Building bridges toward a ‘hybrid’ approach

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For our industry to evolve and adjust to meet the needs of our customers, professionals — both young and old — must be open to the idea that there’s more than one way to design and install a system.

It’s not smart to bring a knife to a gunfight. You wouldn’t use a fork to eat ice cream. (Well, maybe if you really wanted ice cream and that was the only utensil you had.)

These are fairly ingrained notions in our minds. Why, then, do we so frequently select the same products for the wide array of applications we encounter in the trade? Why do we approach dissimilar jobs with the same mindsets?

I spent several years of my career with a rep firm specializing in hydronic solutions. At the heart of the system were our boiler offerings, which were trending away from the conventional cast iron towards alternative metals for condensing. A number of reasons can be attributed to the cause (lack of understanding, unwillingness to change), but far too often the products were misapplied. Despite my best efforts to share knowledge in some of these scenarios, the individual had made up his or her mind as to the device they wanted to use.

Millwork lofts, Minneapolis, installed hydronic piping and PEX plumbing.

(In fairness, I’ve been at fault in certain circumstances where I’ve neglected to ask the right questions to accurately advise my customers on product selections. We can all learn. We can all grow.)

In some cases a single, perfect solution does not exist. Sometimes a marriage of two or more products is necessary to adequately address an application. Lucky for us, we have a vast offering of goods and materials from which to choose. The industry as a whole is getting much better at taking advantage of multiple products to provide a superior, more efficient solution to an application that was previously shortchanged by a single appliance.

But is this philosophy only limited to articles like this one? Or can we put it into practice?

Defining “hybrid”

The two most recognized definitions of the word “hybrid” are: (1) “something of mixed origin or composition”; or (2) “something having two kinds of components that produce the same or similar results.”

The most identifiable example is the modern automobile, now frequently powered by both an electric motor and an internal combustion engine. In the plumbing and heating the industry, we also apply this concept to our mechanical building solutions — evaluating the needs of a particular application and selecting the proper appliance or appliances for the best possible result.

Beyond its application to inanimate objects, there’s also a genetic definition for hybrid: “the offspring of genetically dissimilar parents or stock produced by the breeding of plants or animals of different varieties, species or races.”

Some of you are probably now asking: “Where’s Cahill going with all this?” Let me explain.

Our industry’s demographic spans decades. Some industry veterans have been around since the Nixon Administration (really!). Others are just entering their apprenticeships. A delta that broad will naturally create the “old way” and the “new way” of doing things. While in most cases neither is incorrect, it can breed conflict.

Because we all come from different backgrounds, we all have individual opinions. Some run parallel to one another; others are direct contradictions. Rather than dispute which side should be deemed right, why can’t we explore the best way to pair the differing ideologies into an effective solution?

Being the bridge in the industry

We have all encountered “stubborn old guys” in various settings. Many of you, like me, you were raised by one. They are proudly and totally set in their ways, and absolutely no one can show them a better way to do something.

On the flip side, we’ve all come across young “know-it-alls” — green as they come, preaching all the things they just learned in trade school and operating with the “two-mouths, one-ear” mentality. (Having just north of a decade under my belt, I’ve fallen in this category on more than one occasion.)

Then there are others who exist right between the two extremes. If you see yourself in this category, my friend, you are the bridge. Old enough to know you still have some things to learn, yet young enough to still do some teaching. You are the intermediary who can apply the hybrid concept to family, friends and professional colleagues. Your mission of opening old-guard minds and closing rookie mouths won’t be easy, but the important thing to remember is, both have something extremely valuable to offer.

In our line of work, as in our daily lives, communication is vital to success. People who serve as “bridges” play the most crucial roles in blurring the lines that divide experience and youth. By practicing our tested methods and integrating new ideas, we can arrive with new and improved solutions that operate with greater efficiency and better meet the needs of customers.

The best of both worlds

Let’s evaluate a generic heating application: Our client is constructing a small commercial office building for his or her business. In addition to multiple offices, it is desirable to have a largely glass façade for the lobby area. Traffic will be moderate, indicating that the front doors will be opening and closing on a frequent basis. The comfort of employees and clients is important to the owner. Have you considered all your options?

Our stubborn Old Guard Guy may suggest a cast-iron boiler/baseboard system. He’ll run copper piping to and from the heating element to each emitter. He’s done it a million times successfully, so why change now?

Our Young Know-It-All might suggest an in-floor radiant system throughout, using a condensing boiler to take advantage of lower supply-water temperatures and tucking manifold cabinets into inconspicuous places around the facility. Why mess with old technologies when we have all these bells and whistles?

Is one solution better than the other?

An argument can certainly be made for both, depending on which metrics you favor. Short-term vs. long-term cost? Efficiency? Noise? Durability?

What if our Old Guard Guy gave our Young Know-It-All an audience? What if our Young Know-It-All chose to listen?

  • Perhaps we arrive at a solution that uses in-floor radiant for the lobby and baseboard for the offices. The radiant maintains a consistent temperature to mitigate the opening and closing of the doors…
  • …but where the temperature swings aren’t as drastic, the two can install more cost-effective baseboard.
  • In lieu of a costly, copper delivery system throughout, let’s use copper only in the mechanical room to best support air separators, expansion tanks, pumps and zone valves. Run-outs are then completed with a PEX solution to help reduce project costs.

Now, I’m not saying this way is the best way. I’m simply opening the door to a new concept where two separate approaches can work together to create a new, potentially better solution.

As children, we learned a square peg does not fit into a round hole. Why is it we so often misapply products with minimal (or no) consideration for alternative options? We have to learn to take the blinders off in our day-to-day activities and communicate with one another. To make progress, we need to be open-minded to the notion that there might be better ways than our own, and humble enough to know when someone younger than ourselves might be onto something truly great.

The term “hybrid” has been around for quite some time, and the objects to which we have applied the concept have improved our lives. It stands to reason that applying it to our way of thinking on the job site might well do the same. Don’t you think?

Andrew Cahill is a technical sales representative for Uponor. He can be reached at

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