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The Problem Solver

In this episode, Dan Holohan tells the tale of finding treasure in an old box in a warehouse and how that moment changed his career bit by bit.


Episode Transcript

In 1970, when I started in the heating industry, there was a battle going on between the folks who believed in catching and controlling the air in a hydronic system by holding it inside a plain-steel compression tank, and those who thought it was best to catch the air and just get rid of it using automatic air vents and a diaphragm-type compression tank.

My father and I worked for the Bell & Gossett representative in the New York City Metro area at the time, so we had to subscribe to the Air Control school of thought because that’s what B&G preached back then. And you can’t be holier than the church.

The argument went like this: How can a closed hydronic system be truly closed if you keep venting air from it? When you lose air, cold water will take its place, and cold water contains more dissolved air. That air will come out of solution once the water gets hot. Automatic air vents (which we, as Air Control people, hated) would spit that air out and even fresher, colder water would take its place. We saw that as an endless cycle.

The air elimination folks disagreed. They said it was better to vent the air and replace it with water. And even though the water contained more dissolved air, it was far less air than the amount you just vented. So it was a case of diminishing returns, they said. With each automatic venting cycle (they adored automatic air vents), less and less new water containing dissolved air would enter, and before long, you’d have a truly closed system.

Put that in your pipe and pump it.

We fought the good fight because we had no choice, and so did they. We each had products to sell, and the older I get, the more I realize that that’s what the fight was really all about. Obviously, the air elimination folks won the war. Just look at how many diaphragm-type tanks we use today compared with how many plain-steel compression tanks you’ll find in any wholesaler’s warehouse.

But a bit of background first, and a story about a guy who taught me a lot, even though I never met him.

His name was Ed Tidd, and he worked for Bell & Gossett when I was still in grade school. He had a hand in developing their line of what they called Airtrol equipment (Airtrol was a marriage of the words air and control), and that’s why he sang its praises. He had a hand in it.

I first encountered Mr. Tidd on a summer’s afternoon when I was working in the rep’s Long Island office. I was a customer-service guy, and the phones weren’t ringing much that day, so I took a walk out to our warehouse and found a carton of old books up on a high shelf. One of those books was a brown binder that had the title, “TIDD-BITS – Factual Reports of Hydronic Trouble Installations, with Tips for Their Prevention.” There was a drawing of a rabbit at rest near the top of the binder cover. The caption read, “Always on the alert for news of a trouble job.” Near the bottom of the cover, the same rabbit is leaping, and that caption reads, “He has spotted one and is on his way.”

I was in love.

Inside this three-ring binder were hundreds of light green pages broken down into individual reports, each report two or three pages long. Each told of a problem job and how the folks at B&G (mostly Ed Tidd himself, writing in the corporate “we”) had solved the problem. Most of the problems had to do with air, and not surprisingly, Airtrol equipment played a huge role in the solving of those problems. It was marketing at its best.

Ed Tidd would mail these reports, one at a time, to the reps as he wrote them during the early ‘60s, when I was still in grade school, and the reps saved them in the binders that Bell & Gossett provided. It didn’t take long to build a wonderful library of true stories — well-told and with simple, hand-drawn illustrations.

I loved the way Ed Tidd wrote. He spoke directly to me. He wove stories and used terms of simple English rather than engineering jargon. He caught me up in the drama of being on the job, and he made me feel the urgency of finding the cause of the problem because the customer was waiting and it was cold outside. He wrote to only one reader (me), and not to groups of people. Ed Tidd just talked on paper. It was as though he was there with me.

I wanted to learn how to do that, and that was the beginning of my career as a writer. If not for Ed Tidd and his TIDD-BITS, I probably never would have written a single magazine article, let alone a few dozen books.

So I talked my boss into letting me write a newsletter for local contractors, in which I would tell the stories of what we were seeing in the field (using the corporate “we”). I wanted to be like Ed Tidd.

My boss said OK, and we called the newsletter “The Problem Solver.” We didn’t have computers or a mailing list, so I went to the public libraries all around New York City, northern New Jersey and Long Island, where they had Yellow Pages from all the counties and boroughs. I hand-wrote more than 5,000 names and addresses of heating contractors from those Yellow Pages, and that’s how we got started.

“The Problem Solver” was very popular, and in 1989, with a wife and four daughters who were all going to be in college together in 2000 (and they were), I decided to leave the rep and see if I could start a business, make a living as a writer, and pay for our kids’ college. And thanks to you, dear listener, it all worked out.

But I still wish I could have met Ed Tidd. I wish I could have sat with him and had a cup of coffee or a cold beer, but we were of different times and places. His voice still echoes in my mind, though, and I still smile when I look at the rabbit on the cover of that old brown binder. There was such a hands-on beauty to all that he did.

These days, I think of Ed Tidd whenever I watch a contractor talk to a customer about what’s wrong with a heating system. Most of the time, the contractor will talk technical mumbo-jumbo that soars over the customer’s head. The customer will stand there and nod. She has no idea what the contractor is talking about, but that doesn’t stop the guy. He thinks everyone in the world knows what ECM, and TDS, and AFUE, and a hundred other acronyms mean, but she has no idea. So she nods.

Ed Tidd taught me how to explain complicated systems using simple drawings and words that compare something I didn’t know to something I do know — how a circulator and a Ferris-wheel motor are similar in what they do, for instance. With a simple pencil sketch, he showed me the bubbles rising in the pipes. I already knew that bubbles rise, but Ed Tidd made the connection to heating for me. His pencil would depict the water trying to shove past the trapped air. I could see it all in my mind’s eye, and I could feel the water’s frustration as it tried to fight its way through a partially closed valve. And all because of that simple sketch. And once I saw it in my head as a moving picture, I owned it. And I could explain it to others.

Too often, contractors talk about microbubble reabsorbers and ECM motors and whatnot instead of using simplicity to get through to laypeople.

The customer just nods at “ECM,” but she doesn’t buy what you’re selling. She just nods because she doesn’t get it, and she doesn’t want you to think she’s stupid.

Try telling a simple story instead of showing how techie you are. Go the other way. It works. Do what Ed Tidd did. Keep it simple. Make it exciting. Talk on paper.

I hope you enjoyed that tale. And if you did, please share it with your friends. And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you, and I’m really enjoying our time together. Thanks for being here.

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