The Northeast U.S. has been the hydronics stronghold in America since boilers were first put to use as a source of heat. To serve the interests of trade professionals, especially those just entering the field (though by no means limited to introductory training), the Pennsylvania Petroleum Association (PPA) technical education center (PPATEC) has substantially expanded its facility in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area.

For over 35 years, PPA has offered oil-fired hydronics and forced-air equipment training at the facility, serving thousands of trade professionals who came to hone their skills while under the skilled guidance of expert instructors. The equipment in PPATEC’s oil-fired training room is connected to a large, primary hydronics loop, enabling all of the heating systems to operate under real-world conditions. PPA won accolades as having one of the best facilities of its kind, and with quality of training second to none. Currently, classes range from one half day to two weeks in length.

Though PPA is recognized for excellence in oil-fired training, association managers recognized the need to evolve their programs to train for all types of energy sources. This included a greater focus on gas-fired equipment, air conditioning, and electrical components, and to accommodate larger classes. By late 2019, preparations for the new facility had begun.

Though, soon after the association initiated an expansion to accommodate the need for gas-fired training, COVID-19 swept in with hard repercussions worldwide.

“Among the many concerns we had, we had to consider the negative impact on the new facility’s mission, and had we chosen exactly the wrong time to expand?” said Ted Harris, PPA’s executive vice president.

As it turned out, the forced pause in association activity allowed its managers to turn their full attention to making sure the new facility, including a modern classroom and a working lab, would exceed the needs of trade professionals “when they returned, not if,” said trainer Alan Mercurio.

Through last year, as the economy’s pace slowed to a crawl — sure enough, and just as predicted — a silver lining emerged. Addition of the association’s new gas-fired hydronic facility was not only completed, but attracted the attention of manufacturers, reps, wholesalers, and installers who wanted to help. Now the expanded facility is teeming with students.

The new facility — with Ed Howell as the key gas-side/HVAC instructor — offers plenty of room for students and additional instructors and serves as a training venue for a wide range of classes. Students receive training on all facets of gas-fired equipment and mini-split system operation, service work, and troubleshooting.

Classes resumed early this year, with lots of interest in troubleshooting and service work, allowing students to hone skills in a lab setting that allows instructors to replicate a wide variety of especially challenging conditions.

“The repeatability of any technical challenge is one of the greatest assets of our facility,” Mercurio said.

Not only do students get to work through a problem until it’s fully solved, giving them the best hands-on experience with it, but instructors can also add new challenges to reproduce a real-world encounter.


Industry Support Is Crucial

Harris explained that industry support from manufacturers, wholesalers, and contracting firms plays an important role in making PPA’s mission viable.

“Our purpose here is to offer valuable, maybe even life-changing instruction, but without the help of our industry partners, we simply couldn’t do it,” he said. “Overall, the support we receive from manufacturers and other industry stakeholders is terrific.”

Key supporters of the association include Taco Comfort Solutions, NTI, APR Supply, Fujitsu, Sid Harvey, Rheem, Crown, Rhoads Energy, Tevis Energy, Ferguson, Navien, Friedrich, Burnham, Honeywell, Energy Kinetics, Ray Murray Inc., R. W. Beckett, Field Controls, Mitsubishi Electric, and F.W. Webb Company.

Shortly after learning of PPA’s desire to install a new hydronic training lab with gas-fired (and ductless HVAC) technology, Johnny White Jr., CEO of Taco Comfort Solutions, asked for a list of needed components.

Taco residential systems trainer Dave Holdorf and White soon offered not only to provide many of the essential hydronic system components — including many of their newest, most advances ECM circulators — but that Holdorf would also make trips from Long Island to deliver the materials and to serve as a consultant to Vertex Mechanical, the firm chosen to assemble all of the new, hydronic lab equipment.

“Johnny’s words to me were, ‘Give them anything they need and all the support they can use,’” Holdorf said. “I designed the facility to represent realistic conditions as closely as possible, with an emphasis on real-world variations and practicality. For instance, I designed-in system circulation with zone valves for one of the cast iron boilers, and zone valves for the other. And, for the NTI boiler, the addition of a hydroseparator — just because it’s a possibility that a service tech will encounter scenarios like these in the field.”

Steve Wieland, MidAtlantic sales manager for NTI Boilers Inc., was also one of those who, after learning of the association’s needs, quickly expressed interest in providing support. Not long after that, the very first, newest FTVN-110 boilers were rolling off the line. He received two of them, and soon delivered one of the company’s newest, most advanced mod-con boilers — an up to 11:1 turndown system with sizes of 85-200 MBH (purely) for heat, and 110-200 MBH for combi (heat with domestic water). The new hydronics lab now includes a variety of mod-con gas boilers (including the latest from NTI) and two that are atmospheric.


Simulators, too

PPATEC has also added three HVAC simulator units from iConnect Training. According to Harris, the new simulators allow students to better understand the theory and operational techniques for electrical components, gas furnace systems, and heat pumps. Generous donations of HAVC and hydronic equipment, and components, came in from many manufacturers and suppliers.

“We were thrilled that, shortly after announcing our plan to expand the training facility, offers began to stream in,” Harris said.

Donations ranged from ductless mini split systems to boilers, gas burners, Honeywell thermostats, and even a Monessen vent-free log set and Premier propane cooking range.