Most contractors who attend the annual International Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigerating Exposition don’t usually think about attending meetings put on at the same time by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

Some may think that the meetings are only for engineers, and as contractors, they may be out of their element. Or, they might even think they’re not welcome there.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Contractors can learn quite a bit by participating in the more than 50 seminars that will be offered.

Little contractor participation?

Damon Gowan, president, Gowan Inc., Houston, TX, and also the first contractor to be president of ASHRAE in 1990-91, says that less than 5% of those participating in the annual meetings are contractors.

This is surprising, he says, because there’s a high level of participation by contractors at the chapter level.

The reason for that, he says, is that contractors are usually more concerned with the project management aspect of the business, not the technical side, which is what ASHRAE is known for.

“What you get at the chapter meeting is relationships with a lot of engineers you’re doing business with. So from a marketing side, ASHRAE offers the contractor a very good source to not only meet with and get to know engineers, but also to interact with the suppliers and vendors and get to know them better,” Gowan says. “It’s a very good place to network.”

But he notes that if a contractor is going to take time off work to attend the IAHR Expo, he should also be going to the meetings.

“If a boss spends some money for one of his employees to go to a conference, he wants him to come back with something. He wants him to have learned something or experienced something that’s going to be a benefit to the business.

“He’s going to ask, ‘Where is this going to take me if I’m going to have this guy go to an ASHRAE meeting?’ ” Gowan adds that the return on investment is tremendous, because the meetings allow contractors to grow their technical expertise, as well as market and network with their peers. That makes them extremely valuable to their companies.

In addition, there are many different experts at the meetings who are more than willing to share their knowledge with others.

“It’s the ‘free-est’ exchange of information that you could ever have. Everybody in ASHRAE is so willing to talk about and exchange their knowledge. New technology is discussed and tested and tried and proven through all those meetings.”

Elvis Johnson, project manager, TD Industries, North Dallas, TX, and current president of the North Texas Chapter of Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), says the meetings are essential.

“I absolutely believe that if our contractor members attend the show, they should attend absolutely every meeting or breakout session available. That’s where the information comes from.”

Johnson adds that some contractors may be too intimidated to go to the meetings but that they shouldn’t be, because everything the engineers do in this industry directly affects contractors.

“If the contractors are involved in the decision-making process with the engineers, then they need to stay up-to-date on what the engineers are doing and how they’re thinking on certain topics.

“Going to the meetings will help the contractor stay abreast of the industry and stay on the cutting edge.”

Changing roles should be enough

Contractors are definitely becoming more involved with the decision-making process these days, which is an even better reason why they should go to the meetings.

As Gowan notes, more and more of the larger contractors are becoming involved with engineering. “There’s more team building. Contractors are now very involved with how to build and what to do and what the costs are and very early budgeting, so that they can help control the least cost for the best value.

“It really becomes very important to have engineers on the contractor’s staff.”

Johnson says that design-build contractors now have their own engineers, and the engineers find themselves competing with the contractors. “It’s a much different atmosphere than it was five years ago.”

Gowan adds that ASHRAE itself is one of the reasons why contractors may not go to the meetings. “While ASHRAE has done a tremendous job for the hvacr industry, I don’t think we’ve done a good job of getting the word out to contractors.

“What we’ve done in ASHRAE now is to make a conscious effort to make more technical material available to everyone in the industry. Contractors need to really be aware of that material and be more aware that by participating in ASHRAE, their people will be more productive.”

Not being able to take time off of work to attend is no excuse either, says Gowan. He says that contractors who say they’re too busy to go are doing a poor job of planning their work.

“Going to the Winter Meeting is just an absolute necessity. I don’t see how a contractor can not go.”