Introducing Dan Holohan
“Kid," my father said to me when I was a rudderless, head-scratching 20-year-old. “You ought to get into the heating business.” His reasoning? "People are always gonna need heat."
"Especially when it gets cold!"
I don't know, maybe it was something in the way he slowly nodded his head with such determined finality that convinced me. After all, it does get cold here in New York.
Especially in the winter.
And besides, Dad had knocked around the heating business (primarily the wholesaler end of it) ever since he'd come home from the War. "You'll always make a living in the heating business," he said. "Nobody ever leaves this business, they just move around. It gets into your blood; we're all lifers. Besides, you got heating genes, kid. I'm in the business and your grandfather shoveled coal for New York City. Believe me, it's in the genes."
Well that made a lot of sense, so I went to work for him.
At the time, he was managing the copper-fitting department at Wallace Eannace Associates, a New York/New field Jersey-based manufacturers rep. He put me on as his clerk.
The first morning was fine, but I'll tell you something, if you’ve never had your dad as your boss, you’ve never known how tough a boss can be. You see, he didn’t own this company. And he certainly didn’t want anyone to think I was getting special treatment. Which made for some interesting days.
"You're as dumb as a stone, you know that?" he'd say with a glare whenever I screwed up. (My father could curdle milk with a glare.) "I've seen some dopey people in this business, but that little move of yours just redefined 'DOPEY' as far as I'm concerned."
Gosh, I hated it! Sure, I deserved the criticism, but no 20-year-old likes to take what he perceives to be crap. Even if he deserves it. (Especially when he deserves it!) So I'd grumble to myself and read the want ads at lunch time.
But then as we drove home together he'd always say the right thing.
"So how's that son-of-a-bitch boss treating you, kid? It ain't easy, making a living, is it?" And then he'd smile. Dad was back.
You see, this was basic training. He knew it. I figured it out. And somehow we both survived it. And as time went by, another thing happened - we got a lot closer.
Today I feel sorry for any 20-year-old who doesn't get the chance to work with his dad. I got to work with Ed Holohan for 15 years until he went off to a feisty retirement. I got to know him as a man. He became, and remains, my best friend. He's the main reason I'm talking to you right now.
Wallace Eannace Associates is the other reason. They were in the businessof selling heating equipment, but they took a novel approach in how they sold it. They figured that if they bent over backwards to help people with their problems, well, then those people would do the right thing and buy their gear. For the most part, they have been right. And they've been successful.
Back in 1973, they told me to take my fresh-scrubbed face out into the world and be helpful. "You're going to be a problem solver. You're going to make the world safer for plumbing and heating. Now get to work."
I quickly learned that, before I could help anyone, I had to figure out what I was doing. I did have an advantage, though. I was young. And there weren't many young people in the business at the time. Most of them were either in school or in the service. It's sad to say, but the heating business didn't look too glamorous back in those pre-energy-crisis years. In 1972, when someone my age said, "Go with the flow," he wasn't talking about hydronics.
Living Legends: So there I was, a young kid, knocking on doors, smiling a dopey smile and offering help. It didn't take me long to realize that the men answering those knocks were a lot older than I was. And a lot more experienced. I found myself doing more listening than talking. "Which,” as my father gleefully would say, "was why God gave you two ears instead of two mouths."
There weren't many kids in the industry in the early '70s. And that, I believe, changed everything. I've come to believe that our industry lost a generation during the Viet Nam era. Very few young people were entering our industry in the early '70s. And most of the old-timers were leaving. The heating industry was like a great university with many professors, but few students.
My dad often tells me about Dan Falk and Jimmy Borne, two great heating men who worked for Glauber Inc., a once-upon-a-time New York wholesaler. "These two guys did it all,” he said. "A plumber could drop a sketch of a building on their desks and in a few hours he'd get back a list of material and a drawing of how everything went together. If there was a problem, he could call and get a straight answer - in plain English. There wasn't a thing these guys couldn't do."
Well, Dan and Jimmy are gone now. They went quietly into the night without having the chance to teach anyone what they knew. There was no one to teach. What a waste!
And it wasn't just happening in New York City. There were dozens of Dan Falks and Jimmy Barnes sharing their wisdom in wholesalers' offices across America. They're all gone now. It's a shame.
But then came the Energy Crisis and heating suddenly became glamorous as young people began to rediscover the industry. But this new crew fell in love with the new stuff, stuff that could save you 30%, 40%, 50% of your fuel bills. (Remember how we all started to wonder if someday we'd all be getting monthly rebate checks from the fuel company? Remember the stack damper?)
Everyone was into the new stuff. But no one seemed interested in the old stuff, the stuff the old-timers knew about. The stuff that comprised the greatest portion of the business. No one seemed interested in systems. Everyone was falling in love with components. Gadgets.
Take steam heating, for instance. It's always fascinated me because we have so much of it here in the Northeast. Hardly anyone installs it from scratch nowadays, but there's still plenty of scratching going on - head scratching. There are millions of steam systems out there.
"The only people who know anything about steam heat are dead,” one fella said to me recently as he stared at this ominous cast-iron shape perched in the rafters of a turn-of-the-century boiler room. "They're all dead...like that thing should be." He pointed at "that thing" and shivered.
As troubleshooters, we began to approach steam with a healthy philosophical attitude: If you don't know what it is, back slowly out of the boiler room before you wake it up!
But my problem was I was being paid to be helpful. There were just so many places I could back out of. Sooner or later, I had to figure out what those dark shapes were.
Hot And Torrid Passions: And that's when I got hooked. Desperate for answers, I discovered the New York Public Library and its Science and Technology wing. I discovered the old books. And I fell hopelessly in love with them - with the way they smelled, with the dust that rose from their ancient pages, with their easy-to-understand pen-and-ink drawings.
It sounds nuts but I fell in love with steam heating. Those books became my pornography. I couldn't get enough of them. And I'll tell you something, when you fall in love with something the way I fell in love with steam heating, you want everyone to know about it. Little by little, I began to be able to solve problems that drove other people crazy. It was as though those dead peopIe who'd written those wonderful old books were coming along with me on those problem jobs. They told me what to do in a way I could understand.
You see, one of the great things about those old books was that their authors wrote in plain English. There wasn't any of the technical mumbo-jumbo you find nowadays.
But it doesn't have to be that way. This stuff has a simple beauty to it, once you strip away the hocus-pocus. It doesn't have to be complicated.
For me, one thing just led to another. It wasn't long before I fell in love with hot-water heating as well. I learned that hot water was even older than steam. Hot water heat has been around for 5,000 years!
Here we had a means of heating that was easy to love because it was so very forgiving. Steam wasn't forgiving at all. But it was honest. If something wasn't just so, a steam system let you know right away. That's for sure!
But for all its forgiving nature, hot water is sneaky. There are things you can't see in hot water heating, things like flow rates and pressure drops, heat transfer rates and points in the system where the pump's pressure can never change. Weird things.
These are things the engineers know, but the men in the field have no idea (probably because of the way the engineers speak!). I've worked with guys who were convinced they had air problems but weren't able to solve them with air vents or air scoops. That's because they didn't have air problems; it just seemed that way. What they had were balancing problems. Hot water is sneaky.
I've spent time with guys who couldn't get houses hot because they thought pumps "pulled and pushed." I tried to convince them that pumps neither push nor pull. They circulate. In fact, they're not even pumps; they're circulators.
Oh, hot water is sneaky all right! But everybody thinks he knows everything there is to know about it. I learned that right away when I started to run seminars. Guys would come to my steam seminar and expect to hear new things because steam is, after all, more art than science. But then the same guys would come to a hot water seminar and think there wasn't a thing I could teach them. Hot water? There was nothing to it.
And that's when I'd show them the invisible stuff. They'd walk out of there laughing and shaking their heads. And they'd save a lot of time and money on their next job.
A Real Detective: In 1984 I wrote a little book called The Steam Book, A Primer for the Non-Engineer Installer. It was published under the ITT Fluid Handling Division's banner and went through three printings. I like to think this book made some lives easier, but looking back, there are about a thousand more things I wish I had included in that book. Unfortunately, I didn't know those things at the time. Steam's like that. There's a new surprise, a new discovery, down every basement. You're never quite finished learning.
As time went by, I began to troubleshoot more and more. You see, with the old-time heating men gone from the wholesalers, many of the manufacturers reps began to dabble in problem solving. (Wallace Eannace was specializing in it.) I took the tips and shortcuts I was being taught by dozens of heating men in hundreds of basements and passed them on to others. Together, we solved problems and made things work.
I was in the wonderful position of seeing nothing but defects. I had an advantage. Everything I looked at was bad. No one ever called me up to look at a job that was working. Everything I saw was screwed up.
After awhile, I saw a pattern to the bad stuff. Most guys were making the same mistakes. They were doing things without thinking about them enough. They were doing things the way some old-timer taught them. You know how it is in this business. You learn everything from some old-timer. He doesn't teach you everything he knows, only something you know. You listen because he's the old-timer.
But suppose he's wrong? Suppose he didn't get his facts straight. Suppose he teaches you something that's not quite true. What happens then?
I've come to believe that if you were to trace things back to the beginning like Alex Haley did in his book, Roots, you'd find that all heating men were taught by the same old-timer.
This has to be so because we all seem to have the same misconceptions. Too many of us rush to solutions without understanding the problems. I've found that most heating men make up their minds about what's wrong before they even get to the job - and then they set about to prove that they're right. No matter how long it takes.
This is the sort of thing I try to work around at my seminars. I'm working on my own now as a trainer (a storyteller, really) and a consultant. Dad still thinks I have a lot to learn and he's right. You never finish learning in this business. But what I do know, I share.
I call my seminars "War Stories: Classic Battles With American Heating Systems." Maybe I'll meet you there one of these days.
In the meantime, I've been invited to spend some time with you each month as PM's new hydronics guy. I'm looking forward to it. There's a lot I want to tell you. Some of it involves steam, some of it involves hot water, some of it involves the special way troubleshooters look at the world. And most of it will have been said before...by dead guys.
You see, the books, well, they live forever.