BPI practices and green technologies.

The training room, which seats up to 25, has an interactive electronic whiteboard and electrical simulation boards.


DeHart will measure his school’s success by the graduate job placement. To that end, he has initiated an extensive pre-interview and orientation process designed to weed out the students who are not committed or cut out for the field. “We try to identify that because we want success with our students.”

He said the common denominator is people who have always tinkered and wanted to know how things worked.

“At the same time,” he continued, “not only do they need to have the skills to fix the problem, they also need to have the skill to educate the customer as to what went wrong and what they’re doing to correct it so the customer feels confident in their ability and more empowered with knowledge as to what’s going on with their equipment.”

This combination of mechanical and people skills makes for the right student. And, DeHart said, students can even look at the school as an extended job interview. “As our needs grow, we are absolutely going to pick the cream of the crop from our students. To date, we have hired one of the students, and he’s now working as an entry-level preventative maintenance technician.”

That student is 22-year-old Nate Reno, a former country club employee. He met DeHart through his old boss and learned about the technical school as it was being started. “I came here and went through orientation and spent some time getting familiar with everything the school wants us to learn,” Reno said. He was impressed with the equipment and facilities. “Seeing everything they had, and getting to draw up some electrical diagrams, got me really excited. I knew it was something I really wanted to get involved with.”

Reno had checked into other schools, but was impressed with the organization and teacher-to-student ratio at DeHart. He enrolled in the first session and got hired three weeks later as a maintenance technician at DeHart Inc. Now he works during the day, takes an hour break, and heads to class each night.

According to Reno, the best thing about the school is the lab. “We really get in there with all kinds of equipment,” he said. “Being part of an actual business that does this, we get a lot of equipment that comes in everyday that we get to look at - from really old to new equipment, we get to experience it all.”

He added, “Other than how great the setting is and how easy it is to learn, the instructor [Glass] is awesome. He makes things very basic. He takes it as you’re someone who comes into the classroom knowing nothing. You come in completely lost, and he’s very good at translating information into a way you can understand and being able to build on to greater things from there.”

Reno will graduate in January and is enjoying the course so far. “My plan is to build a good career here and learn a good trade. I’m going to stick with this for a while and see how much I enjoy it. So far we’ve gone through refrigeration, we’re doing electrical now, and I’m enjoying all of it.”


Summing up his concept and what his school offers, DeHart said the advantage for students is being trained by the professionals. “That’s what we do for a living, obviously, and we have all those resources that we can share. I want each and every student to come out at the end of this with a great experience.”

There will certainly be high expectations for Reno and his classmates when they become the first graduates of the DeHart Technical School. But the training and preparation provided by the school’s core values should serve them - and the future students who will follow them - in good stead.

Sidebar: Inside the Lab

DeHart Technical School uses a state-of-the-art training lab to ensure all of its students receive hands-on training. The lab features heating and air conditioning equipment (both packaged and split, R-22 and R-410A), ice machines, and refrigeration units. Air conditioning systems range from the most basic builder model up to high-efficiency systems. The units represent a range of manufacturers, including Bryant, York, Goodman, Trane, Scotsman, Manitowoc, Hoshisaki, Delfield, Franke, True, and a variety of others.

The service plumbing section of the lab has a fully operational tub and shower combination, toilet, urinal, sinks, faucets, garbage disposal, circulating pump, expansion tank, tankless water heater, and gas and electric water heaters. The equipment brands include Moen, Delta, Kohler, State, and Rinnai.

There is also an electrical training wall for students to learn wiring and troubleshooting of switches, receptacles, GFIs, lights, recessed lighting, fluorescent lighting, sub-panels, and main panels.

Publication date:08/16/2010