In this episode, we talk with Ray Wohlfarth, commercial-heating expert and industry author. Ray’s Lessons Learned book series offers a common-sense approach to everything from servicing and installing commercial boilers to brewing with steam. Ray will give us advice for those starting in the industry, tips on commercial boiler replacements, and tell us what can kill a steam boiler (and how to avoid it!). He’ll also tell us about the haunted thermostat and what it means to spill your candy in the lobby. Listen, laugh, and learn some lessons right along with us.
Erin: Today I’m talking with Ray Wohlfarth, commercial-heating expert and industry author. Ray’s Lessons Learned book series offers a common-sense approach to everything from servicing and installing commercial boilers to brewing with steam. You can find them in our store at HeatingHelp.com. And you can learn more about Ray’s seminars at boilerlessons.com.
Thanks for joining us on the podcast today, Ray.
Ray: Hi Erin. I’m so excited. This is great.
Erin: We’re thrilled to have you. I’d love to hear more about how you got your start in the heating industry.
Ray: Well, I was planning on going to school to be a lawyer in high school. And right after high school, my dad was in a really bad auto wreck and could not work any more. So I had to go to work to earn money. My relative was in a trade union (the steamfitters) and said that this is a great opportunity because people are always going to need heat. So I said ok. I got involved and I loved it. I just love technical things. So I got to learn all about systems and specialized in the boiler end of it.
Erin: That’s great. Do you have any advice for new technicians who are just starting out?
Ray: What I would suggest is to learn how systems operate. Anybody can look at components, but there’s no better feeling than to go onto a job when there’s been three or four people there and you understand systems and are able to get the heat or air conditioning going. And it’s rare to find someone in the industry that really does know how the entire system works.
Erin: That’s an excellent point. And speaking of lessons, I’ve heard you say that when you’re replacing a commercial boiler, you should always assume that the existing boiler is installed incorrectly. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Ray: Well, I got kind of burned on a couple of different jobs. What I found out is that there’s an unwritten rule in our industry that if you replace the boiler, you own the entire system. So what I’ve found is that we were replacing some boilers and the rest of the system was not working at all. Well, after we replaced the boiler, we were getting all of these calls about things that had nothing to do with my boilers, but the people didn’t know who to call. And it was that whole adage that you hear: “The thing worked fine before you put that new boiler of yours in there!” So what I understood is that most of the systems, not through fault of the installers, but maybe through maintenance over the years when people have changed things around and then they don’t work the way they were supposed to work or the way they were designed. I’ve gotten burned so many times that I am really hesitant when I go onto a boiler replacement project now.
Erin: That makes sense. Do you have any other tips for commercial-boiler replacement jobs?
Ray: What I like to do is talk to the building owner. A lot of times we get a call and we’re dealing with a mechanical engineer, but I also like to talk with the person who is maintaining the boiler, whether it’s a custodian or a maintenance person. I like to ask them a lot of questions and again, where I assume there are issues with the boiler, I’ll ask them what areas are the most problematic for them. And, sure enough, they’re going to say, “Oh, we can never get heat in this office” or “This office is always roasting hot and we have to keep the windows open.” So if you’re talking with those people that deal with this on a regular basis, they’re going to kind of give you some heads up and places to look where you can find the problems and hopefully resolve them with your new boiler system.
Erin: Now in your book, Brewing with Steam, you mention that a commercial steam boiler is designed to last 20-30 years, but you’ve seen boilers destroyed in less than a year, which is astonishing. What can kill a boiler like that?
Ray: Well, if it’s a steam boiler, most of it is water treatment. The first thing, the water is really not as good as it used to be. On that particular job I was talking about in my book, the boiler was there just over one heating season and the tubes started to leak. The Director of Maintenance was a very good friend of mine and he was put into a bind because the President of the University and the CFO were upset because they just bought this boiler and it was leaking already. They blamed him and they blamed me.
We got one of the boiler tubes replaced and we sent it out to be evaluated. We found out it was chlorine that had done it.
And do you remember a couple of years ago in West Virginia when they had that chemical spill into their domestic water and everybody was sick? There were counties that had to be evacuated because of this chemical that got in there. And what they did was add large doses of chlorine into the water to kill whatever was leftover and the residue. And this chlorine just killed this boiler. I paid out of my own pocket to have this test done. It vindicated us and the owner, but what we see is that steam boilers are just not being maintained and there are water-treatment issues.
Another time an installer friend of mine called me for help. There was a boiler that they had put in just a year ago and within a year the low-water cutoff had filled with mud and the boiler dry fired. And they destroyed a boiler within a year because they didn’t do maintenance.
So between the maintenance and the water treatment, I think that’s what really puts the dagger into the life of a steam boiler.
Erin: Those are really good points, Ray. Never a dull moment in this industry, right?
Ray: Haha! No, I love it.
Erin: One of the many reasons why I love reading your monthly newsletter is because you share some great on-the-job stories, like you just did right now. And to our listeners, if you’re interested in receiving Ray’s newsletter, you can sign up at boilerlessons.com.
One of the stories you told last month, Ray, was about the haunted thermostat. I loved it. Can you share that one with our listeners?
Ray: Sure. We put steam boilers into an old, old school that became a rehabilitation hospital. And, right after the boilers were in there, I got a call from the customer saying the boilers were going off at night, around 11 o’clock every night and then at 6 o’clock in the morning they were coming back on. And we went crazy. We went through that whole building trying to figure out what it was. We thought, well perhaps they were on a light with an outdoor timer. And the maintenance person, every time we’d come he’d say, “Oh, this place is haunted. This place is haunted!” And when we couldn’t figure out what was going on, he’d say, “Oh it’s that ghost again.” And we’d say, “There’s no such thing as a ghost.” And he’d say, “Oh yes, Ray. There’s a ghost.”
So I put a data logger on there that monitors temperatures every 15 minutes. And, sure enough, after a week at 11 o’clock the temperatures would just start to come down and at 6 o’clock it would come up. And we thought, “What the heck is going on?”
Well, it was a locking thermostat cover, so we changed it to a new one and the problems went away. As it turned out, one of the people in the hospital for rehab was a heating and air-conditioning technician and he had a key for the thermostat. And he liked to sleep with the temperature cool at night so he’d turned it down to 60 degrees at night and, before anybody woke up, he’d turn it back up to 72. And we could not figure it out until we changed that locking box cover.
Erin: Now when you changed the cover, did he say, “Oh, that was me. Can I have a new key?”
Ray: Well, on his way out the door. He confessed and said, “That was me that was turning it down the whole time. When I’m in rehab I can’t sleep when it’s warm.” So I laugh a lot about it now, but it caused me a lot of headaches and gray hairs back then.
Erin: So he could sleep, but you couldn’t!
Ray: Right. Exactly.
Erin: Ray, you wrote a book called Lessons Learned: Selling HVAC Service. In it, you say “Don’t spill your candy in the lobby.” What does that mean?
Ray: Well, when I first got into the trade, I was a steamfitter and I worked for a control company and then I was involved in a really bad auto accident on the way home from work and I couldn’t do the work any more. So a friend of mine who was a contractor hired me on as a salesperson.
Well, one of the jobs I went to, I was talking with the building owner and I said to him, “I think I can solve your problem.” And he said, “Well how exactly would you do that?” And I told him and he said, “Would you mind showing me a little bit of a drawing so I can show it to my boss? And we’ll get your company to do the work.” So I thought, great, I’m able to solve his problem. And I went back to the office and told my boss, “Well, we’re going to get this job. I know it.”
About three days later, I get a request for bid to do exactly what I had put on this drawing that I’d made for this guy. He cropped my name off the paper and made it like it was his own. And we bid on the job and we did not get it.
Then the person had the nerve to call me and say, “That didn’t work. You need to come back here and figure out what’s going on.” And, needless to say, I was furious. I went back and told my boss and he handed me a cup of coffee and he said, “Well, you spilled your coffee in the lobby.” And I said, “What the heck does that mean?” And he said, “That means that you gave away all of your tricks before you got paid for them. What you have to do is assure the people you can fix it, but don’t tell them how you’re going to do it until they agree to your terms.” So that was a lesson learned and I got burned a little bit, but it never happened to me again.
Erin: So no more spilling candy?
Erin: Well that’s excellent advice. Thanks for chatting with me today, Ray. We really appreciate it.
Ray: I enjoyed it and I love what you’re doing with the website.
Erin: Thank you. And if our listeners are interested in reading Ray Wohlfarth’s books, you can find them in our store at HeatingHelp.com. Ray also teaches seminars and you can find more information about them at boilerlessons.com.
Thanks for listening! Stay tuned for our next episode about putting an end to water hammer once and for all.