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The HVAC/R Diagnosis Pyramid of Skill
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS GENERALIZATIONS. IT DOES NOT APPLY TO EVERYONE AND WE HAVE ALL PROBABLY BEEN ALL OF THESE AT ONE POINT OR ANOTHER. IF YOU FEEL PERSONALLY ATTACKED MAY I SUGGEST FINDING A SAFE SPACE AT A WEST COAST UNIVERSITY AND BORROWING A BINKY FROM A NEARBY TODDLER. ALSO… MY CAPS LOCK BUTTON IS STUCK.
It was my first few weeks out of tech school and I had already ridden with several guys. Some good, some not as good but today was the first time with this tech and something was already different. We were driving to our first call of the day and between dirty jokes and puffs on a cigarette.
“OK, let's guess what's wrong with this next one… they are all Lennox in this subdivision… so I'm betting…. a TXV”
That was my first exposure to the “Been there, seen that” tech, that relies on calibrated guesswork as a primary diagnosis tool. Along the way I've met many more of these and other types of techs in the “Diagnosis Pyramid” and so… I will share them with you now.
I confess I stole this pyramid idea from “Grahams Hierarchy of Disagreement” which is also one of my favorites… maybe I just like pyramids, my grandmother was an ancient alien so there's that.
I literally just made a podcast where I said we should stop calling people hacks. So I guess I'm a hypocrite, but hack is much easier to say than “tradesperson of dubious skills, training or intellect” so hack will need to suffice here.
Many hacks think they know what they doing because they suffer from a heavy dose of Dunning-Krueger effect and are standing firmly on Mt. Stupid as shown here.
The good news is that many confident people start here and this is not a life sentence to stay stranded on Mt. stupid. I have done complete hack jobs in my career, thinking I had enough skill, knowledge and experience only to realize later that I was a bumbling goon. The hack has to travel through the valley of despair to reach the slope of enlightenment where they can become a real tech.
Strength = Ignorance is Bliss
Fatal Flaw = They Are Terrible at Working on HVAC/R
Let's start by focusing on the good things about a white shirt:
- They smell nice
- They smile
- They have a firm handshake
- They rarely break systems because they don't use tools on them very often
Truth is that many good techs could learn a thing or three about positive communication and people skills from a white shirt, but that is where my positive comments end.
The trouble with white shirts advancing beyond that stage is they have no incentive to do so. They don't need to get dirty, they make lots of money and they look dang good doing it.
These are just salespeople and the more they learn technically, the more complicated it can be to sell systems so why bother?
Strength = Making Money & Looking good
Fatal Flaw = Greed
There are two types of parts changers, the one who does it to make more money and the one who does it because he thinks that's what diagnosis is.
In flat rate environments that pay bid time or commission on parts there are techs who catch on quick that certain repairs are money makers so they look EXTRA HARD for those repairs on every job. It isn't to say they are purposefully looking to pad a ticket but they become fixated on certain things that bring in the most money to them.
The other parts changer is often an inexperienced or under-trained tech who throws a bunch of parts at a problem and honestly thinks that's how you fix problems.
I knew one tech that would replace the control wire and transformer every time he a low voltage fuse blowing that he couldn't figure out. He didn't do it because it benefitted him in any way, he just didn't know how to troubleshoot.
Strength = They Eventually Get The System Running (Mostly)
Fatal Flaw = It Costs a Lot and Often Requires Multiple Trips
Been There Tech
The been there tech is common in all industries and is especially in techs who have done the job 10+ years. When you start out as a hack or a parts changer it's often easier to end up relying on what you've seen before than it is to go back to the start and really understand the fundamentals of how things work.
It can be a big ego hit for a been there tech to admit what they don't understand so they often form complex legends to explain why things happen the way they do.
Been there techs will often talk about “weird problems” and will concoct strange solutions to problems such as drilling holes places you are pretty sure they shouldn't or wiring this or that to that other thing or bypassing that one part because “it's not really needed”.
The been there tech should do more manual reading and less storytelling and they will find the myths and legends begin to look more like science.
Strength = They Often Have a Lot of Valuable Experiential Knowledge
Fatal Flaw = What They Know Only Applies to What They've Actually Worked On. New Technology is Often Confounding.
The final four techs are all truly techs and they have more in common then they have that separate them. The majority of the techs you meet that can actually repair most problems on most machines are average techs.
An average tech generally knows how the system works, can use a gauge manifold and a meter and can figure out the location of a leak or a low voltage short.
Their focus is on diagnosing the primary problem, fixing it and getting out of there as quickly as possible. They don't do much with superheat or subcool though they know how to calculate it, they don't use a micron gauge though they know the “right” answer is 500 microns and they don't really care to learn much more.
Strength = They Can Consistently Make Stuff Blow Cold and Hot
Fatal Flaw = Callbacks are Pretty Common When “More Stuff Breaks”
A real senior tech has all the find and fix skills of an average tech but with extra insight as to the “why” behind a failure. Yes the TXV is restricted but WHY wasn't the factory drier replaced with a new one when that compressor was replaced 6 months ago?
A senior tech knows how a compressor works and what makes it fail, knows how to check combustion on a furnace and what is causing the rising CO and can spot a leaking flare fitting from a mile away.
The thing that keeps a senior tech from becoming a Supertech is the vision of more than one layer beyond the NOW cause to all of the contributing factors that are often outside of the equipment itself.
Issues like high a low humidity, sweating ducts, occupant discomfort, coils that keep leaking over and over, consistent compressor failures when all the readings look “fine”.
When issues start to spread outside of the equipment into the electrical system, indoor air, envelope, ducts and design a senior tech can find themselves frustrated.
Strength = Excellent Diagnosticians
Fatal Flaw = Appliance Fixation
The term “Supertech” is often used as a pejorative to mean an experienced tech who thinks they know it all. These types of Supertech are often actually “been there” techs who like to talk on social media.
No, here I'm saying supertech as in a tech that can really fix just about anything with enough time alloted. They are nerdy enough to fill any knowledge gaps they may have about an issue before they call it good. They diagnose the entire structure and notice all of the contributing factors to problems. You can throw this sort of tech at almost any problem…. however…
They still are all about solving problems and can miss opportunities to optimize performance.
Strength = They Can Fix Anything
Challenge = They Aren't Always That Profitable
Ok… I'm stretching here, but let's face it… this whole thing is a bit of a stretch.
In order for a really good tech to also optimize profitability, they need to look outside of what is wrong in need of fixing and what can be improved for optimal
- System longevity
- Indoor Health & Safety
Doing this really well is a heck of a lot more than just selling a UV light or PCO like many white shirts do, it's about really understanding how to tune a building and equipment to work better.
This is things like dropping the compression ratio on a rack by letting the head float a little lower, or recommending that can lights be replaced with sealed led trim to reduce attic infiltration.
There are many high-value solutions that HVAC/R techs can help to suggest and implement that lead to a profitable business and happy customers.
Strength = Living Happily Ever After
Fatal Flaw = Too Much Money that They Must Build a Tower Like Scrooge McDuck to House (Ok, more like pride in their work and good nights sleep…. leave the gold tower to the white shirts)