The first memory I have in the industry was working for my stepfather, a great man. I started at the bottom of his company and went down from there. He was in the LP gas business, which he started in 1946. The TVA was just running power lines to people in the country in northern Alabama. Most people had no power and no running water outside of the towns. Homes were heated with coal, if they could afford it, or wood if they couldn’t afford coal. We were installing LP gas systems in many country homes, bringing them up to date with the city homes that had natural gas.
The thermocouple was the device that allowed a standing pilot light so the customer didn’t have to light the fire with a match. The advent of a thermopile would allow a technician to install a thermostat on the wall for automatic temperature control, a real step up from lighting the fire with a match when the room got cold. These were primitive days in the industry.
I was newly adopted into my stepfather's life after he married my struggling mother at the end of WWII. I was 14 years old in 1950 when he assigned me my first task, to bury a 250 gallon Butane tank. You see, I started at ground-level and went down to the bottom of about a 6-foot hole during my first day on the job.
After I finished burying the tank, I dug the gas line ditch from the tank to the house, which was when he taught me my first lesson. He came out to the job and looked at the ditch that I had completed and said, “If you dig all of your ditches like this, you can do this the rest of your life.”
“What do you mean?" I asked.
“Come stand here and look at this ditch,” he replied.
I stood, looked at the ditch, and asked, “What do you mean?”
“The ditch isn’t level," he said. "It isn’t straight, and in general, is sloppy. Now fix it right, dig it like you are proud of it.”
It probably took me years to really figure out the complete lesson, I finally learned that anything worth doing was worth doing correctly. When my work became worthy, I slowly worked my way up to installing, and then into service. He then put me to working with one of the best thinkers I have ever known. An old country farmer technician who had a thorough understanding of basic technology that he learned from books and practice. There were no tech schools back then. He was an automobile mechanic who converted his techniques of the basics to gas technology. He knew the basics of each industry were the same.
Later in life (1966), I had mastered the basics of refrigeration and was doing field factory service for a major manufacturer in Rome, Georgia, while teaching at Coosa Valley Vocational and Technical Institute. I thoroughly understood the basics of refrigeration. I had worked on one 40 ton chiller at the school while teaching there. I had never seen a system larger than the 40 ton system at the school.
One day, I saw an ad in THE NEWS from a manufacturer looking for a service engineer to perform service on large chilled water systems and I applied for the job. When I talked to the owner of the franchise, he said, “You sound like a good candidate, except you are not qualified.”
“Has anyone else ever done this job?" I asked him.
He replied that someone had previously held the job. I said, "If anyone else has done it, I can do it."
"Maybe we can get together sometime and talk further," he said.
I told him I would see him at 8 a.m. the next morning.
My wife and I gathered the baby up and drove 70 miles to north Alabama, left the baby with my mother-in-law, and drove 375 miles to Charlotte, North Carolina, to meet with the owner, John. There were no interstate highways then. We talked most of the day.
“You are a good candidate because you are very sure of yourself, but you are not qualified,” he told me.
I asked him again if anyone else had ever done this job, and again, he told me, "Yes." So again, I told him that if anyone else had done the job, then I could do it because I was well founded in the basics.
He called me a few days later and hired me. I worked for him for six years. Those were some of the most rewarding years of my life because I learned so much.
The first day of the job we were in his office where he pushed a stack of file folders over to my side of the desk.
“What are these?" I asked.
"These are next 90 days of assignments," he told me.
“What are they?" I asked.
“These are the start up files for about 35 centrifugal chillers from about 150 tons to 1,200 tons," he said.
“How much time is allowed for each?" I asked.
“The manufacturer pays for five days for each one," he replied.
I did some quick math and said, “5 x 35 is not 90 days,"
“Since I last talked to you, the only other member of the service department left with medical problems and you are the only one now.," he said. "You said you could do it. I also have another applicant that I am going to hire today. He just graduated from a technical school in Virginia. He should be well founded in the basics, but no field experience. You are now the service manager.”
The owner had lined up a start up of the two types of centrifugal chillers being manufactured by the company at that time. I went to the first start up, walked into the room, and there were two 850 ton chillers in a large room that took up the entire room. I had never seen anything like it.
I met the other technician at the job, and what a surprise, he was a retired WWII U.S. Navy Chief that served in submarine service. His name was Al. He was a tough, but kind old goat of a man.
“I need to know what you know," he said to me. "Show me the compressor, the suction line, the metering device, and the discharge line.”
I walked around the unit for a few minutes. While I had studied the literature for the chiller and knew the parts, I couldn’t believe the size of the suction line. I could “duck walk” through it. The liquid line was about 4” in diameter. The compressor was taller than me. Back to the basics. All of these components did the same thing as a 1/8th horse power refrigerator. The only difference was they all had bigger jobs, thus they were scaled up.
Al then handed me a legal pad and told me to draw the complete control diagram for one of the chillers. I went from the chiller control panel and followed every wire that left the panel to its destination and back to the panel. It took the rest of the day.
When I handed it to him, he said, “Well done. Now the reason I asked you to do that was because of my experiences on a submarine. I had to know where every switch, breaker, and valve was on a submarine, and be able to find and check it in the dark in case of a blackout while under attack. I was responsible for getting the ship operational under all circumstances. You need to have the same understanding of this equipment.”
He was a tough task master. The only one that I have ever known that was tougher on me was me. I have always been tough on me.
When I took the job of teaching at Coosa Valley Tech, I was well grounded in gas technology and knew very little about refrigeration — just the basics. I taught the two year program in heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration for four years. The first year, I was only one lesson ahead of most of my students. Some of my night students worked in the field and were three months ahead of me, but out of respect, they always protected me by never letting me know it.
I was determined to keep up with the lessons. I started with the gas heat portion of the program because I was familiar with it. I studied the refrigeration and air conditioning portion in my spare time. We had class from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day, and night classes from 6-10:30 p.m. three nights each week. We put in a lot of hours. I had little time for study, so I decided to saturate myself with my studies. I didn’t read the funny papers or any other material for two years — only technical material. That is when I learned that you probably can master most any subject in two years of intense study.
I also learned that you really don’t know a subject unless you can explain it to others. Teaching is a rewarding profession.
One other lesson I learned along the way is to cheerfully pass on any information that you have to other technicians, even to a competitor. I remember older technicians who had what they called “trade secrets" — techniques they learned the hard way that made their job easier. I remember one time when I was looking over a control technician's shoulder while he was trying to get the pneumatic control panel to achieve the correct chilled water temperature and air flow to control the humidity in a cotton mill. The control panel was as big as a double bed mattress. There were dials and valves all over the board. He had been studying it for a long time. The mill master mechanic was looking over his shoulder trying to learn the trade. Wilber, the control technician, told the mill mechanic to reach in his tool bag and hand him a tool. Then Wilbur made an adjustment on the board while the mill mechanic wasn’t looking. The numbers on the panel started changing for the better until conditions were correct.
The mill mechanic asked Wilbur, “What did you do?”
Wilbur’s response was, “It took me years to be able to figure these things out, that is my secret.”
I watched in amazement that he would not reveal his secret. To me, that was just wrong.
Always help the other technician with anything you know, it will never hurt you, and will always help others.
Back to the new job starting up — centrifugal chillers. The new technician, Joe, and I started all of those chillers up in 90 days with no big problems. We worked together for many years.
Another principle I learned in the industry is to always be worth more than you are getting paid — and make sure the owner knows it. You will always have a pay day if he/she really appreciates and values your work.
I have enjoyed passing basic information on to all you technicians. It is time for me to sit back and read about all of the new innovations that are happening today. I was told earlier in the business that once you get refrigerant oil in your blood, it will always be there. You will always be interested in the industry, and it is true.
I guess that I only learned four lessons in all of these years;
- Master the basics of any subject you are proud of;
- Pass it on to anyone who is interested;
- Be worth more than your paycheck to the company; and
- It is hard to turn loose of this industry.
Publication date: 1/21/2019