Bryan gives an in-depth guide to dealing with compressors that won’t run diagnosis.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS GENERALIZATIONS. IT DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE AND WE HAVE ALL PROBABLY BEEN ALL OF THESE AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER. IF YOU FEEL PERSONALLY ATTACKED MAY I SUGGEST FINDING A SAFE SPACE AT A WEST COAST UNIVERSITY AND BORROWING A BINKY FROM A NEARBY TODDLER. ALSO… MY CAPS LOCK BUTTON IS STUCK.
It was my first few weeks out of tech school and I had already ridden with several guys. Some good, some not as good but today was the first time with this tech and something was already different. We were driving to our first call of the day and between dirty jokes and puffs on a cigarette.
“OK, let’s guess what’s wrong with this next one… they are all Lennox in this subdivision… so I’m betting…. a TXV”
That was my first exposure to the “Been there, seen that” tech, that relies on calibrated guesswork as a primary diagnosis tool. Along the way I’ve met many more of these and other types of techs in the “Diagnosis Pyramid” and so… I will share them with you now.
I confess I stole this pyramid idea from “Grahams Hierarchy of Disagreement” which is also one of my favorites… maybe I just like pyramids, my grandmother was an ancient alien so there’s that.
I literally just made a podcast where I said we should stop calling people hacks. So I guess I’m a hypocrite, but hack is much easier to say than “tradesperson of dubious skills, training or intellect” so hack will need to suffice here.
Many hacks think they know what they doing because they suffer from a heavy dose of Dunning-Krueger effect and are standing firmly on Mt. Stupid as shown here.
The good news is that many confident people start here and this is not a life sentence to stay stranded on Mt. stupid. I have done complete hack jobs in my career, thinking I had enough skill, knowledge and experience only to realize later that I was a bumbling goon. The hack has to travel through the valley of despair to reach the slope of enlightenment where they can become a real tech.
Strength = Ignorance is Bliss
Fatal Flaw = They Are Terrible at Working on HVAC/R
Let’s start by focusing on the good things about a white shirt:
Truth is that many good techs could learn a thing or three about positive communication and people skills from a white shirt, but that is where my positive comments end.
The trouble with white shirts advancing beyond that stage is they have no incentive to do so. They don’t need to get dirty, they make lots of money and they look dang good doing it.
These are just salespeople and the more they learn technically, the more complicated it can be to sell systems so why bother?
Strength = Making Money & Looking good
Fatal Flaw = Greed
There are two types of parts changers, the one who does it to make more money and the one who does it because he thinks that’s what diagnosis is.
In flat rate environments that pay bid time or commission on parts there are techs who catch on quick that certain repairs are money makers so they look EXTRA HARD for those repairs on every job. It isn’t to say they are purposefully looking to pad a ticket but they become fixated on certain things that bring in the most money to them.
The other parts changer is often an inexperienced or under-trained tech who throws a bunch of parts at a problem and honestly thinks that’s how you fix problems.
I knew one tech that would replace the control wire and transformer every time he a low voltage fuse blowing that he couldn’t figure out. He didn’t do it because it benefitted him in any way, he just didn’t know how to troubleshoot.
Strength = They Eventually Get The System Running (Mostly)
Fatal Flaw = It Costs a Lot and Often Requires Multiple Trips
Been There Tech
The been there tech is common in all industries and is especially in techs who have done the job 10+ years. When you start out as a hack or a parts changer it’s often easier to end up relying on what you’ve seen before than it is to go back to the start and really understand the fundamentals of how things work.
It can be a big ego hit for a been there tech to admit what they don’t understand so they often form complex legends to explain why things happen the way they do.
Been there techs will often talk about “weird problems” and will concoct strange solutions to problems such as drilling holes places you are pretty sure they shouldn’t or wiring this or that to that other thing or bypassing that one part because “it’s not really needed”.
The been there tech should do more manual reading and less storytelling and they will find the myths and legends begin to look more like science.
Strength = They Often Have a Lot of Valuable Experiential Knowledge
Fatal Flaw = What They Know Only Applies to What They’ve Actually Worked On. New Technology is Often Confounding.
The final four techs are all truly techs and they have more in common then they have that separate them. The majority of the techs you meet that can actually repair most problems on most machines are average techs.
An average tech generally knows how the system works, can use a gauge manifold and a meter and can figure out the location of a leak or a low voltage short.
Their focus is on diagnosing the primary problem, fixing it and getting out of there as quickly as possible. They don’t do much with superheat or subcool though they know how to calculate it, they don’t use a micron gauge though they know the “right” answer is 500 microns and they don’t really care to learn much more.
Strength = They Can Consistently Make Stuff Blow Cold and Hot
Fatal Flaw = Callbacks are Pretty Common When “More Stuff Breaks”
A real senior tech has all the find and fix skills of an average tech but with extra insight as to the “why” behind a failure. Yes the TXV is restricted but WHY wasn’t the factory drier replaced with a new one when that compressor was replaced 6 months ago?
A senior tech knows how a compressor works and what makes it fail, knows how to check combustion on a furnace and what is causing the rising CO and can spot a leaking flare fitting from a mile away.
The thing that keeps a senior tech from becoming a Supertech is the vision of more than one layer beyond the NOW cause to all of the contributing factors that are often outside of the equipment itself.
Issues like high a low humidity, sweating ducts, occupant discomfort, coils that keep leaking over and over, consistent compressor failures when all the readings look “fine”.
When issues start to spread outside of the equipment into the electrical system, indoor air, envelope, ducts and design a senior tech can find themselves frustrated.
Strength = Excellent Diagnosticians
Fatal Flaw = Appliance Fixation
The term “Supertech” is often used as a pejorative to mean an experienced tech who thinks they know it all. These types of Supertech are often actually “been there” techs who like to talk on social media.
No, here I’m saying supertech as in a tech that can really fix just about anything with enough time alloted. They are nerdy enough to fill any knowledge gaps they may have about an issue before they call it good. They diagnose the entire structure and notice all of the contributing factors to problems. You can throw this sort of tech at almost any problem…. however…
They still are all about solving problems and can miss opportunities to optimize performance.
Strength = They Can Fix Anything
Challenge = They Aren’t Always That Profitable
Ok… I’m stretching here, but let’s face it… this whole thing is a bit of a stretch.
In order for a really good tech to also optimize profitability, they need to look outside of what is wrong in need of fixing and what can be improved for optimal
Doing this really well is a heck of a lot more than just selling a UV light or PCO like many white shirts do, it’s about really understanding how to tune a building and equipment to work better.
This is things like dropping the compression ratio on a rack by letting the head float a little lower, or recommending that can lights be replaced with sealed led trim to reduce attic infiltration.
There are many high-value solutions that HVAC/R techs can help to suggest and implement that lead to a profitable business and happy customers.
Strength = Living Happily Ever After
Fatal Flaw = Too Much Money that They Must Build a Tower Like Scrooge McDuck to House (Ok, more like pride in their work and good nights sleep…. leave the gold tower to the white shirts)
Jesse Grandbois is one of the techs who reads the tech tips wrote a few tips that he wanted to share on some gas furnace control basics. This tip is about how to use a fancy digital stat on a millivolt system
For those of you who don’t know, a millivolt system uses a thermocouple / thermopile with a standing (constant) pilot flame to generate a tiny “millivolt” signal that is used to control the furnace rather than the 24v signal modern thermostats use.
On a call for heat the relay coil will be powered closing the SPST relay powering the millivolt system (NO terminals) for heat.
There’s a moral to this story though it is a bit more of a cautionary tale than most I write. While it doesn’t rank with the story of three wise men or even Frank Capra’s Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life”. You may find some common threads with both learning wisdom and remembering why throwing ourselves off a bridge isn’t the best choice like George Bailey considered doing.
The year was 2007 or maybe 2008 and it was most certainly Christmas Eve.
We are close geographically and relationally to both my wife’s family (The Claerbouts) and my family (The Orrs) and due to this we always spend Christmas eve with one side and Christmas Day with the other.
Luckily, while Florida Summers can drive an A/C tech insane, the winter and especially the holidays, tend to be quite slow. For me as a new business owner and one of the only techs at Kalos that meant that generally speaking, Christmas was a welcomed rest from a crazy year with seemingly endless hours.
As we were preparing the kids to head out to Leilani’s parents my phone rings (My cell phone WAS the emergency line).
The caller was a notoriously…. challenging… customer with many vacation homes under management. I gritted my teeth, swore inside and answered as nicely as I could.
“Brrryyyyan” the customer exclaimed, he always had a way of stretchhhhing out my name in a way that exuded disappointment and condescension.
“We have guests arriving and the POOL IS COLD… You JUSSSSSTTTT serviced that pool heater last month and now it’s NOT WORKING”
I need to step back a bit and clarify that we work on a LOT of pool heaters in the winter. Both gas and heat pump pool heating is used to keep pools over 80 degrees so that people from cold climates can vacation at Disney and swim in sauna-like temperatures even when it’s 40 outside.
It’s nice winter work for us… and I shouldn’t complain… but ever since we started doing it the term “emergency” has come to include 57-year-old, very white grandmas from Buffalo who need to take a swim after their day at Disney World and GASP! the pool is 73 degrees! Somebody better dial 911!
On this particular Christmas eve, this particular pool heater happened to be on the very far side of town, on the other side of Disney over an hour away from where I live.
Good grief! said I as I hung up the phone, looking and sounding like Charlie Brown.
So I hopped in the van and drove to the offending pool heater.
When I hopped out of the van I found the very best thing an A/C tech can find when they are in a hurry.
So I call the customer, quote the capacitor to which they respond (as they always do) “Bryyyyyyannnn, you were Jusssstttt out there… that seems like a bit much don’t you think’
Keep in mind, this customer is also British so every word carries the weight and gravitas of Queen Elizabeth during a knighting ceremony.
Yes, that is the price
No, I didn’t cause it
Yes, I can do it now
Yes, I will leave the pool heater on
I slap that sucker in, fire it up, check amps, grab the suction line it’s cold, touch the discharge line, it’s hot, check the pool timer, look at the pool valve positions … all is well as far as I’m gonna check today and I’m OUT OF THERE!
It is now approaching noon and I’m almost home and….
bzzzzt… bzzzzt… bzzzzzzzzzzzzt
Because I’m by myself with no wife and kids I curse out loud with all the words a Christian homeschooler can think of “Poppycock and Fiddlesticks” I exclaim…
“Brrrrrrryyyyannn, the pool is SHTILLLLLLL COLLLLDDD” shrieked Sean Connery’s twin on the other end of the line in an agitated baritone.
The pool is still cold? Yes…. of course, the pool is still cold. It will take DAYS for a full-sized pool to heat up to 80+ degrees with a heat pump heater… I know this, they know this… everyone who knows anything about pools knows this.
I explain this to my dear, sweet, favorite customer in a squeaky, pre-pubescent voice and reassure them that the pool will eventually heat up but that it will take half a millennium AS PER THE USUAL, not one hour, which is all it had been since I left.
“BRYYYYYANNNNNN!!!!” the customer howled with a voice between that of Lord Voldemort and a hungry werewolf, “It is one thing for you to continue to rip us off with all these failed capacitors but quite ANOTHER for you to make excuses for a pool heater that IS NOT FIXED, you must GO BACK.”
This is the moment that this article is about…. The moment of truth and choice that separates the wise leaders, managers and techs from the reactive.
I took a breath.
And I told the customer
“I value your business, I’m as certain as I can be that the heater is working as expected and it will take at least 24 hrs if not several days for that pool to reach temperature, If it isn’t warm in two days, give me a call… otherwise have a very merry Christmas.”
That’s what I should have done. What I did instead was to pull over my van too fast in preparation to turn around and hit an enormous piece of tire retread on the side of the road.
Just like ralphie, I shouted OHHH FUUUUUUDDDGEEEE on the phone.
Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!
The customer hung up on me and I was sitting on the side of the road with a big, black rubber road rash on my van and the metaphorical taste of soap in my mouth where the ghost of my mother past washed the dirty word out.
So I went back to the pool heater…
There was nothing wrong
I explained everything to the customer and apologized for freaking out.
It turned out fine
But the lesson of the story for us in the trade is that we need to be prepared for customers to be unrealistic, demanding and rude. It comes with the territory and who knows what they are going through that is contributing to their behavior.
All I needed to do was to be better emotionally prepared with what I am and am not willing to do, not with emotion, but as a clear business decision.
Many of our jobs in the field include being on-call and many customers will have a different definition of what’s an emergency and what isn’t. We are best off being friendly, clear and saying no sometimes in a polite, professional tone.
Merry Christmas and may your on-call be easy and your customers friendly