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Bonus: Trethewey, Then and Now

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December 8, 2017

In 2007, Mechanical Business kicked off its inaugural edition with one of the most famous plumbers in the world, Richard Trethewey, the resident plumbing and heating expert on This Old House. For our 10th anniversary edition, we went back to Richard to see what’s changed, and what hasn’t. Here’s a bonus, behind-the-scenes look at the transcripts of both interviews. Enjoy!

In addition to his work on the television shows This Old House and Ask This Old House, not to mention other media, Richard is a licensed master and journeyman plumber in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

He had a traditional start in the trades, learning from his father and others involved in the family plumbing business, Trethewey Bros. Inc., and went on to start his own firm RST Inc., a manufacturer’s representative company that provides training to the skilled trades.

Richard Then

Oct/Nov 2007 Richard Trethewey Interview with Mechanical Business Editor Adam Freill

Here’s what he shared with Mechanical Business as the magazine launched its inaugural edition in 2007.

How long have you been involved in radiant heating?

I first saw the radiant renaissance when I went to Germany in 1986 for a trip I won with Honeywell Centra. The first radiant job I did was the same year, in my own kitchen that I was remodelling. We actually showed it on the This Old House project at the Weatherbee Farm in Westwood, Mass., where I also installed radiant. I was hooked.

How did you get into the hydronic heating sector?

A man named Joachim ”Joe” Fiedrich first convinced me to try radiant heat. He was importing tubing from Europe through his small company, Stadler. He combined a solid technical background with a convincing sales argument. I’m glad he did.

What is the most significant advance/change that you have experienced during your career in this industry?

The level of sophistication in residential heating appliances and heating systems is mind boggling. When I first got into this game, heat was a very hot boiler or an oversized furnace with bad ductwork. Consumers want and expect a higher level of comfort and efficiency these days.

What is the biggest challenge facing this industry?

It is a shortage of new talent entering the industry. All of us at This Old House have long lamented what has happened over the last 30 years or so. Vocational schools have been undersubscribed, underfunded and underappreciated. Every guidance counsellor is graded on his college placement, not his/her success in putting people into the proper career. Who will install, fix, adjust and build when the current generation is retired? The average age in the HVAC industry is something like 58 years old. That’s the average.

What can be done to address this challenge?

It’s a paradigm shift about what success is. Parents need to be proud to say, ”My kid installs heating and cooling systems,” or ”My kid delivers comfort and efficiency; he’s a PHD – plumbing, heating doctor!” I wonder if I’ll live long enough for this industry to get the respect that it deserves. We are magicians bringing comfort to the building, fresh air into the building, clean hot and cold water to the fixtures, and proper removal of sewage. We provide so much towards what is considered the North American way of life. Most people take it for granted.

How can this sector grow its market share?

Fuel costs will force consumers to look for more than a clock thermostat or a little more insulation. The HVAC contractor must be a comfort doctor understanding humidity, building science and true energy efficiency. We need to be more than just the guys cutting out the old box and putting in a new box. Who knows if the first box was the right size or installed correctly?

What are some of the emerging trends or technologies that contractors should be investigating?

Renewable energy has to be part of our future. We are running out of fossil fuels and need to make solar and geothermal a viable part of our offering. This requires specialized training that is more than a two-hour seminar at a trade show.

Where do you see this industry in 10 years?

This industry is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It won’t change as fast as it should. We also have the consuming public buying HVAC on lowest first bid. They are part of the problem when seven out of 10 people are unhappy with their heating or cooling system. I wish that would change a bit.

If you could only offer one piece of advice to contractors who are involved in the sales, installation and servicing of these systems, what would that be?

Say what you’ll do and then do what you say. It is simple advice obviously. Word of mouth travels fast and far when you are a man or woman of your word. There’s not enough of that trait in the contractor ranks.

What is the most expensive residential system you’ve ever seen? How much did it cost?

We do a lot of design work on many monstrously large houses, particularly on the moneyed islands local to us, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Some of these mechanical contracts have exceeded $500,000. It’s kind of crazy really. Many of these homes are second and third homes as well. The paradox is that we save more fuel with great equipment and system design for the people that don’t really seem to care about operating expense.

What is the single most common mistake in hydronics system design?

Over pumping. The ”2 x 4” that the mechanical contractor wants to build a hydronic system out of is the circulator pump. A pump on every zone, grossly oversized generally, is almost commonplace. All these pumps lead to high standby losses from piping, high parasitic electrical cost and just plain “Fred Flintstone” design. Smart systems will have fewer pumps with variable flow rates according to load that reduce electrical load dramatically.

What is the single most common mistake in hydronics system installations?

It happens every day – oversizing. People put in a V-12 engine when they need a four cylinder. It leads to constant cycling, the most inefficient way to control any combustion device.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen on a system?

The systems that get my attention go something like this: A very smart hydronics guy will design a one-of-a-kind heating system, complete with a ”too big” boiler, three sheets of plywood covered with a million pumps and relays, a million or so controls that only the original installer understands. The system gets installed initially and maybe works correctly. No “as-builts” are left and the original installer leaves town, fights with the homeowner or dies. Next guy in has no other option but to rip it out and start again. The consumer gets frustrated and angry. We need repeatability. We shouldn’t open the hood of a car and have a completely different engine on every car. How can they be serviced going forward?

Quick: Dog or cat person?

I grew up a dog person until my boys brought home a cat that won me over. Simon is the ultimate ”Cat-dog.” Jumps up on my lap; always wants to cuddle like a puppy. I’d have to say, cat guy now.

What’s your favourite movie of all time?

Can’t seem to click by the original Godfather when it’s on. Just the trials and tribulations of a small family business I guess.

What’s your favourite leisure-time activity?

I am a boater. I love it out on the water. I have sailed out and back to Bermuda a bunch of times and like the challenge of getting the sailboat safely to and from. It is an engineering, organization and logistical challenge. Some folks call it crazy too. My wife and kids joined me this year and they actually liked it. Not sure how leisurely it is, however.

Richard Now

Nov 2017 Richard Trethewey Interview with Mechanical Business Editor Adam Freill

What has changed in your world since 2007?

Both of my sons have joined with me to bring better heating and cooling systems to America, so that’s one of the absolute joys of my life. Ross and Evan Trethewey represent the next generation and our future, and they are better, taller, faster, smarter, than me.

I marvel at them, but I laugh with some of their speech patterns that they seem to get from me. Let’s just say that we are all a product of our environment.

I remember about five years ago they said, ”Dad, we want to work with you,” and I said, ”Really! Why?” They said that this energy field is fascinating. We need to be smart about the fuel we have left in this planet, and still be comfortable.

What’s been the most significant advance or change in the industry over your career?

Ten years ago, I don’t think I could have imagined there would have been air-to-air heat pumps that would be able to find, even on a zero-degree day outside, enough heat to heat the building. That’s a paradigm shift that 10 years ago you could never have dreamt that this equipment could ever be so efficient. Back then, the only way you would have thought you’d be able to do that would be to go underground with geothermal.

If you keep on moving heat, rather than making heat, you can use that.

Ten years ago, my only discussion with anybody was hydronic, and I still believe that hydronic is the best way to move energy around a building. There’s never been anything better to carry BTUs than water, but back then the most we could get was a condensing appliance and get about 95 per cent of the fuel that we bought. Now, we have these heat pumps that we put a dollar [of energy] in and get three dollars out, so it’s 300 per cent efficient, so to speak.

These numbers, I don’t want to believe them, but we went through last winter, and everything was fine.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the industry today?

Nothing has changed. Ten years later and we are still talking about the need to attract and retain good people in this industry.

Ten years later, has it improved? Yes. I think there’s at least a conversation about it.

I think the worldwide downturn in 2008, 2009 and 2010, meant that there were kids coming out of liberal arts colleges with $200,000 worth of education and didn’t have a job, and I think there was at least a bit of attention paid to there being another path. To that end, our TV show this year has started a segment called ”Generation Next” that just started airing to broadcast an outreach to the public to say that there are 7 million jobs across North America that are not filled right now because there are not enough skilled people to fill them, that’s plumbers, welders, electricians and carpenters. It’s a job where you use your hands and feel good about what you are building everyday. You do have to put your smartphone down though.

We are working with Mike Rowe, and his foundation. There’s nobody that tells a story better than Mike Rowe. I was shooting with him and I said something about the need to find the next generation of technicians, and without skipping a beat he said, “What we need is a micro-Mike Rowe.”

What are some of the most exciting emerging technologies to watch for in the industry?

What’s amazing to me is the Internet of Things, the IoT. There is wireless stuff now. I just saw wireless powerheads for a radiant manifold, so now it can talk to a wireless sensor so that you can dial in all these radiant jobs to give you exact, precise temperatures in all areas of a room.

In the early days of hydronics, you would put a manifold in and hope that you could set the flowrate close to what was needed, but it didn’t take into account local affects, like people. This internet of things stuff is crazy. And it’s getting better every single day.

I saw a wireless damper for hot air zoning. You talk about a market. Eighty per cent of people have a hot air system.

Another product that blew me away was a leak detection system that you can put on a plumbing system. In the early days, there was a valve that you could put on the water main, and it would have a hardwired sensor that you would wrap around the water heater so that, hopefully, it would shut off the water if the water heater leaked, so that you wouldn’t flood the house while you were away. Now, they’ve got this system of 78 hockey pucks that you can put around the building – all wireless – so that you can put one behind the dishwasher, behind the washing machine, by the boiler, the water heater or even in a basement crawlspace with a temperature sensor, all at a price point that you wouldn’t believe.

It’s exciting to be in this game right now. It’s just a matter of what you pay attention to. Any one of those things, you could almost specialize in. There are unlimited possibilities.

Where’s the mechanical industry going over the next 10 years?

I think we have to pay more attention to water. The shortage of water that exists in so many parts of the world. We have to embrace using greywater. The water that’s used in the kitchen sink, why isn’t that stuff that we can use out in the garden and on the lawn; or rainwater collection. It’s stuff I’ve seen consistently in Europe that I don’t see enough in North America.

And then I think water quality has to be protected. In North America, we have the best plumbing systems and we have the best water. We can open up a faucet and trust that it is going to be fine, but I think that everyone is going to want some sort of filter device of a sort that gives them piece of mind.

The other thing that we are going to have to pay much more attention to is ventilation. In HVAC, most people only really pay attention to the H, heating, and the AC, but by code we have to insulate like crazy, so if we don’t think about a way to bring in fresh air that’s been preconditioned by the exhaust air, an ERV or an HRV, that’s going to have to be a standard component.

Water and air: we need to think about what’s going into our lungs and what’s going into our bodies.

What’s changed the most over the past decade?

I think we’ve all gotten a little bit lax again. What happened to solar hot water? What happened to solar thermal. In 1998, we could not keep solar panels for hot water in stock. Oil was at $80 a barrel, so people were putting it on.

The only thing you see on anyone’s house now is solar electric, photovoltaic. You just don’t see anybody talking about solar thermal.

The market seems to have disappeared. That’s surprising to me.

What worries me are the connections in a piping system. We can’t afford to cheapen out on the connections. We are all in this together. If news stories show up about failures, it is going to be bad for everyone in the plumbing sector.

It is the smallest big industry, and the biggest small industry that you are going to find. I have been in this game for a long time. The times I’ve remembered the best is when you in the foxhole together, in the basements or the boiler rooms working together on the systems that are not working right, and it is like this band of brothers. You need to find a solution, and you work together.

What’s a new HVAC system going to be like in 10 years time?

I think there’s still going to be this movement to systems with miles of refrigeration piping, moving heat, not making heat, but I think water will actually have a resurgence because if we put a million miles of refrigerant pipe in buildings, in harms way and they get nicked and cut, and refrigerant leaks in buildings, I think there will be an interest in using water as a refrigerant or a way to move those BTUs around.

What about over on the plumbing side… where’s the plumbing industry going in the next 10 years?

If you are going to the ISH, you always see the Italian faucets, and they are beautiful, the yellows and the blues, but there’s something about Americans and Canadians; they just want chrome.

I think there’s a big opportunity to be had with the “greying of the market.” How do you gear shift a building through an elderly parent to make it still be attractive to other users without it feeling like the building has been institutionalized? There are companies, for example, that have toilets that rise or drop on a hydraulic rail, same thing for the lavatory, and a seat that mounts, and they look beautiful.

Not everyone is going to end up in nursing home; hopefully some will be able to end their last chapter in their own homes.

On the code and regulatory side, will things every get back to simple?

I don’t think so. That’s the day pigs fly.

I’m all for continuing ed, because the world gets more complex, but there are still some holes in the code and standards process. We now have inspectors who come out to double check that the building got insulated properly. That’s just a sad commentary that the industry could not enforce itself, so now there’s a whole other layer of regulation that you need to pay to double check.

What’s the coolest product or tool that you’ve had a chance to check out over the past 10 years?

Sadly, the smartphone. You go to Google or a website. This entire world has changed so much in the past 10 years. That’s been the biggest change. Not only is information available, it’s available in a nanosecond. It is available in video format, in manuals, in archives. As the equipment gets more complex, thank god that you have these devices. There was a day where if you wanted to get anything done you’ve have called a hotline and then waited, sometimes for days, until someone would call you back. No contractor can afford to do that anymore.

Is there one tool or product that you wish someone would invent? (What would save your back, your sanity, on a jobsite if it existed?)

So many of the “What Is It?” tools on our show, well, we’ll sit and make fun if them, but then we look at them and say, “That’s a good idea.”

I always get plumbers who have some tool that they have invented to make an installation easier, or to hold something without a second person having to be there, and those are always less interesting to the public, but those are interesting to me.

What stands out from your chat with us, 10 years ago?

As I look back from 10 years ago, my advice to contractors still rings true: ”Say what you do, and do what you say.” People are willing to pay for people that they can trust.