HVAC Service Teams Train for Change


As companies diversify, service teams expand their skills

Service managers everywhere agree that training is a great way to improve a company’s skill set, but the training priorities vary widely from company to company, depending on circumstances and goals.

Some service teams are adding skills to support new products and services that the company is offering, while others are focused on improving performance in core areas such as heating installation and service.

One example of a company branching out if Harriet’s Energy Solutions, of Medford, N.J. “Our latest thing is we look at ourselves as a contracting company that sells oil,” said Harriet’s Service Manager Scott Vadino. “That is eventually where you have to be. That is where you will make your money, doing more for your customers.”

The company has added numerous services in recent years, including plumbing, weatherization, geothermal heating, and generator installation and service. Some skills have been added through hiring, while others have been developed through training, according to the service manager.

To offer geothermal installations, Harriet’s partnered with a local well driller for the exterior work and trained its technicians to do the interior work. Vadino and a couple of his employees attained certification in geothermal installations, and they helped other team members learn the essentials. The interior/exterior division of responsibilities works well, because both companies know who is responsible for what. “It makes it nicely cut and dried,” he said.

Harriet’s move into weatherization services began about 18 months ago. The company had been performing home energy audits and passing on the weatherization work to local partners. “We were paying subcontractors to do the work on jobs we sold, and we saw that we were doing all the work and giving away too much money,” Vadino explained. Harriet’s hired a sealing and insulation specialist and assigned a current employee to assist in the work. “Now we do all our own sealing and insulation,” he added.

Harriet’s has also used a combination of training and subcontracting to get into the backup power business. Members of the company’s service team set up the generators and pipe them for gas, and an electrical contractor does the connections. Harriet’s recently sent two service team members for manufacturer training and certification on Generac generators with an eye to becoming an authorized service provider.

“We’ve started doing more and more for customers, because you don’t want any other contractors in the home,” Vadino explained. “They can go in for one little thing, and next thing you know they are doing the heat. We want to own the home and be a one-stop shop.”

Supporting New Services

Another company that is training to support new ventures is F. Perrelli & Sons Fuel, of East Haven, Conn. Owner George Perrelli told Oil & Energy, “Training is always a high priority, because so many new things have hit our market.” The company’s current focus is on carving out a role in propane service and sales. “We’re constantly doing seminars and learning all we can about the new equipment,” he said.

Perrelli elected to enter the propane industry as a service provider, with a focus on generators. He sees strong demand for backup power in Connecticut, because major storms have become more frequent in recent years, and homeowners do not want to be left without power for days a time, particularly older homeowners, he said.

Perrelli himself attended a week of Certified Employee Training Program (CETP) training put on by the Connecticut Energy Marketers Association and two days of training on Generac generators put on by a wholesaler. He and his team now perform complete generator installations except for the electrical tie-ins, which are performed by a subcontractor. “We prep the area, set up the generator and pipe it with propane,” he explained.

He hopes the company is setting itself up to do more for its generator customers, such as installing propane stoves and gas log sets—and eventually fuel delivery. “The next step for my company would be to buy a bobtail and begin distributing propane,” Perrelli explained. “We’re doing this in a way that we can manage. Instead of just jumping in headfirst, I wanted to see if the market would allow us to posture into delivery.” Customers for whom he has done installations have said they will choose Perrelli for delivery if he offers it.

Perrelli is also contemplating increasing the company’s presence in solar energy, and he will use a similar approach of gradually ramping up if he decides to proceed, he said.

Train or Subcontract?

At Sippin Energy, in Monroe, Conn., Service Manager Al Breda said home comfort companies provide a broader range of services than ever before, and service managers are forced to decide how to add the skills they need. “Do I want to hire an AC guy and teach him to do burners or maybe find an electrician and try to teach them other skills?” he asked. “It is a struggle. You really need everyone working in their specialty, but you also like to have some players be very diverse and multi-talented.”

Breda offers voluntary Saturday morning training for his team, starting at 8:00 and ending promptly at 10:00, so they know they can attend without subjecting themselves to an open-ended commitment. More than two-thirds of the team usually comes out, and he does not hold it against those who don’t attend.

Internal training is harder to achieve than it used to be, because technicians have more family obligations and outside commitments than they used to. There was once a time when he could simply order pizza at the end of a workday, and everyone would gather around for training, but those days are gone.

“The family dynamic is changing, and it’s hard to find time for training,” he said. Training is a great investment for the company, but it is costly to send technicians for training during a workday, and guys are not available after work the way they used to be.”

One Saturday training topic that generated a lot of interest was low-voltage wiring. The team also spent a session discussing WiFi-enabled thermostats such as the Honeywell Lyric and the Nest. “It’s not the same old heating system now,” Breda explained. “Now the thermostats might go to an air handler and you might have a heat pump. It expands the schematic.”

Another trendy topic for home comfort companies is building shell services. There is value in offering customers sealing and insulation services, but those skills have to be acquired through hiring rather than training, because it makes no sense to assign highly trained technicians to perform such low-skill tasks, according to Breda.

On the other hand, the Sippin service team has moved seamlessly into solar thermal installations. “That was easy, because we already know it all,” Breda explained. “The only difference is you that instead of a water heater, you are dealing with a solar panel. The roof work is all you have to really learn. We know how to connect pipes to circulators and controls.”

Adding new services for customers is desirable, but the cost management can be very challenging, according to Breda. If a company hires an electrician to support generator installations or solar photovoltaic, the company might have trouble finding work for them in the middle of the winter. When a company wants to offer duct cleaning or chimney lining, they need to hire specialists, because they pay their trained service technicians too much for them to perform that work cost effectively. It makes more sense to offer those services to customers and subcontract the work, according to Breda.

One important training challenge that Breda addresses constantly is helping technicians talk with customers. Some techs see themselves as mechanics and simply want to go into the basement and do mechanical service, but the company needs more from them. “You do the customer a disservice if you don’t share what you know with them,” he said. The company has invested a lot to expand its range of services, and management counts on technicians to engage customers in conversations about their home comfort. Techs shouldn’t snoop around, but if, for example, they notice a portable humidifier in a room, they should mention that the company installs whole-home humidification.

Sippin never criticizes a technician for lingering in a home to talk with the owner. “With the cost of service being so high, it makes sense to talk to homeowners about whether they should have a service contract. You need to give a value to help them feel they are with the right company.”

Core Skills First

At White Mountain Oil & Propane, in North Conway, N.H., Service Manager Curtis Reynolds believes a home comfort company needs to excel at its core functions of installing and servicing heating and cooling systems. He believes in regular training and places the highest value on core skills and staying on top of all the new technology that is introduced.

To strengthen his team’s skills, Reynolds has arranged training on mini-split systems, electronic aquastats, new primary controls for oil burners, variable speed circulators and reduced-sulfur fuel. He has also helped his technicians become conversant in WiFi-connected thermostats so they don’t have to plead ignorance when a customer inquires.

When White Mountain moved into the backup power business, they played to the company’s strengths by positioning themselves as the fuel supplier rather than installing the generators and servicing the engines. They supply propane tanks and fuel and work with an electrical contractor who handles the machinery.

At Harris Comfort, in Bristol, Pa., Service manager Jay Moser believes in training technicians in everything the company does so that there is plenty of redundancy in skills. The team draws on the resources of the local Oil & Energy Service Professionals (OESP) chapter and the Pennsylvania Petroleum Association as well as Harris’s network of wholesalers and manufacturers.

When launching new ventures such as propane sales and service or generator installation, the company generally trains up its own staff rather than hiring for particular skills, according to Moser.

WiFi-connected thermostats are a new class of products that customers are embracing, and technicians need to learn enough to handle the devices and connect them to the heating and cooling systems, according to Moser. He is considering an in-house training session where they put one or more thermostats on a test board and help the entire team understand them thoroughly.

At Griffith Energy Services, in Frederick, Md., Regional Service Manager Mike Hodge is placing an emphasis on “soft skills” in 2015. He wants his technicians to be comfortable engaging in conversations with customers about heating and cooling upgrades, indoor air quality systems and the importance of enrolling in a service contract. “That’s vital from a company perspective,” he said. “You need to sell, and you need to have good relationships, and we want them to be part of that.”

Griffith’s Hagerstown division in northwestern Maryland recently started selling propane, which has required extensive training for some drivers and technicians. When possible, Griffith has provided the training internally.

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