Interview With John Barba

Taco Training Ace discusses customer service, rock ‘n’ roll, sales and much more

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Oil & Energy Magazine.

Learning and teaching hydronics is a lifelong journey for Taco’s John Barba. After learning the ropes in the family HVAC business in Harvard, Mass., he worked in various roles before becoming a training specialist for Uponor and then Taco, where he is a FloPro Team trainer. He writes the FloPro Team blog, where he mixes serious discussion of hydronics with lighthearted musical references.

Oil & Energy recently caught up with Barba and put our questions to him.

Oil & Energy: As readers of the Taco FloPro Team blog know, you never talk business without a few musical references. Keeping with that spirit, please name 10 great songs to get you pumped up for a challenging assignment.

John Barba: Now that’s the way to start a Q&A “Jam” session! So many great tunes, hard to weed it down to just 10, but here are some of the “go-to” songs on my playlist:

  1. Thunder Road – Springsteen (all time favorite!)
  2. Beautiful Day – U2
  3. Oh Well – “original” Fleetwood Mac (with Peter Green)
  4. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
  5. I Want You Back – Graham Parker & The Rumor
  6. Soulshine – Allman Brothers Band
  7. Dirty Water – The Standells
  8. Almost Cut My Hair – Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
  9. A Little Less Conversation – Elvis
  10. Signs – The Five Man Electrical Band

If these songs don’t get you up and going, then there’s another song for you – an old Louis Jordan song remade by Joe Jackson: “Jack, You Dead.”

O&E: Please talk about your first responsibilities in your father’s business. What did he ask you to do? Did you take to it right away?

JB: First responsibilities go way back – fetching tools and supplies starting when I was about 5. He’d tell me to go get him something, I’d get the wrong thing, and he’d send me back again. Not sure if he did it to get me out of his hair or not! When I was old enough to be of any real use to him, I’d start by digging ditches for soil pipe, or helping to pull submersible well pumps, or snaking drains.

I still remember when he tried to teach me how to pack a lead joint with oakum. It was a closet flange. He showed me how to roll the oakum tight and how to pack it in the joint with a packing iron. He even gave me the packing iron his first boss gave to him years and years ago. I think he saw it as a passing of the torch. He left me to pack the closet flange and I rolled and packed and rolled and packed. Finally he yelled up to me to see if I was finished yet. Told him I pretty much had the whole box of oakum packed in there, and that it was amazing how much you could pack it. Apparently I was packing the oakum all the way through the flange and into the empty joist bay. He wasn’t pleased.

And he took the packing iron back.

By high school I was a fully functional apprentice. We did plumbing and heating, but even back then I was partial to hydronics. For some reason I was able to “see” it come together better. I’ve always had trouble visualizing how a DWV would fit into a house. My brother was very good at it – he could look at the layout of a house and say “we’ll wet vent the water closet and tie the vents in up there, bring the future vent up over here and tie it all in here and go through the roof.” I’d stand there and nod my head like I knew what the hell he was talking about. In my head I’m saying, “Huh?”

O&E: Please discuss your early training.

JB: I was fairly lucky – as a kid I worked with my Dad. He had crews that did the new construction and major work – he did service and repairs. He was a town politician, so he liked meeting people and getting to know them while working in their houses. He developed so many great relationships with people in town over the years – he used to claim he’d been under the sinks of most of the houses in town. Must have worked, because he never lost a local election!

My dad’s brother Frank also worked in the business – I got to work with him as a kid, too. He was a master needler – God help you if you asked a dumb question or made a mistake! He wasn’t mean or anything, he’d just poke at you and tease you until you were ready to scream!

As a teen I got paired up with some of the licensed guys who worked for the old man – my brother Steve, Jimmy and David Bakun, Dana Perkins, Roger Brown, Kevin Sullivan – poor guys had to deal with “Mario’s kid.” Learned an awful lot from those guys. Dana eventually taught me the right way to use a right angle drill over your head to drill a hole in a joist. He watched me smack myself in the head with the drill about a half dozen times before explaining there was a technique to it. Said he would have told me earlier but he was having too much fun watching me.

These guys really showed me that there’s no one way to do things, but there are ways that are right and ways that, even though they may “work,” aren’t right. Better to do things right all the time and be sure.

O&E: How did you first realize that you might wind up being more of a trainer than a hands-on guy?

JB: Well, the closet flange incident was an early clue! My Dad was considering some sort of DNA testing at that point!!!

I think the whole training thing came about by accident. Saw Dan Holohan in Worcester, MA in 1990 or so, and that seminar changed my life. For the first time I learned there was science behind hydronic systems. There was math behind pipe sizing and circulator selection. The was such a thing as the “point of no pressure change.” It was the most inspiring meeting I’d ever been a part of. Dan’s humor, ability to connect with people and his talent for making difficult concepts easy to understand and apply to the real world grabbed me by the shirt and said “pay attention!” Just blew my mind! And he showed a film clip from “Kentucky Fried Movie” for entertainment purposes. I figured if this guy could make a living doing this, there’s hope for me yet!

O&E: OESP puts a high priority on training skills, because everyone’s skill level improves when the trainer is well prepared. What should a service manager keep in mind when preparing a lesson for their team?

JB: Several things. First – discuss, don’t preach. No one likes being lectured, and no one has all the answers.

Second – be as “real world” as possible. What are the real world problems and what are the real world solutions?

Third – anticipate possible objections or “Yeah, but…” challenges and develop sound, logical responses. This takes time and practice, but it helps keep the entire group on task and moving forward.

Fourth – Let individuals work out problems on their own. Ask “how would you handle this?” or “what would you do in this situation?” Those are “open-ended” questions – questions that can’t be answered yes or no, so they require some thought. There’s an entire art around asking questions in training – you have to know when to ask direct questions to a specific audience member, and when to throw up a “jump ball” question. It helps you understand the group dynamic, and learn who are the outspoken members of the group and who are the quiet ones who may need to be drawn into the conversation.

And training should be active, rather than passive. That doesn’t mean exclusively “hands-on,” however. Passive learning is where I talk, you listen and I don’t want to hear from you. No questions, no comments – just shut up and sit there. That’s no fun at all, and very little learning takes place. Adults learn differently – they need to feel invested in the process. Active learning includes free and open discussion. In my classes, asking questions isn’t just recommended, it’s required! I’m not a mind reader, so I don’t know if a concept or idea is sinking in or not. Folks need to feel comfortable, respected and heard.

Also, note taking is required, as well. The adult brain can’t just sit there and listen to a speaker and be expected to retain much information. Taking notes – and then studying those notes twice a week for 6 to 8 weeks – raises the overall retention rate of training into the mid 90% range. At that point, the information isn’t just something you heard some yutz say at a seminar, it’s now knowledge and part of a person’s skills set – which is why they go to training in the first place.

O&E: What are some of the key ingredients of an effective lesson or course?

JB: A logical progression is key. It’s like building a house – you don’t start with the attic and work your way down. You start with the foundation and work your way up. Remember middle school math? All those classes in September started with subsets and supersets – every year, even though you covered the same stuff the previous year. That’s the foundation, and everything that follows is built on that foundation.

Say you’re teaching a course on proper circulator selection. Ultimately, you want someone to be able to look at a pump curve chart, plot the required flow rate and system head loss on that chart and pick the circulator that’s going to do the job. But what knowledge do we need to have before we can do that?

Well, how to calculate the required flow rate, for one. How do you calculate required flow rate? You need to know the Universal Hydronics Formula: GPM = BTUH ÷ (ΔT × 500).

Well, for that to make sense, you have to know what a ΔT is, what the 500 means and why you use the numbers you use. You also have to know what the BTUH is, and where that number comes from. To know that, you have to understand the heat loss and have a rudimentary understanding of how to calculate it. So basically, you can’t select a circulator properly without knowing how to either calculate or at least properly interpret heat loss calculations. You also have to know that simply measuring the baseboard isn’t conducting a heat loss.

You also have to know how to size pipe according to required flow rates, and how to calculate head loss based on pipe size, flow rate and piping length. You have to know that fittings and valves make a run of pipe feel “longer” to the water going through it.

As you can see, there’s a hell of a back-story to the simple question of “which pump do I use?”

I’ve had guys in class say “I don’t want to know all that, just tell me what pump to use.” Well, it’s not that easy, and you can’t just pander to someone and say “use this 3 speed pump, it’s the only pump you’ll ever need.” While that may be technically correct in that one of the pump curves will “cover” the requirements, using the wrong type of pump curve may wind up causing different problems.

I think it comes down to one of the things my old man taught me. “Knowing how is good, but knowing why is better, because those who know ‘how’ will always work for those who know ‘why!’”

Ultimately, establishing the importance of the “why” along with the process of the “how” leads to a successful class.

O&E: What are some common missteps that can reduce a lesson’s effectiveness?

JB: That’s a good question, because I’ve made just about every misstep there is to make in a class! There are lots, but here are my pet peeves:

  1. Lack of preparation – an instructor needs to not only know his or her material, but have a good idea of the audience – what do they want to know as well as what do they need to know (not always the same thing!). Have an end result in mind. Being prepared also means having materials ready, the room set up and your presentation all set to go – it shows respect for your audience.
  2. Start and end on time. Don’t wait for the stragglers to show up. Why penalize the guys who showed up on time by waiting for the people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t? Not starting on time makes you a liar before class even starts. Running long makes it even worse. Respect the audience – you need them a hell of a lot more than they need you!
  3. Reading Powerpoint slides. Ever been in a class where the instructor just reads you what’s on the screen? Heck, I can read. If that’s all the instructor’s going to do, what do we need him for?
  4. Don’t take or answer questions, or tell the group to hold all their questions until the end. This tells the group you really don’t want to hear from them, and it cuts off that active learning aspect. It turns an audience off right away.
  5. Poor graphics – love it when a tiny, blurry diagram comes up on the screen and the instructor says “I know you can’t see this, but….” If it can’t be seen, it’s useless.
  6. “Fun” with Powerpoint – too many words, tiny fonts, blurry pictures, overuse of animations – all get tiresome and take away from the message.
  7. Instructors who fall in love with the sound of their own voice or fall in love with their own credentials. Look, it’s only a simple twist of fate that puts someone on one side of the table vs. the other. Once an instructor starts thinking that he has all the answers and has a “calling” to make his students “smarter,” that’s a sign of training heading down the wrong path.

O&E: You have quoted your father saying that professionals do math, while amateurs guess. What math do techs and sales people most need to know, and how can they learn it?

JB: Pretty much all the math we need to know in hydronics we learned by 5th grade – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, along with some very basic algebra. But an old teacher told me – it’s good to know how to divide, but it’s only useful when you know when to divide.

Hydronics has very specific applied math formulas:

GPM = BTUH ÷ (ΔT × 500)

(Flow ÷ Cv)2 × 2.31 = valve head loss

Pipe length × 1.5 × .04 = estimated head loss

There are lots more – it depends on what you’re trying to learn. Any good hydronics course includes the appropriate math formulas. Remember the subset/superset conversation from earlier – it’s all part of the foundation building process.

O&E: Time for a little more musical diversion. Please name three non-obvious indispensable albums from each of three decades: the ’60s, ’70s, and the ’80s.

JB: This is like my favorite interview of all time! Hmmm…non obvious, yet indispensible…here goes:

‘60s: Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks (1968); The Band, The Band (1969); Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1969)

’70s: Cosmo’s Factory, Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970); Excitable Boy, Warren Zevon (1978); Labour of Lust, Nick Lowe (1979)

‘80s: Seconds of Pleasure, Rockpile (1980); Maverick, George Thorogood & The Destroyers (1984); Guitar Town, Steve Earle (1986)

O&E: Customer loyalty is essential to success in Oilheat. What is your best advice for service managers and company owners to strengthen customer loyalty?

JB: First off, I think the concept of “customer loyalty” is pretty bogus, anyway. I don’t think there’s any such thing, and assuming that there is only leads to complacency. Lots of folks think that by doing a good job for a customer that you have somehow “earned” that customer forever. It doesn’t work that way. They haven’t signed any contracts or made any binding pledges to love and honor you and only you.

Once you’ve completed a transaction with a customer, that customer is a free agent. They can hire anyone they want next time for whatever reason they want. You haven’t earned any exclusivity. The best you can hope for is that by doing a good job for them, you earn the opportunity to try to earn their business the next time. I have customers in my class complaining that their customers will dump them for a competitor over a matter of a few dollars, while they themselves will pit one wholesaler against the other to get a lower price for a boiler. Loyalty schmoyalty!

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining about it. It’s reality and in my opinion – always has been. I don’t think it has anything to do with “the times” or the economy. The best you can do is do a good job, give great customer service, treat your customers with respect and respond promptly to their needs. This only guarantees you the opportunity to try to earn their business the next time. Nothing more.

To make sure, it’s important to stay in your customer’s consciousness. Mailers, your website, newsletters, blogs, Facebook – all of these things can help keep your company in your customer’s brain so that when and if they have a need in the future, they’ll think of you. If you’re selling oil, that’s easier because they buy oil regularly, but that doesn’t mean your competitors aren’t trying to get them as well.

O&E: What are the strengths and weaknesses of online learning? Should it virtually replace in-person training in the years ahead?

JB: Online learning has certainly evolved. I mean, it didn’t even exist 10 years ago! The strengths are obvious – a recorded e-learning class or an archived webinar is available online 24/7/365 and can be viewed as many times as the learner wants. It also saves resources for the entity providing the training. They can reach more people over a longer period of time.

The downside is that it’s very passive. The student watches online, can’t ask questions, take part in any class activities or discussions or do much of any hands-on learning. And if they want to check Facebook in the middle of class, well, there’s nothing to stop that. Live webinars are a little more interactive, but still have limitations.

In addition, online programs are of limited value to those of us who are “tech-challenged.” If you’re not comfortable using a computer or are still using 2003 technology, the online stuff is of no value.

Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing whether a learner has fully understood a concept, or whether they’ve interpreted the information correctly. For all these reasons online learning will never replace face-to-face learning. People learn best from other people – there’s no way around that. Online stuff will supplement the in-person stuff and can reach more people, but in my mind, there’s no substitute for live classroom training with hands-on opportunity.

O&E: Please explain how you have driven down your own heating bills in Minnesota. How does your experiences apply to the population at large?

JB: My house was built in 1978, and we moved into it in 2006. It’s a 5-bedroom, 2,500 SF split level, similar to tens of thousands of others in Minnesota. It has R-19 in the walls, and sometime around 1998 they upgraded the windows. When we bought the place it still had the original equipment American Standard forced-air furnace and a standard efficiency A/C unit, along with a 40-gallon gas water heater (pretty much everything in Minnesota is gas-fired. There’s very little oil-fired equipment here). We also had electric heat in the lower level family room.

The lower level also has two bedrooms, a bathroom and the mechanical room – which also serves as a laundry room and my office. As a rule, I’ve always found forced air in a lower level/basement level to be next to useless, and the comfort level in this house did nothing to change my mind. As far as the electric heat was concerned, it did a good enough job, but I wasn’t happy with the electric bills – especially when the kids would be down there playing video games and forget to turn down the thermostat when they were done.

The plan going in was to eventually upgrade the system. The old furnace was noisy and cranky, and we’d run out of hot water 10 minutes into a hot shower, but the system limped along for a couple more years. The furnace finally died around March of 2009.

We decided to install an NTI Matrix unit – it’s a condensing boiler with an air-handler/hot water coil combo in one box. It also has a flat-plate heat exchanger to make domestic hot water, a heat recovery ventilator for IAQ and boiler tappings for hydronics. We kept the forced air for upstairs – with the Matrix’ variable speed fan it works pretty well – and installed panel radiators in the lower level with radiant floor retrofitted into my office/laundry room/mechanical room.

The boiler is set up to heat the home with a maximum 140 degree water. The DHW setup works like an instantaneous water heater – it only fires when there’s a hot water demand – and makes all the hot water we need. The only thing we can’t do – since there’s no storage – is fill up the tub with the valve set to full flow, full hot. If we turn it down to ¾ flow, we’re fine.

The first winter we had this setup running, the total bill for heat and hot water was around $530. The winter of 2011-12 – also known as the “winter that never was,” the total bill was only around $420. If you pull the DHW portion out of the total (I figure around $20/month), we were able to heat the house for the winter-that-never-was) for just under $300.00. For a house in Minnesota, that makes me very, very happy.

And from a comfort standpoint, the house is WAY more comfortable than it was with the old forced air system with the fixed speed fan. The panel rads to a great job in the lower level and the radiant floor in my office makes me want to never leave it.

If there’s one thing to share about this system is that it was a retrofit solution that included two types of delivery. We used the existing forced air distribution system for the main level and made use of the variable speed fan to enhance comfort. Knowing that the forced air was next to useless downstairs, it was an easy choice to add panel radiators down there, using some Mr. Pex tubing to pipe them up. The bedrooms and the family room are kept nice and warm now, and since the electric heat is gone, we don’t have to worry about the electric meter spinning out of control. Last year we added a Taco BumbleBee variable speed Delta-T circulator (I know a guy…) to make it even better.

Bottom line, in a retrofit situation, you don’t have to swap out same for same – there are options out there that can enhance comfort, lower monthly bills and save some space. I have a lot more room in my office/laundry room/mechanical room now, too.

I’m not sure what the “payback” is for this system. As stated earlier, I think “payback” and “ROI” are bogus terms. In Minnesota, you need heating and cooling – going without is not an option. The old one died and needed replacing, so I tried to go as efficient as possible. Will this system ever “pay for itself?” Only if it grows arms and can write me a check! Is there value to it? You bet! And you can bet your sweet bippy that when it’s time to sell the house I’m gonna whip out all my fuel bills to show the potential buyer what they’re getting.

O&E: You mentioned in your blog a customer survey showing that satisfaction with radiant heat is low. Please explain that and share some thoughts about how installers can make radiant heat more satisfying.

JB: This survey was published a few years back and it showed the satisfaction rate for radiant floor heating was only around 40%, which, on the face of it, is mind-boggling. Only 40% of those surveyed said they were happy and satisfied with the comfort provided by their radiant floor heating systems, and most of those had much, much older systems!

Another 40% said their systems were “okay,” but not great, and not what they were expecting. The systems were better than the forced air they had before, but not as super-comfy or as efficient as promised. They complained of inconsistent room-by room temps – some rooms were too warm, some were too cool, and they couldn’t get them right. What was more concerning was that they reported they probably wouldn’t spend the money on radiant again.

The remaining 20% said they were demonstrably unhappy with their systems.

The first 40% are okay. We can explain the 20% on systems that were FUBAR’d from the get-go. But what about that middle 40%? Those are the most worrisome.

The thing that jumped out at me was the number one complaint – the inconsistent room-by-room comfort levels. That’s the same complaint people have about forced air systems. What could possibly explain that?

There’s one simple answer – poor zoning. You can’t zone a radiant system like you zone a forced air or even a baseboard system. Rooms are different, and those differences matter with radiant. Rooms have different BTU-per-square-foot heating loads. They have different use patterns. And most importantly – when it comes to radiant – they have different finished floor R-values. You simply can’t zone a room with a carpet and pad that has a combined R-value of 2.0 with a room with hardwood floors that has an R-value of 0.75. Where would you put the thermostat? No matter which room you choose, you’re wrong. Put it in the carpeted room then the hardwood floor room will be too warm. Put it in the hardwood floor room and the carpeted room will be too cold.

But give each room its own thermostat, then both rooms will be just right. Even Goldilocks would approve.

I’ve had customers say “but that costs too much,” but will install a system with multiple water temperatures to try to correct it. That’s more costly and may or may not solve the problem. It’s also a problem that can’t effectively be solved by “tweaking” the flow through each loop. On the face of it, it sounds like a reasonable solution, but in reality it’s next to impossible. First, the balancing valves on radiant systems aren’t what you’d call “fine-tuning instruments of accuracy.” They’re more or less designed to make sure you can get close to the same amount of flow through each loop. And secondly, how long and how many trips back will it take to get it right, and how will you finally know you have it right?

And since it’s a dynamic situation, when you tweak one loop on a manifold, you affect all the other loops on the same manifold. Basically, it’s impossible to pull off. Thermostats and manifold actuators solve the problem right out of the box, so why on Earth wouldn’t you at least offer it to your customer?

O&E: How can home comfort companies increase homeowners’ enthusiasm for energy efficiency?

JB: Be realistic – use real numbers and don’t blow smoke up anyone’s skirt. Folks tend to overpromise and under-deliver when it comes to cutting energy bills. ECM circulators in residential applications are a perfect example. The hue and cry is residential ECM circulators “save TONS of electricity!!” No, they don’t. They save a big percentage of a small number. A standard efficiency circulator may cost 20 bucks a year to run. An ECM circulator may – MAY – cut that in half. That’s 10 bucks a year. Whee! You can go to the movies on that savings. By yourself!

Best way to show potential energy savings is to look backward. “Here’s what you spent to heat your home last year, Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner, with your old equipment. If you had this newer, higher-efficiency system in your home last year, here’s what you would have spent to heat the home, and here’s what you wouldn’t have spent on emergency maintenance.”

Look, saving money is nice – everyone wants to spend less to heat and cool their home. But if you start talking about ROI or – even worse – “payback” (hate that term!), the discussion starts to center on money and price. A nice, efficient system is also a modern system, a relatively trouble-free system, a smaller and nicer looking system, a quieter system, a more reliable system and a won’t-break-down-in-the-middle-of-the-night-in-the-middle-of-winter-when-you-have-a-house-full-of-guests system.

There are some folks who will buy systems to “save energy” or to be “more green.” Most folks start out that way, but if all you can tell them is that they’ll save 30% off a $2,000/year oil bill (or $600), it may get harder to talk about “payback” or “ROI,” because the money saved isn’t life-altering money.

O&E: Let’s finish up with one more musical question. Please name your top five rock ‘n’ roll guitarists of all time.

JB: Great question to end on ….

#5 – Alvin Lee – 10 Years After

#4 – Chuck Berry

#3 – Jimi Hendrix

#2 – Eric Clapton

#1 – Duane Allman

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