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Checking in with Richard Trethewey – 10 Years Later

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Richard Trethewey

By Adam Freill

Ten years ago, as we started on the journey that became Mechanical Business, we reached out to the most famous plumber in North America, Richard Trethewey, to be Cover Person Number 1. We asked him to help us examine some of the topics that were pertinent in the mechanical trade in 2007.

For any readers not familiar with Richard’s work, he’s the resident plumbing and heating expert on This Old House and its spin-off shows and publications, and the founder and owner of RST Inc., a manufacturer’s rep firm specializing in the mechanical sector.

Long before there were thoughts of specialty networks dedicated to home renovations, This Old House was sharing information from tradespeople with an audience of professionals and homeowners. Now in its 39th season, it is the longest running building-related show in television history.

Since we last spoke for that November 2007 edition, some things have changed in Richard’s business life, and in the industry. But as we looked back at our original interview, it was also remarkable to note how some things have not changed much.

MB: What’s changed in your world since 2007?

RT: Both of my sons have joined with me to bring better heating and cooling systems to America. That’s one of the 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 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.

MB: What’s been the most significant advance or change since 2007?

RT: 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. Back then, the only way you would have thought you’d be able to do that would be with geothermal. 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.

MB: What’s the biggest challenge facing the industry today?

RT: Nothing has changed. Ten years later and we are still talking about the need to attract and retain good people in this industry. Has it improved? Yes. I think there’s at least a conversation about it. To that end, our TV show this year has started a segment called ”Generation Next” to broadcast an outreach to the public. We are working with Mike Rowe and his foundation.

There’s nobody that tells a story better than Mike. 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.”

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

RT: What’s amazing to me is the Internet of Things, the IoT. 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.

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

RT: I think we have to pay more attention to water. There is a 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?

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. We need to think about a way to bring in fresh air that’s been preconditioned by the exhaust air, an ERV or an HRV, is 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.

MB: On the code and regulatory side, will things ever get back to simple?

RT: I don’t think so. That’s the day pigs fly. I’m all for continuing ed, because the world is becoming more complex, but there are still some holes in the code and standards process.

And we ourselves have caused some of the need for extra regulations. We now have inspectors who come out to double check that the building was 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 for to double check basic work.

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

RT: 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, thankfully 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.