For better or worse, social media has had a profound and irreversible effect on society. Its impact has reached every business sector in the developed world. The skilled trades are no exception.
Some HVAC and plumbing manufacturers were quick to build a presence, although serious work-related adoption of social platforms by tradesmen and women took
some time. Now, however, the field has been populated by more than a few influencers who’ve differentiated themselves by regularly posting informational, interesting and humorous content that others in their trade can relate to.
TikTok and Instagram, specifically, have become peer-to-peer powerhouses, though the latter is far more widely used by tradespeople.
“Following other installers on Instagram has had a huge impact on my own work,” said Mike Flynn, Lead Installer & Job Supervisor for Service Professionals in northern New Jersey. “It pushed me to raise the quality of my work, especially from an aesthetic standpoint.
“You could plainly see the progress I made by comparing my own mechanical rooms to what I was seeing on social media,” continued Flynn. “I’ve probably learned the most on Instagram from Aaron Bond, Motty Pliers and Howard Mechanical, who I thanked in person at AHR [Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Expo] 2020. The list goes on and on.”
Flynn really began posting to Instagram in 2015, about the time he started running jobs on his own. He goes by @flynnstone1 on the photo- and video-sharing app and has almost 17,000 followers.
His Instagram is populated by advice, tips, tricks and the rare tool review. Flynn’s French Bulldog, Bruce, makes a cameo appearance from time to time, and is even depicted in the caricaturized stickers he had made of his likeness. These stickers—in which Flynn is pictured with a giant pipe wrench and full arm sleeve tattoo—are traded with manufacturers and other tradespeople who use Instagram. The stickers he receives in return get applied to the inside of his van cab, acting as a backdrop when he records videos from the driver’s seat, or on the bins in the back of the van.
“Of course, 17,000 followers are insignificant for a celebrity or a big, household name company, but for a tradesman, it’s a very solid number,” said Flynn. “I appreciate my followers as much as I enjoy seeing other accounts that I learn from. I didn’t start posting in order to gain a big following. It kind of happened by accident. Once I hit about 1,500 followers, I realized I might have something unique.”
Flynn’s Instagram account is characterized by super clean work and things he encounters on a daily basis. He also posts what he calls Sunday Boiler School. He started these informative videos about two years ago.
“Sunday Boiler School is a way for me to address what I see in the field being done incorrectly,” explained Flynn. “Steam boiler piping, circulator placement, venting, and circulator sizing—the latter being something I promote working on with a manufacturer if help is needed. I often contact Dave Holdorf, Eastern Region Residential Trainer at Taco Comfort Solutions, when I’m not certain of the pump curve I need.
“I know my lane within the Instagram community, and I do my best to stay in it,” added Flynn. “For that reason, I don’t offer advice on things I’m not really confident in or passionate about. I also don’t do many tool reviews.”
Having a robust social media presence has provided a number of opportunities for Flynn, whether to socialize, share information or improve his own skill set. He’s been a guest on a number of podcasts, including HVAC Know It All, Bold City Plumber’s “Bold Cast,” and HVAC Reefer Guy.
A photo that Flynn submitted to the Ridgid Tools brand in 2019—in which he’s stands atop a 550 MBH residential steam boiler with two pipe wrenches—earned him a ticket to the 2019 Ridgid Experience in Ohio.
On occasion, customers will recognize him from posts and ask, “Hey, you’re the Instagram guy, right?” However, this typically comes after a salesman has shown the customer Flynn’s Instagram.
“Service Professionals salesmen will sometimes use photos from my Instagram to show off our work to homeowners,” said Flynn. “So when they see the big guy with the beard and tats show up for the install, they sometimes draw the connection. Ultimately, my company likes that I’m active on social media. I’m careful not to let it interfere with my work.”
As an employer, what’s better than a team member who actively seeks out his/her own training opportunities? That’s another advantage Flynn has found with social media. He’s always abreast of the training being offered by several different manufacturers.
Most recently, Flynn has attended Taco Comfort Solutions’ online training, which he learned about on Instagram. The company presents training materials in two live webinars.
The first is Taco Tuesday, a weekly webinar hosted each Tuesday at noon EST. The webinar alternates between residential and commercial topics. John Barba and Dave Holdorf host the residential courses while Rich Medairos and Brett Zerba host the commercial sessions.
Taco After Dark is presented weekly by John Barba, Dave Holdorf and Rick Mayo. The content from these webinars comes from Taco’s full-day hydronic courses, broken into one-hour segments.
“The webinars are great,” said Flynn. “I’ve met and learned from the hosts in the past. Dave Holdorf and John Barba are super smart and really funny.”
A recent Taco After Dark topic was whether to zone with circulators or zone valves, a topic that interested Flynn.
“My takeaway was that using valves or circulators is an entirely personal preference,” said Flynn.
“There are slight advantages in certain situations, like price point and redundancy, but it really comes back to sizing your circulator correctly for the demand. If you do that, the system will never be over- or under-pumped regardless of whether zone circulators or valves are used.”
More often than not, service professionals use valves to zone residential projects. Flynn speculates they do so only because that’s the way they’ve always done it. However, it wasn’t long ago that Flynn had the opportunity to install a lot of pumps in a single residence.
“We arrived at a large residence in Upper Saddle River, NJ, to find a huge cast iron boiler, a 100-gallon, gas-fired water heater and 11 zones of baseboard, radiant, convectors and hydro coils, none of which were working properly,” said Flynn. “The owner only had three requests: replace it all, make it work and zone the house with circulators. That’s exactly what we did.”
The 9,500 sq ft home was served by a 20-year-old, 12-section boiler. Both it and the big water heater were due for replacement. The piping left a lot to be desired.
“You can argue all day about whether zone valves or zone circulators are better, but I think everyone will agree that you have to pick one or the other for a single zone,” said Flynn with a chuckle. “The zones on this system had zone valves downstream of the zone circulators. As you’d expect, the homeowner had all sorts of problems.”
Over the course of a week, the system was torn out and replaced, this time with two, 200 MBH condensing NTI boilers and an 80-gallon indirect tank. Primary/secondary piping was facilitated with a large hydro separator.
“We installed a Taco 007e ECM circulator on eight of the zones, with a pair of 0011s on the remaining two zones.” said Flynn. “The 007e was dependable, readily available and efficient. We install hundreds of them every year. The boiler circs are 0013s.”
Venting the job was the only challenge, given the mechanical room’s location in the middle of the beautifully finished basement. The joist bays ran the correct direction for combustion air and venting, but they would have terminated outside under a hardscaped stairway, so Service Professionals used the two existing chimneys that served the boiler and water heater.
“We ran both boiler exhaust vents through the existing boiler chimney with Centrotherm flexible poly vent lines,” explained Flynn. “The smaller chimney only allowed us to run one of the intake vents. The second boiler draws combustion air from the big mechanical room, and the owner leaves the mechanical room open. He likes to show the room off to his engineer buddies. He calls it ‘The Palace,’ and he’s really proud of it.”
When asked about the fuel savings provided by the retrofit, the owner admits that he doesn’t pay attention to his fuel bills. It’s safe to assume, though, that the reduction in natural gas consumption is substantial.
The job was gratifying for Flynn. He designed the system himself and headed up the install. Like many of his other mechanical rooms, the system is now immortalized on his Instagram account.
“Half of the work I do is hydronic, and half of that is steam,” said Flynn. “Last year we were installing four boilers each week. This year, for obvious reasons, we’re installing fewer. However, I’m keeping an eye on social media to see what others are doing as we emerge from the slow-down caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instagram is one way I can keep a pulse on things nationwide, and I’m hoping to see an uptick in boiler sales soon.” ICM
Dan Vastyan is PR director and writer for Common Ground, a trade communications firm based in Manheim, PA