If you count building campfires in caves, the HVAC industry is as old as humanity. Through all of that time, the industry has gone through countless developments in technology, business management, and talent. Two contractors with decades of experience took the time to share what they’ve seen change in the industry and what they’ve seen stay the same.
Butch Welsch, owner of Welsch Heating & Cooling, can remember going out on calls in the 1940s as a child. Welsch Heating & Cooling began in 1895 as a general store but entered into the heating business when coal furnaces came out in the 1920s. After World War II, gas conversion burners came out that replaced the burning of coal with gas firing.
“I remember we sold them for $285,” Welsch said. “We were installing them as fast as we could since they were so much cleaner. People didn’t have to worry about shoveling coal and keeping the coal in their home.”
In the late 1940s and earlier 1950s, gas furnaces came out, which marked the first forced air furnace, as coal furnaces were operated by gravity. Ductwork could be installed to facilitate a furnace blower though the equipment did not grow popular in residential work until the late 1950s. The design of the technology also did not take into account that the blower might need to move cool air, which is heavier than heated air. When the air conditioner grew popular in residential use, sales developed around add-on air conditioning: replacing blower motors to ensure they were strong enough to move cooled air around the home.
“By the mid-1960s, all new construction was getting air conditioning and heating,” Welsch said. “And the furnaces were designed with a blower motor large enough to take care of the air conditioning. From a broad picture standpoint, that technology hasn't changed a tremendous amount.”
Welsch said that the biggest change he has seen is the modernization of furnaces and air conditioners. The systems used to be fairly simple and didn’t require a highly technical service technician to handle them. But as the systems have grown in components and capabilities, such as self-diagnosis, servicing them requires more expertise.
Steve Simmons, co-owner of Air Comfort Heating & Cooling, started in the industry in 1977 and has watched the same technological changes: coal conversions to natural gas, standing pilots to hot surface ignitors, mechanical fan controls to solid state control boards, and software controlled setup and commissioning, to name a few.
“The level of competency required has fundamentally elevated the baseline skill set necessary to be a successful technician,” said Simmons. “The exciting thing about that is most of the people I see entering the field are more than technically capable. They thrive on a digital approach to their jobs.”
Business Management Changes
The business management side of the industry has changed as well. Simmons watched the emergence of industry associations designed to train contractors on how to operate successful businesses and build wealth.
Workers’ expectations of what companies will provide them have developed too. Simmons said that when he started over 40 years ago, the benefits were “a paycheck and a job.” But now benefits include health coverage, vacation, uniforms, phones, iPads, company events focused on the entire family, career counseling, retirement planning, and ongoing training.
“Today things are much different, and I’m thankful they are,” he said. “I find it very gratifying to have a part in providing for our team members’ potential development. It’s simply investing in the well-being of our society.”
The Next Generation of Technicians
Welsch and Simmons have both had a front row seat to watching the next generation come into the HVAC industry, and they have had an important role in shaping them. Both of them explained that one of the younger technicians’ strengths is an ability to understand technology and incorporate it into their lives with ease. The younger technicians have grown up with laptops, video games, and smartphones, and they enjoy interfacing with technology. This has been evident in some companies that move from paper processes to digital workflows — the younger employees tend to change and adapt to this faster.
“The trick will be to make sure that they have also developed — or we need to help them develop — interpersonal skills because people still like dealing with people,” said Welsch. Customers notice the difference between a kind service technician who will take the time to explain the problem and a technician who will just repair the equipment and leave with as few words possible.
“Many of the people who easily associate with the technology side are lacking in interpersonal skills,” said Simmons. “It’s not uncommon to see contractors that ‘get it’ hire for ‘soft or human interaction’ skills and train on the ‘hard, technology’ skills.” He added that many younger people can be more easily guided, as they are looking for purpose to their efforts.
“I believe they have a great work ethic — if that’s their desire,” Simmons added. “If we can learn to funnel the incredible energy and desire to make a difference by their efforts, we have an incredible pool of talent just waiting to be utilized. We as employers need to create the environment that allows that to flourish.”