Contractors, unlike lawyers, doctors, and engineers, don’t go to school to do what they do. They usually benefit from a sort of apprenticeship, learning on the job and watching how their boss makes it through the day.

The ingenuity of hvac contractors is demonstrated every year at the “I’ve Got an Idea” session at the annual convention of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).

Here, as they have for the past 10 years, members stand up and tell their colleagues how they solved a problem, or turned a challenge into an opportunity. Most times these are not big things — just ideas that percolate upwards from the daily operations of a business.

The range of subjects is impressive, from marketing and customer relations to efficiencies that go right to the bottom line. A common denominator is using resources at hand — building inspectors, new utility gas lines, even church bulletins to advertise.

Want to enhance your sales of high-efficiency, high-margin equipment? Ryan McLean of Shafer Services in San Antonio, TX, has tapped into EPA’s Energy Star program. He’s outfitted his staff with laptops that have the details of this financing program that give the homeowner payback periods, many of which are faster and more lucrative than investing in the stock market.

In Baltimore MD, Jerry Lazarus, Guardian Mechanical Services, got the green light from the state government to put a “vanity logo” — that of ACCA — on the license plates for his trucks and cars. This identifies the vehicle with the association’s quality-member status.

Catherine Smith down at Tempo Mechanical in Carrollton, TX, solidified the contractor’s relationship with a key supplier by leasing out half of their space to the vendor. At the very least, this guarantees no problems with drop-shipping or the daily interaction of service techs waiting at distributors’ counters.

Next door in Fort Worth, Larry Taylor, Air Rite Air Conditioning, developed a “How’d We Do?” customer survey system that has a return rate up to 70%. This is an invaluable feedback since contractors know that the consumer referrals may garner 10 new customers, but a sour job can cost them 100.

Got a problem with employee morale? One Oklahoma contractor serves lunch to his techs and office staff every day — hotdogs, French fries, cola — free. The outlay is minimal, the staff saves money, and the family atmosphere is strong. (Don’t tell the taxman about this one.)

A laptop computer, specialized license plate, rental agreement, and survey form — these are not earthshaking things, but they help four contractors stay afloat for another month in a market that is increasingly shark-infested.