Influences, disruptions and the inevitable

By Bob “Hot Rod” Rohr

What’s happening these days in the mechanical industry? Let’s look at some trends and consider how many of the changes mentioned here we will see in five years from now. We live in interesting and fast-moving times. While it can be a good move to jump in early with new technology, some will be a flash in the pan, becoming a liability in the future.

 

Farming below the arrays

I see a renewed focus on solar photovoltaics (PV). The concept is to turn many roofs into localized power generation stations. We can remove the line loss factor by generating power close to the buildings requiring it. Another smart idea: PV covered storage units. As more and more people are renting homes and storing their belongings these days, storage units are popping up all over. Improved battery technology will allow for some storage when the sun goes down.

AgroSolar is another concept that is getting renewed focus. We can generate electricity while farming below the arrays. This follows along with the wind farms installed in farm and grazing land.

 

Nuclear – a wrench in the works

Can we pull energy from other sources around us? Recently I’ve learned that you can get geothermal exchange from sewer piping in cities. There are some additional pilot projects researching waste-water thermal energy extraction heat pumps.

Small, fast assembly nuclear power plants got a thumbs up in my area from legislators and utility operators. Many small electric utilities signed on to purchase power and make it a viable project, financially speaking. A wrench in the works currently is the enriched uranium these plants require comes mainly from Russia. Some of the projected buyers are backing out of the deal, looking for other options. Water to cool even these small reactors is always a hot button in the arid southwest states. But don’t count out new ways to create nuclear power as a trend to follow.

 

EV market revs up

What tradesperson doesn’t enjoy truck shopping, or the quest for the perfect setup?

Small diesel-powered vehicles make up most of the European transportation market and we see more and more of those vanstyle vehicles on the roads. Clever trade-specific bodies are always present at the industry shows for many of these van type chassis. Aftermarket bodies and interior packages allow you to fine tune a truck to your specific trade needs. I’ve noticed the large product movers using electric vehicles (EV). Does that make sense for the service person with a small area to cover in a day? In some areas, EVs enjoy special parking spots. That can make a difference in a congested city when running multiple service calls. Plugging your EV into your home allows some battery backup for the home, also. You can regenerate when rates are low and the demand on the grid is low.

 

We want it yesterday

Getting product to market is trending to more and more online shopping options for our industry. Contractors love the ability to shop online at any hour of the day. Keeping the crew on the jobsite and not chasing parts helps productivity. Online plumbing and HVAC warehouses are being strategically located to allow overnight or one-day shipping in many cases.

Wholesalers are getting creative. Over five years ago, I visited a progressive wholesaler in the Chicago area. Early on they discovered that using Uber to deliver parts made more sense than tying a box truck up in traffic for hours to deliver a $50-part. Being able to track location allowed the contractor to be standing on the curb as the part arrived. This is a smart use of a trending transportation service. This wholesaler also had a 24-hour counter for evening parts availability. In busy buildings, service work is often done in the evening hours when the building is empty. You may need parts. An Uber parts delivery at midnight could be a big plus for service providers.

 

Ongoing issues to follow

The electrification movement shows no sign of letting up. As a result, we see a constant stream of products to wean us off fossil fuels. Heat pumps are getting a lot of attention and development. Also, we are seeing lots of new electric resistance type boiler offerings. Electrification is an industry onto itself. It is fast moving and controversial, because it is disruptive to the fossil fuel industry.

  • Everyday piping products continue to evolve. More press fitting options, as well as tools are gaining traction. Press and push fittings, even for high pressure refrigeration installations, are showing up everywhere. So, the trend continues away from old school, labour intensive and less reliable pipe connections.
  • Consolidation of contracting companies is ongoing. Larger fish swallowing smaller fish. We see this in the wholesale and even manufacturing businesses, also. Is this a positive for the trades and eventually the customer? Will a small handful of mega corporations control all the distribution, manufacturing and contracting at some point? Who handles tech support for these mega consolidators? Certainly, their marketing spend can outshine hundreds of smaller players.
  • How is workforce development trending? Where will next generation trades folk come from? Every blue-collar employer is looking for help. Trade schools I have visited are trying everything to attract young people to our industry. High tech training, such as virtual headsets, has some value in getting gamers off the couch and into a truck. We need to find the motivational buttons for the younger generation, and offer them the training and money to enter the trades.
  • Getting into a customer’s home and getting a repeat visit has always been interesting. Service plans, scheduled maintenance programs, assisted by email and social media drip campaigns, are ways to attract and keep your customers. Marketing to your existing and new customer base is worth looking at from the consumers’ point of view.
  • Should we expect major HVAC, hydronic and plumbing components to have a 10-year life expectancy? 15 years? The days of 30- to 50-year boiler life expectancy are behind us. Trying to find repair parts for even 10-year-old boilers can be frustrating, or very expensive when you find that specific motherboard. Would you install systems differently knowing in 10 years or so a complete replacement may be required?
  • Water conservation in my part of the world is still trending, despite record snowfalls this winter. As one example, local utilities have numerous programs to conserve water used for landscape irrigation. Converting your landscape to xeriscaping − removing all or most of your thirsty lawn − can result in a tax rebate or cash payment. Though, oddly, at recent trade shows water wasting body spray displays were in many of the fixture manufacturers’ booths.

 

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