Magical Thinking


It was one of those days at when the old guys had the floor. One of the regulars, a retired (and understandably crotchety) fella from Canada had this to say:

“You want to know what drives me to distraction? Magical thinking — the sort of thought process some ‘experts’ rely on. A guy goes into a boiler room and scratches his head because the system is one he isn’t familiar with, so he ‘fixes it’ by trying to change it to something he thinks he understands. But now nothing works, so he shrugs and tells the customer that it’s really old and they should upgrade to something new, meaning something that he thinks he understands.

“This happened to my wife and I two years ago when our air-conditioning system developed a leak. We have an insurance plan that covers all the equipment in our home. I was going to repair the a/c since I had installed it 20 years ago, but my wife insisted I call the insurance company because that’s what we’re paying them for.

“They sent some wet-behind-the-ears apprentice who, after two hours, tells me the leak is happening because I used ACR pipe instead of tubing. He said it had too many silfossed joints.

“I told him to leave and I repaired it myself. That child was using magical thinking. He didn’t know what was wrong so he grasped at the most outlandish problem he could think of. He decided that the only way to repair the system was to repipe everything with tubing. Really?! How about trying to educate yourself so you do understand, or just admit you’re stumped and you’re going to call in someone more knowledgeable.”

Another retired guy said, “When I was still working and I came upon a piece of equipment that I was not familiar with I would call the shop to see if we had anyone experienced with that type of equipment and have them come to the job site. If time allowed, I would stay with that person and get educated on that piece of equipment.

“The equipment I worked on and serviced was all large steam- and hot-water boilers. There was very little margin for error with those units and guessing at answers was not an option. Guessing could cause a loss of life. If I didn't have experience with a particular piece of equipment, I asked for help. No one should try to fix something until they’re properly trained.

“My advice for the new guys is to read and study everything pertaining to the equipment that you are supposed to work on, and I mean everything. And don't be afraid to ask for help. I knew too many guys who were just part-changers. They had no idea what they were doing, but they did it anyway. What a shame.”

Companies that train their people are companies that thrive. If you’re not working for one of those, train yourself. Read every day. Just read.

Jake Myron, long retired, but who once worked for the NYC Housing Authority and taught me so much about big steam systems chimed in:

“I started in the business as a plumber and much later in life I became a consultant and author. My brother, may he rest in peace, was a top-notch, oil-service technician. He did it all — residential, commercial and industrial oil- and gas burners.

“Both my brother and I carried technical manuals, troubleshooting guides and installation instructions for all equipment we serviced in boxes on the passenger seats of our vehicles. For us, the magical thinking happened by way of telephone landlines or cell phones. We called each other when the poop hit the fan. Between the two of us, no problem ever went unresolved. The phone is a very magical tool and the reference data kept in your vehicle is magic in print.”

As I said, Jake taught me a lot.

And then Ed the Heater Man, one of my favorite retired guys, told this story:

“This discussion reminded me of when a salesman for a company I worked for went to an apartment complex to try to get the oil account. It was about 11 a.m. and about 23° outside when the salesman noticed a burner-repair truck close to Building #5’s boiler room. That reminded him to mention to the potential customer that we employed expert burner technicians.

“Twelve hours later, at 11 p.m., the building manager of the complex called the salesman on his cell phone and told him the mechanics that were working on the boiler all day just asked him if he knew anybody who knew about these things.

“I was there by midnight. I found a cracked porcelain on one very clean ignitor, a combustion chamber full of oil (which they had blessedly reset only once), and a new-fangled, flame-retention burner that I was not familiar with because I was much younger then.

“I replaced the porcelain, got two fire extinguishers ready, and opened the air adjustment. I loosened wires from the main oil valves, and instructed the building manager to remove all combustible material from the front of the boiler room. He asked how far he should clear and I told him at least 20 feet. I needed to keep that lane clear because the flame from the flame sightglass opening might shoot out that far.

“The problem was, I was not sure how to adjust those electrodes and the only thing I had in my box of books on the passenger seat of my truck was a similar model of that burner that was the next size smaller. So I was confident with my guess at the electrode setting.

“The burner lit off. The flame shot out, but only six feet from the flame sight door. I removed the high-fire and low-fire wires to the fuel solenoid valves and waited for the chamber to burn off, adding a little low-fire fuel as needed. Within two hours, the flame was under control.

“The next day we sent one of our commercial technicians to check everything and to do a complete maintenance on the unit. I would not have been comfortable burning off that saturation or leaving the burner operational if I did not have that box of books on my passenger seat.”

To me, the best way to think magically is to think with someone else. It could be a teacher, a mentor, a book- or tech-article author, that person back at the shop who has more experience than you do, or the collective knowledge of a place like The Wall forum at If you don’t know, don’t guess. Be humble. Ask. Learn. Lives are at stake.

I’m an old retired guy and I continue to go to others, including the Dead Men, for their knowledge. I know that I will never know it all. I am but one link in a very long chain, and I depend on the stronger links around me. When it comes to thinking, they are the true magic.


Leave a comment

Related Posts

dan and marianne holohan
Dear Reader

Hello, old friend. I’m writing today to say thanks, and to say farewell. This will be my last column.

Published on 12/06/2023 12:34 PM by Dan Holohan
Posted in The HVAC Business
piped steam boiler
Subdural’s Triumph

Subdural posed a question on The Wall at in the Strictly Steam section, where some of the sharpest knives in the drawer post every day. The question was a...

Published on 12/06/2023 11:25 AM by Dan Holohan
Posted in The HVAC Business