Although I went to Babson College, a relatively conservative business school, I grew up in rural Maine working on farms and doing carpentry. I find huge value in craftsmanship and hard work and its why guys like Gerry Wagner are awesome to me.

Gerry came to HeatSpring’s IGSHPA geothermal training a few years back and is now an IGSHPA Accredited Trainer. He works through his company ESPCO Training to provide contract product training for manufacturers and distributors of solar thermal and geothermal products.

Gerry is proficient in both geothermal heating and cooling and solar thermal. After talking with Gerry, I realized he has installed the northern most Sunnovations pump package on his home.

Needless to say, Gerry is super cool, and has a great perspective on the industry. It’s great to speak with someone who has been in the trades his whole life, loves it, and is now applying his mastery to these new technologies. So, I decided to give Gerry a call and get his perspective on the industry.

Here is our conversation

Question – Chris : What’s your story in the renewable energy industry?

Answer – Gerry: I’ve been in the HVAC industry for 30 years. I got into it by necessity, I was looking for a job that would pay for college and I responded to an ad for a boiler company in New Jersey. At the time, I didn’t know a boiler from a furnace, from a washing machine.

In the process, I fell in love with the business, I read all the literature and I was lucky enough to get mentored from a bunch of older guys in our shop. Two years ago, I got burned out and turned my knowledge into training. I provided technical assistance and training with a manufactures rep. I wasn’t inspired anymore and really wanted to learn again. I felt I wasn’t learning anything new and just relying on the skills I learned when I was younger.

I first got involved in solar thermal and it sparked a new fire in me. I then got into geothermal. Geothermal has made me feel young again because I’m learning so much and its such an exciting technology.

Q: After watching the Mike Rowe’s video on your website I had a few questions: 

It did make me wonder, how can you have a labor shortage in time with such high unemployment? As a trainer, are you noticing the same problem with geothermal and solar? There is huge consumer demand but finding professionals who are qualified is an issue. Are you noticing the same problem? Do you think it will be overcome?

A: What I’ve been finding over the past 2 years is that many of my students are people who have been displaced from their previous careers and they’re looking for something that is more stable. I’ve had so many people say to me that people will always need plumbing, air conditioning, and heating.

I believe the recession has increased the education being provided and people have more time now to learn new technologies in geothermal and solar. There is a void in the installers who really understand it and are comfortable pursuing work in it. IGSHPA is doing a good job of addressing the technical issue. With a focused, effort I think we can turn this around and train people very quickly.

Q: When you’re going to high school, apprenticeship programs and the trades are often perceived as “under” a college degree. With solar and geothermal, most of the principles are the same but just require a little technology change. How are the trades as an industry addressing this?

A: I agree. One of the problems the trades has faced and still hasn’t addressed is that the trades tend not be sexy. It’s hard work and can be really dirty. Kids coming out of high school are looking for sexy jobs, whether it be computer or management jobs. The trades has not done a good job at communicating that you can make a fine living, and you can own your owner company if that’s what you want to do.

One of the major advantages to solar and geothermal is the trades are now becoming sexy again. Renewable energy is cool. But to be a good installer, having trade experience and craftsmanship is very important. I’m 50 years old and when I was in high school the prevailing thought is that you need to go to college, no ifs ands or buts. Looking back, I don’t know if that was the best route, it wasn’t for me.

As the renewable energy industry is making very clear, there are no shortcuts – you need to put in the work and really understand the technologies.

Q: You’re one of the few people I’ve spoke with that work with both geothermal and solar hot water systems. Can you compare the two technologies and industries?

A: During my last job, I needed to create a training program to support pump packages for solar thermal products and that is how I initially became interested in solar thermal. When I left my previous employer, I was able to open my horizons and this is how I found geothermal.

There is a large similarity in the sense that they’re both renewables and use hydronic technologies and principles. Thus, the components that we’re using are very familiar to the average installer. Now, we’re just looking for different heat sources. Instead of a boiler or furnace its the ground or a collector.

At first, I tried to get a job with manufacturers and they told me I had wonderful hydronic experience but that I didn’t have the thermal or geothermal experience. At first, I took it at face value. However, when I started to de-construct the systems, I realized that I and everyone in the trades has a lot of experience with most of these products.

Q: To your past point. Yes, the installation can happen but it seems like the lack of knowledge tends to come from the design side, not the installation side. Have you noticed a similar trend? It sounds like the industry has been trained well on the installation side but that a gap on the design side still exists. 

A: I agree. I’ve been documenting a new construction project in New York, you can see the pictures on my website. It’s about 34 new construction homes about 3,000 square feet each on a minimum of a 4 acre lot, so they have the option of using geothermal. When I got involved with the installer, he relied completely on the design from the manufacturer, which is fine. I don’t particularly have a problem with this. But if I were the installer, I’d want a more intimate knowledge of the system. I think we need to get young engineers involved and make sure that installers are not putting designs completely in the hands of equipment manufacturers.

Q: Now that you’re learning a bunch about these new industries, what are you excited about? What do you see happening in the industry in the new few years?

A: I don’t think we can have a conversation about the next twelve months or few years without discussing the economy. When the economy started to tank, I kept thinking it can’t get any worse, but it has. I don’t think anyone anticipated it being this long of a situation. With that said, I think the economy is going to dictate what happens.

What we need to be prepared for is what happens when we come out of the recession. The bottom line is that we need to be prepared for when things turn around. We need to take the time now, when its slow, to get educated on these new technologies.

I don’t see any great booms in the market in the next 12 months, but there can and will be progress if we’re smart about it. Replacing boilers with boilers can’t be the norm anymore, we need to change this paradigm, If we’re smart about it, it can be a source to move the economy in the correct direction. Do I have an agenda here? Yes, I train people in the trades. But it also just makes sense.