by Christine Graf
“One of the recent changes in the industry is that it’s not all about spinning wrenches and getting greasy and dirty. There’s a lot of technical stuff that needs to be done within the trade,” said Dan Keating, president of BPI Mechanical in Waterford.
His company does HVAC work as well as installations of mechanical systems and equipment.
Jason McCormack, co-owner and operations manager of Simons Heating and Cooling in Queensbury, agreed that HVAC technology has been advancing at a rapid rate.
For example, today’s technicians rely heavily on their cell phones to troubleshoot an HVAC unit.
“You communicate directly with the unit via Bluetooth and troubleshoot the unit right off your phone,” said Keating. “At some point, you still have to get your tools out and make the repair, but these newer units make the troubleshooting a little bit easier although there is a lot to it on the electronic side.”
McCormack said HVAC cell phone technology can also be utilized by homeowners who purchase high-end heating or cooling units.
“Thermostats still exist on the wall,” said McCormack. “But you can operate your heat, your cool, your humidification, your dehumidification all through your phone. Now they are even geofencing your phone to the home so that if you leave the house, the system will automatically lower your heating or cooling temperature. And as you approach your house, it ramps back up.”
Industrial HVAC manufacturers have also introduced new controls that allow facility managers to make system adjustments from their phones or tablets.
“They can be on the other side of the world and see a temperature is too high or too low,” said Keating. “There have been a lot of advances on the control side. All new construction is going to this all digital control, and we can also retrofit old building with new controls.”
According to McCormack, “The equipment and its capabilities is vastly different than what it was five years ago and vastly different than what it was ten years ago.”
For example, he said high-end HVAC units alert both homeowners and HVAC service providers when units experience mechanical issues.
“We have systems that will literally send the trouble code to our office so we know exactly what’s wrong with a furnace before we even leave our property.”
The code gets emailed to the homeowner, as well as to Simons Heating and Cooling. As a result, technicians know what parts to bring with them when the homeowner calls for service.
“It’s wonderful, and it saves a lot in trip charges,” said McCormack.
According to Keating, many of his commercial and industrial customers are purchasing “super high-tech” variant refrigerant flow systems.
“You can take a particular building with 10 different spaces, and one outdoor air conditioning unit can accommodate 10 different temperatures within those space all at one time. They are wonderful machines and hugely efficient,” he said.
Manufacturers have also made great strides when it comes to the efficiency of residential HVAC units.
“The efficiencies on the equipment—it’s just incredible where it has gone,” said McCormack. “Yes, you pay more up front for a piece of equipment to heat or cool your home. But you have a much lower operating cost. Your utility costs are drastically reduced.”
He noted that HVAC units installed in new construction projects must meet air quality code requirements.
“It’s called fresh air makeup—you are dumping old air out of the house and bringing new air in. Houses these days are getting tighter and tighter which means that a home’s air can get stale and stagnant. Homes are getting mold and mildew because they just aren’t breathing. Now there’s equipment that’s coming into code with new construction. So you don’t have poor air quality in your living space.”
As innovations continue to occur in the HVAC industry, the need for qualified technicians will only increase. Keating hopes more young people will consider pursuing the field as a lifelong career.
Both McCormack and Keating say HVAC companies struggle to fill open positions.
BPI Mechanical, said his Waterford-based company struggles to fill open positions. BPI specializes in commercial and industrial HVAC service and installations.
BPI is unionized and employs members of the Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters Local 7 in Albany and Local 773 based in Glens Falls. Keating sits on the board of Local 773.
According to Keating, BPI draws many of their employees from Hudson Valley Community College’s HVAC program, which is one of the only programs in the area.
“We don’t see many of these programs locally, but Hudson Valley has a wonderful program. They really do a great job,” he said.
Some of BPI’s employees, including Keating’s 20-year-old son, are hired after completing a BOCES HVAC program at local high schools. After being hired, all employees must complete a rigorous five-year apprenticeship program that is offered through the union.
“The apprenticeship programs costs about $10,000 a year, per apprentice, and it’s all paid for by the contributions made to the union on behalf of all of the members who are working” said Keating. “These kids come out of these programs debt free. They are asked to sign an agreement that they will stay for a minimum of five years. It’s a great deal. My son is in his third year of the program, and he is making $32 an hour and is getting an additional $25 an hour in benefits. And he has zero college debt.”
“There’s definitely a shortage of willing manpower and a shortage of places that properly train people for this type of work,” he said.”Most companies right now, that are union, on any given day could easily put to work another six, eight, or 10 guys. And if we are looking for that many, the non-union side is looking for them as well. Most, if not all, of the service guys are working and they work year round.”
Simons Heating and Cooling is a non-union shop and the majority of the work they do is residential.
They use graduates of local high school BOCES programs, but it is hard for them to draw from Hudson Valley Community College. Most students in the school’s HVAC program live too far from Queensbury to make the commute manageable.
As a result, the business relies primarily on in-house training to develop a qualified workforce. They also send their employees to outside training programs, he said.
“Most of our hires start out as helpers,” said McCormack. “They may know nothing about the field, so we recruit them and train them on how we do things.”
The HVAC industry continues to be male dominated, but one of Simons’ 10 technicians is female. Prior to working at Simons, she worked for her father who had his own HVAC business. McCormack said he has never encountered a female student when recruiting from BOCES or Hudson Valley Community College.
On the union side, Keating said concerted efforts are being made to attract women to the profession.
“We have seen an increase in females in the last few years, and our union is pushing for more women … We have quotas that we are trying to fill, and we are doing everything we can,” said Keating.
“It’s a wonderful trade. It really is. For me, it has been an extremely satisfying career,” he said. “It’s a great career and you can make great money.”
by Christine Graf