The HVAC/R Island of Misfit Toys

It’s that time of year again. The tree has been decorated, cookies have been baked, festive family photos with my 10 kids have been sent out to friends, and we’ve had no shortage of service calls about “smoking” heat pumps. (Don’t worry, that’s normal.)

You know how much I enjoy Christmas movies by now, and a lot of Christmas stories are really underdog stories: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf, and one of my favorite classics, the 1964 TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m a tradesman and I love underdog stories. In a lot of ways, I think those two things go hand in hand.

In Rudolph, the underdog story is as obvious as Rudolph’s red nose itself, but I thought about something else the last time I watched the movie—the Island of Misfit Toys.

HVAC/R Misfits

I think it’s all too common for tradespeople to feel like misfits. The public school system favors book learning and standardized testing over hands-on learning. The people who thrive when they work with their hands get left behind, thinking they’re less than their peers who get top marks on standardized tests, make the honor roll every quarter, and will certainly attend college.

Or maybe they had family pressure to get into the trade. Some people inherit positions in their family’s HVAC business and are expected to take up the mantle when their parents and grandparents retire. Others have to make a decent living quickly due to financial pressure (or starting a family early and having to step up as a provider). 

Many of the people in this trade never dreamed of becoming a tradesperson when they were young. Even worse, a lot of us who have worked in residential HVAC have had that demoralizing experience of being in a customer’s house and hearing them tell their kid, “Get good grades in school so that you don’t end up like him.”

How can we not feel like the train with square wheels on his caboose, the bird who swims, or the cowboy who rides an ostrich? 

But in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, these toys all find refuge in each other.

Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon Cornelius all stumble upon the Island of Misfit Toys by accident. Even though Charlie-in-the-box was sad to introduce himself as a toy no child would want, the Island of Misfit Toys isn’t a dull place. The toys are all different, but they have a bond with each other because they’re misfits.

How I Stumbled Onto the Island of Misfit Toys

Spoiler alert: it’s not as interesting as being chased by the Abominable Snowmonster.

I grew up with a lot of tradesmen in the family and entered the trade at 16 years old. When I was 17, I was paired up with a mentor, Dave Barefoot, who was my Charlie-in-the-box (or Dave-in-the-box?) who introduced me to the absolutely overwhelming wonders of HVAC and taught me the beer-can cold suction line handshake (if you know, you know). 

I really had to get serious about the trade early on. As some of you know, my wife Leilani and I got married at 18, and our first child was born less than a year later. I suddenly had to be a provider and figure out how to turn my $8-an-hour junior tech job into something that could sustain a family. I liked troubleshooting problems and sharing what I knew—following in the footsteps of my mentor—and I became a trainer at a Southeastern HVAC company within a few years of that.

To this day, I’m still discovering so many talents on this “island” of ours:

  • The market refrigeration tech with socially awkward spots in his personality
  • The system design nerd who is really just a Russian doll with a sentient Manual J in the middle 
  • The scattered but personable senior tech who uses his nose to find gas leaks. 
  • The IT guy who can’t help people restart computers over customer service hotlines—he programs EMS and BAS systems 
  • The building science cowboy—who rides a Duct Blaster

Just as the toys were seen as unwanted in their own ways, these people all have unique traits that strike others as “weird” or “unworkable” early in life. But the trade offers an opportunity for all of these people to see these traits as gifts and apply their strengths to carve out a rewarding life path. (It may not be easy, but good often isn’t easy.)

Recognizing Value in Our Unique Gifts

As with Rudolph’s red nose, the thing that makes us professional outcasts can actually become our superpower. Those quirks can help us live fulfilling lives and make a positive difference in society.

Not to put down any other profession, but most doctors, lawyers, and engineers don’t know what to do when the A/C stops working in their offices. We offer a vital service to society, even if that function isn’t as publicly appreciated as those of people who spend 8 years in college. If we do unique things very well, like addressing envelope leakage to tailor a comfort solution to each customer, we can live enriching lives for ourselves and others.

We all have strong points and weak points. (Really, I think a lot of tradespeople are “pointy” in general.) We don’t necessarily have to try to compensate for our weaknesses; we just need to be self-aware and find a place where we can thrive on our strengths. 

When we get into jobs and organizations that allow us to lean into our strengths, we do a service to ourselves and society. If we were all shoehorned into becoming doctors and lawyers, we’d make crappy doctors and lawyers and work in very miserable hot, cold, or humid working conditions. 

The same thing happens on a smaller scale within the trade, too. Other people will be strong in the areas we aren’t, and we can support each other. Remember, installers need service techs to repair broken units, and service techs need installers to give them systems to repair!

But how can we get to a place where we truly belong?

Who is Our King Moonracer? 

King Moonracer rules over the Island of Misfit Toys. He searches for toys that no one wants and brings them to the island until someone wants them. He makes them feel at home and lets them be OK with being who or what they are. 

I don’t think there’s a single “King Moonracer” in this trade, but we can find support and guidance in so many places. Some people have a mentor who got them into the trade and then gave them a home in a specialized field. For some, an online social group or content creator may have opened them up to the many opportunities to branch out and become specialists in an area of the trade (like the HVAC School Facebook group or Craig Migliaccio’s AC Service Tech YouTube channel).

I wasn’t there for the recent high-performance HVAC livestream with Chris Hughes, Michael Housh, and Dustin Cole (thanks to Matt Bruner and Adam Mufich for keeping the show on the road), but I watched it afterward. They talked about how a lot of them got into high-performance HVAC because of each other (throw Genry Garcia into that mix, too), and they saw each other as mentors. 

They also encouraged people who want to get into high-performance HVAC to ask questions in Facebook groups and ask people who have been doing it for years for advice. There are so many great people in the trade who are willing to help others put in the work necessary to do what they truly want to do—the things that make them feel like they’re making a good difference in the world. People like Ty Branaman help people out and get them excited about the trade. 

Alex Meaney and Ed Janowiak are very forthcoming about what it takes to be successful in the HVAC design side of the industry and how people can make a difference there (if that’s their calling). 

I think we can find King Moonracer anywhere and everywhere. For new techs at Kalos, that person could be Bert. For some people who want to get into market refrigeration, that could be Trevor Matthews and his great mentorship program. Maybe King Moonracer is a place, not a person, like the HVAC-talk forum or a trade show. 

Where Do We End Up?

In the end, the misfit toys find homes where they’ll be appreciated and played with. We don’t know exactly what each toy’s ending looks like because they jump into Santa’s bag of presents and disappear, but we know it ends well for them. I think it’s the same in the trade.

There’s no saying where we should or shouldn’t end up. Part of the reason why I love this trade is because there are so many opportunities for us to try new things, and it’s OK if those don’t pan out. We still have our strengths and experiences at the end of it all.

I’ll share my own story about how things didn’t work out, and then they did.

We only had a few people at Kalos in the early days, and I had to install a few systems on my own. To be blunt, a lot of those projects were total disasters. No matter how hard I tried, and despite my high hopes for myself, I just couldn’t make my installs look good. At all. My craftsmanship just didn’t—and still doesn’t—cut it. 

But there are plenty of people who do great installs and are nothing short of artists, and I wasn’t locked into being an installer. 

I preferred solving problems and repairing systems installed by other people, so I found a home on the service side of the trade. I also wanted to share what I knew with others and help others grow in their careers, so I was able to eventually become a teacher and lead teams.

My brother, Nathan, is another example. He’s great with people and cares about their needs. He also has the technical experience and knowledge to explain how our current and prospective customers will benefit from our services. Nathan started off as an apprentice, helping me on our odd little terrifying jobs in the infancy stage of Kalos, with mixed results, and he is now our Co-owner and VP of Sales and a brilliant tradesmind. 

Thinking about where I’ve come from and looking ahead to 2024, I’ve realized once again how grateful and blessed I am to be in this trade. A lot of my friends started off as Charlie-in-the-box (or Jim-in-the-box—there are an awful lot of Jims in the HVAC/R world), and they’ve now taken on the role of King Moonracer for other Charlies-in-the-box. 

I hope you’ll all enjoy a nice holiday surrounded by family and friends who accept you for who you are, the unique gifts you have, and the invaluable service you do for others.

Have a Merry Christmas, everyone. (And if you feel like it, give a shoutout to your King Moonracer. Those guys and gals deserve all the credit in the world.)



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