The MainRiver (and the Germans pronounce that “Mine”) cuts the business city of Frankfurt in half, leaving the skyscrapers (some of which have radiant-cooling systems) on one side, and the museums and winding streets on the other. I’ve been walking along the Mine since 1991 and have come to know the area well enough so that when I go into a particular bar in the old section of Römer, the barmaid and some of the guys on the stools know my name. For me, it’s Cheers, but with much better beer.
I was in Frankfurt last month for the ISH fair. It was my tenth visit to the world’s largest heating show, and it never disappoints. Once again, it was as large as the Fourth of July, and just as spectacular. The Viessmann booth, which I thought the Best of Show, was a total sensory experience. They had a corner space this time and it was about the size of a football field. They were using the long wall as the screen for a series of enormous projectors that were constantly changing the images, some of which appeared to be 3-D. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and I can’t begin to imagine what this must have cost. Within the booth, there was soft lighting and deepbass lines of music, such as you’d hear in a spa. It put me into this calm, contemplative space, which is what, I’m sure, the Viessmann people intended. And they organized their enormous space according to the interests of the visitor. Oil over here; gas over there; biomass in this corner, and so on. It was a catalog come to life. They had a restaurant in the booth, of course. It wouldn’t be ISH without the beer and the sausages. What recession?
When I first visited the ISH in ’91 and ’93, I came back and wrote about how our entire American world of heating was about to change, and how these folks in Europe were so far ahead of us. I was enthralled. I sat back and waited for the instant change, but not much happened right away.
I went back to the ISH in ’95 and returned, saying the same thing, and I waited. Not much happened. In ’97, I started to approach the show in a different way. I figured out how to learn a lot in a short time by talking to the right people. Then I spent less time at the show, and a lot more time wandering the city of Frankfurt, and the cities near Frankfurt. I also began to travel to other countries in Europe, and as I rode the rails and the busses, and as I moped through the winding streets of the neighborhoods, I watched everything, and I talked to the locals. Some speak English; others don’t. That was okay. I get by because I’m a friendly guy, and I’m interested in them. People respond to that.
You have to walk away from that show because it’s blinding. You have to get out into the streets and see what’s going on. You have to find the balance point between what’s possible and what’s actually happening right now. And that’s why they know my name in that bar. I ask good questions, and I listen to the answers.
March 14 was a Saturday and I was wandering along the museum side of the MainRiver, where the locals have this big flea market on the street. They do this every Saturday and I’ve wandered it a bunch of times over the years. Most of the vendors just lay their wares right on the street, and here you’ll find junk and a few treasures. It’s a big human stew, thick with people, and everyone was looking for bargains. We moved as if all our legs were chained together. It reminded me of the show. I came upon a guy selling Grohe faucets. He had hundreds of them. Another guy had chrome-plated pipes for every sink in the world. A third guy had used circulators. It went on like that for about a half-mile. It was every bit as crowded as the ISH, and everyone here was ordinary.
I looked under lampshades in all the rooms I entered that week. In seven days, I didn’t see one compact florescent light. That surprised me, because for years, the escalators of Europe haven’t been running unless someone steps onto them. And in some hotels, the lights don’t come on until you enter the room, but on this trip, I saw not one energy-saving light bulb. You getting this, Walmart?
There was an enormous amount of solar at the show, both photovoltaic and solar thermal. I marveled at it all, and I thought about where all of this wonderful technology is taking us. I thought about this as I rode the train from Wiesbaden, a lovely city about an hour west of Frankfurt, where I was staying. You can take the S1, the S8, or the S9 train between those two cities and each runs a different route. I took all three during that week and I watched out the window mile after mile. I was looking at the roofs of the homes and the commercial buildings. There were very few solar panels on those roofs. Had I spent all my time at the show, I would be now be writing to you that everyone inEurope is now using solar. The show blinds you in that way.
The radiators at the ISH come in all shapes and sizes and they all make me smile. Some stream across the walls, like rainbows; others morph into the utility of furniture, while still others masquerade as metal animals, or stair rails, or room dividers. They’re all whimsical and wonderful and they’re everywhere at the ISH.
In the bar, there’s a plain panel radiator. It has an old thermostatic radiator valve that’s seen better days, and rusting pipes, coming and going. I saw that radiator’s relatives in the restaurants, the stores, the hotels, the train stations, just about everywhere outside of the ISH.
Thing is, you have to go to the ISH, and then you have to walk away from it if you’re to understand it all.
Flying home for eight hours, I had much time to think about. It occurs to me that there will long be a need in this business for the ordinary things, the things that the ordinary people use. In Europe, there are laws that are much stricter than the laws we have in the U.S., and these laws push people toward greenness and conservation. But the people move slowly in that direction, and they don’t like to be pushed. They’re just like us in that way, so there’s going to be a market for the ordinary things, the things we’ve grown used to over the years, for some years to come. You have to get away from that show to see this.
On my first trip to the ISH in ’91, I traveled with two friends and we rented a car and laughed like boys at the funny Germany signs that were everywhere. Our favorites were Einfahrt! and Ausfahrt! All sorts of fahrts! We laughed like schoolboys at that, and we marveled at everything we saw.
Einfahrt, loosely translated, means “enter,” and ausfahrt means “leave,” You’ll see these signs on all the on-ramps and the off-ramps of Germany. To truly understand what is going on at the ISH, you have to take both of those ramps, but ultimately, all roads lead to ausfahrt, and that is where you’ll find the ordinary things, and the ordinary people, both of which will be with us for some time to come.