What Did You Think Wouldn't Make It?
When we started HeatingHelp.com in 1997, the folks who built that first crude site told me we could have a links page. I asked what that was, and the young man doing the coding told me it was a place on the site where visitors could go to see what other sites I thought were interesting. I was buying old heating books at the time from a three-year-old startup that specialized in used books so I asked him to link to that.
“I wouldn’t bother, Dan,” he said. “These people aren’t going to be around much longer.”
“Well, if you’re going to sell books or used books, you need a URL that reads, say, Books.com, or UsedBooks.com. No one is ever gonna go to a site called Amazon.com to buy books. That name is ridiculous.”
We found a different company to build the next version of HeatingHelp.com.
What product, tool, service or system in our industry did you think would never make it, but then did? For instance, I was remembering when barcodes arrived and many wholesalers said they wouldn't use them because their business had way too many products. Barcodes would be impossible for them to adopt.
And that brought me back to my days working in a grocery store. We had a tool we called a rotator. You squirted blue ink onto a pad, rotated a series of rubber belts to select the right price, and then banged away with your rotator atop all the cans in the store. When the price changed, we sat with bottles of rubbing alcohol and cotton balls for hours, erasing the ink and resetting the rotator.
Then a new machine arrived. It squirted out glued bits of paper that showed the price. The rotators retired and we thought the new machine would be with us forever.
When barcodes showed up, so many people shook their heads and said no way.
I was talking with some friends in the industry and one of them said he didn’t think modulating/condensing boilers were going to be around for long when they first arrived. They were just too expensive.
I remembered one of my first trips to the big ISH trade show in Frankfurt, Germany. It was 1991. I was staring at a mod/con and had no idea what it was. A salesman wandered over and told me about it. I asked him how long the thing would last and he told me 10 years.
“Boilers are supposed to last 100 years,” I said.
“You must be from America,” he said.
“I sure am. Our boilers last a very long time. What are you supposed to tell a customer after just 10 years of service?”
We will tell them about the massive advances in boiler technology we have made in the past 10 years. Then they will buy a new one.”
“That’s not what people do,” I said.
He smiled and said one word: “Mercedes.”
So, I was quite wrong about the mod/cons.
When water-lubricated circulators first showed up, I shook my head and said there’s no way these are going to make it. Circulators need oil. They have to be big and heavy and use lots of electricity. That’s what the market wants. Why? Because it just is.
Wrong again, but when the smart circulators with their ECM motors showed up, I just kept my mouth shut and watched.
With age comes experience, and hopefully, some wisdom.
Another friend in the biz said, “I sincerely thought mini-splits would forever be a homeowner-special installation. And yet, here we are in one of the coldest climates in the U.S., selling them as a primary heat source.”
Do you remember high-velocity air-conditioning? You had to snake all those flexible hoses throughout the house. Sure, that was easier to do than finding room for ductwork, but then came the mini-split.
It’s good to watch and be quiet. You never can tell. My first computer was a Leading Edge. I wrote my book, “The Lost Art of Steam Heating,” on that machine. I saved my work on a box of floppy discs and printed it on a dot-matrix printer every day in case the Leading Edge decided to quit. I had a feeling computers would make it, but I had no idea that we’d be where we are now in just a few decades later.
I saw PEX on a large scale for the first time in Sweden. This was in December 1990 and the folks at Wirsbo invited me to be one of their guests at a celebration they were having. The company had sold enough PEX to circle the world five times. I got to listen to Thomas Engel, who had invented that incredible plastic. He told a great story. I also got to watch workmen place PEX under some Stockholm streets to keep ice from forming.
“How can you afford to do this?” I asked.
“How can we afford not to do this?” one of the Wirsbo engineers said. “If we don't, people will slip and fall.”
What did you think when you saw your first SharkBite fitting? That’s working out just fine. Same goes for most of the other connection fittings that marry PEX to metal, but so many took a step backward when each arrived, but now we have plastic boiler parts and exhaust systems, and 3D printing. Who knows what’s next, but I suspect whatever it is, many will shake their heads and say no at first.
Cordless drills? Smart phones? Infrared cameras? Bubble-foil insulation? Hot-surface ignitors?
Do you remember when the iPad arrived? Some joked that it was a feminine product. I bought one as soon as I could.
Big Box stores? Online selling? Contractor franchising? Did you think those were going to make it?
And how about today? Government is now involved in the industry’s direction. When New York City says it wants to get rid of steam heating and replace it all with heat pumps, I pay attention. I know a lot about steam heating. I know that it can be made to work economically and provide great comfort, but because I’m old and paying attention, I can see how things are going to go, and not just in NYC, but everywhere.
Governments want to replace gas with electricity for green reasons, and now for geo-political reasons as well. They’ll mandate it, just as they mandated improvements in combustion efficiency years ago. Big Gas and Big Oil will form more PACs to fight this. The trade will not like the move toward electrification because it changes the very structure of their business.
It’s our nature to say this will never make it.
But look to the really big manufacturers of heating equipment and watch what they’re doing. Watch the advances in heat-pump technology that will show up before any of us can believe it happened. Watch what happens with gravity-battery technology, and so much more.
Watch. And think back to all those things you thought would never make it years ago. Many of them didn’t, but I’ll bet more of them did.
Watch, and find your place in the change. If you don’t, you’re just going to be back there waving your hands and stomping your feet.