In the last few years, sales of high-efficiency boilers have increased dramatically, compounding the need for highly trained technicians who have an excellent understanding of hydronics, electrical systems, and electronics. That’s because today’s high-efficiency boilers require more complex piping and a need to understand advanced controls, so ongoing training is more important than ever.
There is certainly no shortage of quality training available for boiler technicians. Manufacturers, supply houses, and various associations offer a plethora of training opportunities in various locations around the U.S. Those who are not willing to invest in ongoing training are really missing the boat, said Steve Heidler, president of Heidler Inc. (Annapolis, Md.), because “just taking that little extra step in order to learn how to do the job right will pay you back many, many times over.”
SURGE IN SALESHeidler Inc. has been in business since 1947 and specializes in residential and commercial hydronic heating service and installation. In the last three years, the company has installed an ever-increasing number of high-efficiency (90-percent-plus AFUE) boilers. “In 2007, 18 percent of the boilers we installed were high efficiency. In 2008, 31 percent were high efficiency. In 2009, it went up to 55 percent, and so far this year we’re running at 65 percent high efficiency versus standard efficiency,” said Heidler.
The federal tax credits have stimulated some of those sales, but Heidler believes that more people opt for high-efficiency boilers because they use less energy, which can drastically reduce utility bills. This often results in a relatively short payback period, especially when a high-efficiency boiler is replacing an inefficient boiler that is 30 or 40 years old.
Homeowners can definitely benefit by replacing their old system with a new high-efficiency boiler, but that is only the case if it is installed correctly. Today’s advanced boiler systems have complicated controls, and the piping arrangement is different, which can make installation more challenging.
Venting is also different, because high-efficiency boilers cannot be vented into typical chimneys; instead, they are vented with PVC piping. Due to numerous restrictions, technicians must know where the system can be exhausted and how to bring in fresh air for combustion. “This can be a little challenging sometimes, especially when you get down in a historic district like Annapolis, where the houses have little alleys between them, and you have to figure out where you’re going to discharge. But it’s very important that you learn how to do it correctly and maintain all the proper clearances.”
From a service and maintenance standpoint, there are many more things that can go wrong with a high-efficiency boiler, compared to boilers from 20 or 30 years ago. “Older systems were not complicated at all,” said Heidler. “They had a gas valve, a pilot, and a thermocouple. Today’s high-efficiency boilers have so many more features. It is true that many can diagnose themselves if there is a problem; however, you need to have some skill in order to understand what the codes mean.”
WHEN GOOD SYSTEMS ARE INSTALLED BADLYWhen homeowners experience problems with their new, improperly installed high-efficiency boilers, Heidler is often the one who is called to take a look and figure out what is wrong. Many times he sees problems with the piping, and fixing it can be a fairly costly venture, since it is often necessary to take everything apart and reinstall it.
Another issue he sees is that many boilers are not being wired properly, which can result in homeowners not being able to take advantage of many of the features on their high-efficiency system. Problems with venting are quite common as well. “A lot of times we see units that aren’t vented properly. This is a critical issue because if there isn’t proper venting, then there are issues with incomplete combustion or the combustion products leaking back into the house. We see that quite a bit.”
All these reasons are why Heidler makes sure his staff is always up-to-date in their training. “There are so many training opportunities out there, and we try to take advantage of as many as possible. Our supply house will often notify us of seminars, or else the manufacturers such as Weil-McLain will tell us, and we’ll send the guys to their training. The main source of education and training for us, though, is through our local and national Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association (PHCC), as well as Quality Service Contractors (QSC), which is part of PHCC.”
Every month, Heidler’s local PHCC group - Metro Washington PHCC - has a general meeting, which includes a 60 to 90 minute training session prior to the meeting. “Various manufacturers take turns putting these on, so one month it may be on water heaters, the next month it’s boilers. But it’s open to everyone, technicians and business owners. We get a chance to learn about the equipment and also touch it and take it apart.”
At the national level, the PHCC Educational Foundation and QSC offer monthly webinars on topics like waterless urinals, radiant heating, water heaters, mixing valves and water-efficient technologies. There also are numerous PHCC website (www.phccweb.org) resources, such as white papers, publications, articles, and water and energy conservation tools.
“We are excited about new developments under way at PHCC,” said Gerry Kennedy, PHCC executive vice president. “We’re creating new educational programs that will give contractors the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be green experts in HVAC and plumbing. We also will be hiring a full-time technical director who will develop and present programs to help PHCC members understand and embrace emerging technical and code issues.”
The most important investment that can be made during these times is in the training of ourselves and our employees, added Bill Jones, Raven Mechanical (Houston) and PHCC educational foundation chairperson. “Whether you are a one-truck service company or have 150 employees doing new construction, ongoing continuing education is essential to broaden your knowledge base and expertise, and at the same time, stay a step ahead of the competition.”
LOOK TO MANUFACTURERSAs Heidler noted earlier, manufacturers are also a key resource for training. Peerless Boilers, for example, offers over a dozen training seminars; some are classroom sessions and some are live-fire, hands-on sessions with gas-fired or oil-fired boilers, air handlers, and high-velocity air conditioning. Classroom sessions cover design, installation, and servicing of hydronic systems, one-pipe and two-pipe steam systems, high-velocity air conditioning, and hydro-air heating.
“Most of our training sessions lately have been on high-efficiency boilers with both condensing gas and condensing oil boilers,” said Gerry Hogan, director of training and applied technology for PB Heat LLC. (Bally, Pa.). “The typical class is targeted to 20 or 30 contractors with a combination of classroom topics and hands-on instruction. We use three fully functioning boilers installed on our mobile display trailer. One side of the trailer opens up to allow technicians to view and work directly on the boilers.”
Peerless also offers webinars that cover topics such as the company’s high-efficiency gas boiler, the Peerless PureFire, as well as mini-webinars, which are 30-minute sessions on selected topics concerning technological and industry-wide developments.
Lochinvar is another manufacturer that offers numerous training opportunities through its Lochinvar University (www.lochinvar.com/training.aspx). The company’s annual education program takes place at company headquarters outside of Nashville and runs from February through October. These training opportunities are targeted to industry professionals who are seeking expert information on the latest high-efficiency technology.
The key to making sure technicians are properly trained on high-efficiency systems is to get involved. “Many contractors don’t take advantage of the opportunities out there. Get involved with a trade association like PHCC and be aware of what manufacturers and supply houses are offering,” said Heidler. “There are so many resources and so much education that you can take advantage of, and the cost is ridiculously low. Invest the time, and you will reap the rewards.”