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Dunning-Kruger in HVAC
A few years ago, a friend of mine, Clive Mitchell, aka Big Clive, explained the Dunning-Kruger concept while he was a guest on my YouTube-based podcast, “HVAC Overtime.” Clive is another content creator on YouTube specializing in technical videos where he reverse-engineers electronic devices. Clive has a very analytical mind; he sees patterns in people and things that most others would miss. I learn something from him every time we have a conversation.
If you aren’t familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect, it is defined by Wikipedia as “a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a certain type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge.” Some researchers also include in their definition the opposite effect for high performers: their tendency to underestimate their skills. There was something about the definition that really hit home for me.
Not realizing how much I didn’t know
Early on in my career, I thought I was the best HVAC tech/installer around. Sounds pretty good, right? The only problem was that I only knew 4 other techs. I think back to a humbling service call I ran. I doubt that I was even 20 years old at the time.
It was the middle of the summer, and my customer’s air conditioning went out. I walked into the call and immediately hooked up my gauges to the old R-22 system. I glanced at the PSI on the low side gauge. The pressure was low, and I knew what that meant; this old girl was low on charge. I ran to the truck to grab the green jug and started dumping gas into the system. As I added more and more gas into the system, I noticed the low side wasn’t coming up at all. I remember thinking, “Man, this thing is really low!” After dumping an obscene amount of refrigerant into this poor system, I ended up changing my diagnosis.
“Sir, you have bad valves.” The compressor just can’t build the pressure we need to cool your home. The customer asked if I could install a new condenser. My response was, “I sure can, and I bet we can do it for you today.”
Now, to my surprise, I was granted the privilege of installing the new system myself. A truck would deliver the equipment, and I was to take it from there. I spent the next few hours installing a new condenser. When it came time for the startup and to check the charge, I realized the suction pressure was low on the new unit. That was when I became extremely nervous. I remember calling my dad for help. One of the first things my dad asked was, “Did you check the furnace filter?” My answer was obviously no, so I went down to the basement and pulled out the filter. I don’t think I had ever seen a more disgusting filter in my life. My heart fell to the floor.
Oh my GOSH. I just changed a perfectly good condenser when all this guy needed was a new filter. That was a sobering experience that forever changed my process when running a service call.
Step 1: Check the filter. No exceptions.
If you were paying attention to the details of the story, I’m sure you realized there were many steps I missed and several things I did incorrectly. At the time, I only learned one lesson.
Another humbling lesson
Fast forward several years to when I installed a new air handler and condenser for a family friend. He had a boiler system, so his air handler was installed in the attic. The job went smoothly and turned out beautiful. I was proud of the work I had done and was sure he would be happy with the service I provided.
I received a call from him the next day saying that the air conditioning had stopped working. When I showed up, nothing was running. So I climbed up into the attic and saw that the safety pan was full of water, and the float switch was preventing the unit from running. I emptied the pan and checked the pitch of the drains, and it looked like I did everything correctly. I disconnected the drain and blew nitrogen through the pipe, and I told him that his original drain was just clogged and he should be good to go.
He called back the next day, and his air conditioning had stopped working again. This is about the time I became wide-eyed and nervous. I went over there and found that the pan had filled up a second time. I once again emptied the pan and ran the system. The system wasn’t draining when it was running, but it would start draining as soon as it had shut off. This is when I called tech support and explained the situation. Here was one of the first things the tech support rep asked me: “Do you have a trap in the drain?”
My answer was, of course, no. I asked, “Why do I need a trap?” I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that he explained to me the science behind a negative-pressure drain and how the evaporator is on the return side of the system. That lesson stuck with me forever.
Even so, I didn’t let it get me down at the time. I chalked it up to the small percentage of air handlers in the Chicago market. How was I supposed to know that? Most people have furnaces, not air handlers.
I was a living, breathing example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I overestimated my knowledge and ability in every aspect of the HVAC trade. And I have so many stories like this to make your head spin. I could keep going, but I don’t want you to feel too much secondhand embarrassment.
The Bottom Of The Curve
Up until this point, most of the knowledge I’ve learned has been courtesy of the internet or YouTube university. Nearly four years ago. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when Zach Psioda (from the HVAC Shoptalk YouTube show and podcast) offered a few other guys and me the opportunity to have a show on his channel. Our new show would come to be called “HVAC Overtime.” This is an important part of my story because I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the Overtime show. You might be asking yourself, “Where exactly is he today?” Good question.
The answer is that I'm at the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger curve. I know it sounds kind of crummy, but when you’ve hit bottom, there is only one possible direction that you can go. And this is where my quest for knowledge began.
Surrounding Myself With The Right People
I have been extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to invite some of the leaders of the industry onto the show and pick their brains about any topic that was on my mind.
When I had a question about Manual J, I could pick up the phone and call Ed Janowiak. Ed has had a lifetime of experience with load calculations and is the head trainer at the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA).
When I have a question about running a load calculation in a specific software, I call on Alex Meaney or Russ and Connor King. Alex Meaney was the head trainer for Wrightsoft for many years; he has since started his own consulting business, “Mean HVAC.” You would be hard-pressed to find someone more knowledgeable and fluent in Wrightsoft. Russ and Connor King own a software company called Coded Energy. They have developed an amazing 3D modeling software (Kwik Model) that HVAC professionals use for load calculations and duct design.
Meeting Jim Davis and having him as a guest on the show was a privilege and honor. Jim has been a leader in combustion training and works for National Comfort Institute (NCI). The name “Jim Davis” will forever be ingrained in HVAC and always be associated with carbon monoxide.
I have also learned quite a bit about combustion from Jim Bergmann. I had followed Jim Bergmann for many years before I had the opportunity to meet and talk with him. Jim’s dedication to the industry has pushed our trade in a new direction; Jim helped create the iManifold (smart manifold and probes for air conditioning and refrigeration) and has since developed measureQuick. MeasureQuick is one of the most powerful tools available in HVAC; it is a mobile app that utilizes smart tools to help test the functionality of a system and guide a technician to a proper diagnosis. If measureQuick isn’t on your phone or tablet now, it will be in the future.
Building performance was always a foreign term to me and didn’t have much meaning. That is—until I met Nate Adams, also known as Nate the House Whisperer. Nate is the author of The Home Comfort Book and cofounder of HVAC 2.0. HVAC 2.0 is an organization that helps give HVAC techs a process for tying building performance into HVAC.
Staying on the topic of building performance, I doubt you will ever meet someone more knowledgeable than Steve Rogers. Steve is one of the owners of The Energy Conservatory. They make products such as the Minneapolis Blower Door, the Duct Blaster, and the Trueflow Grid. We had Steve on the Overtime show to teach us about the Trueflow Grid when it first hit the market. Steve has become a friend and mentor to me; he has spent countless hours teaching me all of the nuances of pressure and flow. The list goes on and on. I am a living, breathing example of being in the right place at the right time.
Not A Ticket To The Chocolate Factory
Several months back, I got an email with a subject line that read, “You've Got a Golden Ticket.” It was an invitation to attend the 2023 HVACR Training Symposium and stay at the “Animal House.” The Animal House is a huge home that gets rented by a group of guys during the HVACR Training Symposium. The house itself is not important; what is important is the caliber of roommates who shared the house with me. I found out early on that some of the brightest minds in the trade would be staying at the Animal House this year.
I definitely didn't feel like I deserved to be part of this group. Was I invited because of my mind, or am I just really good at making people laugh on our silly YouTube show? A few weeks before the trip, I had this conversation with a friend of mine, Dustin Cole. Dustin owns a residential HVAC company in Louisiana. He is extremely knowledgeable in HVAC design as well as building performance. During this conversation, I think the exact words I used were, “Dustin, I have got to be the dumbest guy in the house.”
Dustin laughed and said:
“It's funny you say that because when I first stayed at the Animal House, I introduced myself with, ‘Hi, I’m Dustin Cole. I’m the dumbest guy here.”
Rubbing shoulders with these brilliant minds made me feel like an imposter. Quoting Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, “We're not worthy.”
I just kept thinking, “Why am I here? Why was I invited? Do I even deserve to be a part of this trade?”
I ran into a friend of mine, Trevor Matthews, at the HVACR Training Symposium. Trevor worked for Emerson and recently left to start his own program, “Refrigeration Mentor,” which provides training for individuals and companies working in the commercial refrigeration industry. Anyway, I explained how I was feeling to Trevor and asked how I could compete with any of these men.
He answered with a bit of great advice:
“You don't have to compete with anyone. The only person you have to compete with is yourself.”
A few weeks before the trip, I saw a post by Bryan Orr on Facebook. In his post, he was looking for people to apply to help with the HVAC School's social media. I really appreciate and enjoy the content, and I loved the idea of being part of it. I filled out a Google Doc with my information and sent it in. Time went by, and the Symposium came and went.
Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Bryan:
“We surprisingly had a ton of interest in this, and the three of you are the ones I see as the best fit and all people I massively respect.”
Wow. I would never have thought that THE Bryan Orr respects me. I went to sleep last night and had a dream. The dream was about a second email that I had received from Bryan. The second email read:
“Adam, I accidentally included you in the last correspondence. I apologize for the misunderstanding. We won't be needing your services.”
This dream was so real that I had to check my email when I woke up. Depressing, right?
Realizing what I know and how much I still have to learn has been staggering. If you are early on in your career, make sure to keep your head down and stay humble. If you have been at it for a while, keep your chin up and stay positive. Make sure to keep an open mind, no matter what. There will always be more for you to learn in this trade. Embrace the people around you with less knowledge. Spend the time to teach them what you know. Teaching a topic is the quickest way to master it because you have to make an effort to learn so much about it yourself. It’s easy to get down on yourself for what you don't know. Make sure to be thankful for all the things that you do.