Excluded from the exam:   Denied testing for EPA 608 certification by narrow-minded pettiness

  After six years of trouble-free service, my home heat pump had developed a very slow leak, losing about half its refrigerant charge over the course of a year.  Everyone who had looked at it [including myself] had been unable to find the damn thing, even using state-of-the-art tools.  As an inverter-drive system with full computerized control it could compensate for low charge quite well, up to a limit, when there just wasn't enough liquid in the system to run right.  At that point it would valiantly try to run anyway, but just not produce any worthwhile heat.  I could also see a characteristic "icy finger" along one or two tubes of the outdoor coil instead of icing up all the way across, telling me that it was in a "ridiculous superheat" state and needed more working fluid.

After a couple of VERY expensive recover/recharge visits I knew what the problem was and when I saw the system's performance degrade to a certain point, exactly how much top-up it needed.  Now, I fully understand that the right answer for a leaking system is to fix the leak, and not just top it up and keep throwing more refrigerant into the atmosphere.  But first the leak has to be located, which had so far eluded everyone.  The last tech out had injected some UV-fluorescent dye, which we hoped might turn something up in the long term, and I would be able to periodically scan over parts of the system myself with a 360-nm flashlight looking for telltale patches of bright green.  Nothing.

Going into the Fall 2020 heating season I found that it was once again struggling, and felt a vague sense of despair, because every contractor truck roll is stupidly expensive and in COVID times, none of them seemed able to even return phone calls let alone come out and believe anything I'd tell them about the system. My alternate choice was to run on resistance heating all winter, which I could do but it would cost about three times as much, and that still left open the question of summer cooling.

A local fellow in the neighborhood who works in the field came by and helped me out by putting a couple of pounds of R410A into the system to get me at least part of the way through heating season.  He agreed to let me store the "jug of juice" inside my house on the preceding overnight to make sure it was warmer than the system, so it would have enough internal pressure to send refrigerant the right way.  He showed me a couple of tricks about purging hoses that I didn't know about, and I showed him how to put the system in "all valves wide open" mode so there wouldn't be any flow blockage.  At this point I generally know more about my own system than anyone else who comes to look at it, especially given the minor modifications I've made.  The neighborhood fellow was actually intrigued by some of this.  As we were sitting around geeking about various HVACR stuff he mentioned that I might want to simply go get EPA-certified, and then be able to legally buy refrigerants and connect to my system and work on it myself.  He had gone through a local supply company offering training and test proctoring, and said it was all of three or four nights of classroom and then he was able to pass all four sections of the EPA test and earn "Universal" certification.  And the necessary tools can be easily had from Amazon and countless other sources.

This sounded like an interesting possibility, so I called the company in question and asked if they were still doing testing.  Their main classroom had shut down during COVID and the headquarters building fairly near me was being renovated, but there was one guy at another one of their locations who had been hosting a few tests in very limited space.  I managed to reach the trainer and made an informal appointment to come down and take the exam.  That location was about an hour away, and was the most driving I'd done in several weeks because, well, who the heck is actually going anywhere while we're still holed up against the virus.  No questions were asked about "what company did I work for" or the like, because people often take these tests when they're just getting into the field and may not even have a job yet.

So you're probably wondering at this point, "what does this have to do with barefooting?"  Fair question, and fasten your seat belt because the ride gets pretty rough from here.

[Paraphrased from my email to SBL that evening]
Despite some misgivings about old-timers in a field like air-conditioning, I decided to "foot it" and stick to my guns against any objections.  I wasn't actually in a tearing hurry to get this test done, so if this trip didn't work out somehow I could try something else later -- although at this point, we would probably be out of heating season by the time I could get my "ticket" to handle refrigerants regardless.  Anyway, I showed up at their building, a largish warehouse-y type space, in plenty of time.  A guy brought me in and pointed me to an empty office to wait for the trainer fellow to finish a call and then come find me.

He did so, took one look at me, and jerked his thumb over his shoulder and started yelling "get OUT.  GET OUT!!" and wouldn't listen to anything even remotely resembling reason.  "Nobody walks into a business without shoes!" he bellowed, and I told him that was completely untrue based on experience, but I simply couldn't get through to him that my footwear was eminently qualified for what I had shown up to do that day.  The guy was clearly some mix of horrified and off the rails.  He shooed me out and yanked the door closed behind me and fumed off.

So, no test today; at least I had other errands I combined into the trip so it wasn't a total waste of time.  I didn't even have a pair of china-flats with me, and even if I did, I wasn't at all keen on the idea of meekly acquiescing to that kind of bullying behavior just to go back in and receive more trash-treatment.

I wasn't really upset; only a little disappointed in the time lost.  As I had planned for this eventuality, I calmly sat in the car and called their home office to complain, quite honestly stating that I had *rarely* if ever been treated as rudely as that for any supposed reason.  Not that the trainer gave any kind of reason, it was all just the typical prejudicial bluster.  But meanwhile, *he* was also calling in to various administrative folks in the company and within minutes, it was apparently all over their [home!] offices that some alien lizard-person with three heads and bare feet had shown up for a 608 test and was successfully repulsed and ejected before the building collapsed around them.  Across the board they turned against me on the basis of the typical mythology; the one person I had a semi-reasonable conversation with was nonetheless saying things like "everybody else wears shoes", adding "especially in New England in February".  I responded that I go hiking in the snow on days like we were having that day, 45F and sunny, and the little bits of snow I had walked over earlier that day felt great.

Clearly, they've all been 100% brainwashed by the work-boot industry.

The guy at the home office also asserted that I could complain all the way up to their CEO and that still wouldn't get me anywhere, their whole company would non-negotiably demand footwear on their premises.  So rather than make more fruitless phone calls, I decided to write a real, physical on-paper letter delivered via US mail, to their CEO and also the namesake company president, two different people.  It went out the next morning.

S. G. Torrice Company
80 Industrial Way
Wilmington  MA  01887

Stephen Torrice, President
Matt Bedard, Chief Executive Officer


To all concerned:

Hi, I'm the fellow who traveled down to Mansfield in a good-faith effort to
take an EPA 608 exam, and was bullied about my appearance and booted out of
the building by Mark Guenther.  By now the story has probably gone all over
your company and you're already tired of it, but please have the professional
courtesy to "hear me out" and read all of this carefully.

At issue in part is Mark's behavior, which is possibly the rudest manner I've
been treated in a *long* time.  He wouldn't even listen, at all.  You would
think that he's seen a lot of different people come through his space, and
would have a slightly better handle on "diversity" by now.  But he clearly
subscribes to all of the old unfounded mythology about footwear, to an almost
phobic point.  He needs to take some moments to reflect on why, especially
given the following suggestions, and you should possibly re-evaluate if he
is really qualified for any public-facing role.

The other issue is simple misunderstanding.  You're probably well aware that
experience counts for a lot in any field, and that's not just confined to the
trades.  I have nothing but respect for the trades and the skills of the people
who work in them, because they are truly "the backbone".  I take personal pride
every time I learn a new one of those skills for myself, whether I'll apply it
on a daily basis or not.  But as much as those skills keep things running,
there are clearly some persistent issues around the HVACR industry around
*caring* about the customer.  And yes, that day I was the customer, or at
least trying to be.

When you get a chance, please look up the term "barefooter" and understand
what it means to live as I do, for my own health and mobility reasons among
others.  My experience with that goes back at least 40 years, and when a person
allows their own feet to be as Nature intended, we tend to "grow our own shoes"
and rarely if ever need any of the products that the workboot industry tries to
convince us we do.  Sorry if that's hard to understand without a bit of research,
but it's the biological truth.  The health benefits speak for themselves.

I have been in my share of mechanical rooms, rooftops, duct chases, basements,
attics, catwalks, and numerous other "service" type areas, and never needed
shoes for any of it.  For attics in particular, the value of being able to feel
what you're stepping on cannot be overstated.  I go hiking and climb mountains
when I can, including through snow on days above 32F.  Stuff on the ground is
of little concern to mileage-toughened soles.  I also work in theatre spaces and
production venues, often slinging heavy stuff around, and my feet not being
imprisoned are able to help me perform that much better.  So to sit down in a
generic office/classroom environment and take a test -- that's about as benign
a space as anyone could want, probably more so than in my own home, and yet
everyone from Mr. Guenther up your staff chain chose to make a completely
unreasonable issue out of something so petty and irrelevant.

I think I talked to Warren on the phone that afternoon, and he asked me "do
you go into restaurants without shoes?"  The answer is yes, frequently, or
at least while we were still able to pre-COVID.  And to follow onto Mike's
incorrect assertion that "nobody walks into a *business* without shoes"  -- I
do, on a regular basis, and 90% of them don't care what's on anybody's feet.
They have no reason to.  For the other small fraction that clings to that old
outdated mythology, I either convince them to see reason and stop harassing me
over harmless personal preferences, or I don't patronize that business anymore
and keep my money out of their income stream.  Their loss.

What if you met me in the middle of the Fells or some other park, happily
slamming along a trail full of rough rocks and enjoying the heck out of it as
I often do?  How would some of these attitudes be different in that setting?

Maybe I'd think twice if I was, I don't know, trying to take the endplate
off a commercial chiller or something.  Personally I'll probably never work
on that kind of gear but I found the EPA material on them quite fascinating,
and spent half an evening trying to figure out how purge units work -- for
just one example of where my studies led.  Being certified will allow me to
diagnose and maintain systems at a better tier, and more effectively perform
energy analysis for others on my occasional efficiency consulting outings.
I'm more the engineering type of guy -- maybe not the one that will be brazing
in new compressors in 95-degree heat day to day, but I really appreciate the
*science* behind what the 608 course of study covers and simply want to do
the right thing by the EPA and the environment.

So I hope you can see that the response up and down your company was over the
top and completely inappropriate.  That kind and level of prejudice is nothing
but misplaced, just blindly buying into that old politically-motivated and
discriminatory rhetoric from the Sixties.  Experiences like the one I received
tend to give the HVACR industry a bad name, and I know you [collectively]
spend a lot of time trying to improve society's view of the trade.  There is
a valuable lesson to be learned here: people are different, and it is in your
best business interests to appreciate them for who they are and what they know,
especially when there is zero risk to you in doing so.  I was fairly confident
of doing well on my 608 and was enjoying the process of preparing and learning,
and will take it forward one way or the other.

I would appreciate some sort of response, at a minimum to know if you're going
to just stay in your narrow lane or decide that S.G.Torrice as a whole should
become a little more open-minded someday.  It would be worth your time to
share my thoughts with the other people on your team as well, including Phil
who I spoke with briefly in the run-up to my test day but not since the
incident.  I can be reached as  [email-addr]  or by return to the
address above.

Thank you for your time

Frankly, I had been prepared for the test-trip to go either way, and didn't really expect any constructive response to the letters either.  It would have been nice to have been welcomed in and tested and been able to geek some HVACR stuff with the folks around the office, but that's not really how these folks work.  In fact, I think the day's primary lesson or affirmation was that people "in the trades" are likely to be among the more closed-minded and unwilling to welcome any kind of diversity.  It kind of goes with the territory.  It may verge on political divisivness and of course there are welcome exceptions, but there's a distinct demographic to be noted here.  Some of these working-class folks may have enviable skills but aren't necessarily the brightest lights on the tree, and tend toward resentment of anyone who knows a few things that they may not, or asks them to think a problem through in new ways.  It's a delicate balance between pride in one's work even if it's in areas regarded by some as menial, and a celebration of deliberate, blind ignorance toward any possibilities outside the box.  The HVAC industry places far too much emphasis on *appearances*, with their ads and trade-publications full of pictures of guys standing there with their arms folded trying to look all manly and tough, in those uncomfortable uniform shirts with company logos and a collection of certification or specialty patches up the sleeve.  To many of them, that's "professionalism" -- what's on the surface ahead of what's inside. 

Sorry, guys.  "Professional" is who we are from the neck up, and it has nothing to do with what's on your back or on your feet.  But that's where they feel most threatened, so there's a distinct tendency to make up for it in the physical realm -- spanning a gamut, from the boy-scout workshirts to the consistent claims that their customers don't know anything and shouldn't get anywhere near their own infrastructure equipment.  And for some, seizing opportunities to demean others for who they are.  Notwithstanding, the industry is rife with horror stories about shoddy installations and unreliable work and preventable callbacks, and blame is often placed on inadequate training instead of anyone's inherent lack of *desire* to dig in and learn and analyze.  As I say in the letter, *I* enjoy learning parts of those trades because they're based on a lot of fascinating engineering, but I can't say much for the attitudes of some of the *people* who work there.  In their minds, barefoot hippie-geeks can't possibly know anything about their precious and closely-guarded field of knowledge, even if it was geeks, barefoot or not, who *designed* the stuff they work on.

News flash: you can learn most of this stuff off Youtube and numerous other internet sources.  Hell, you could almost learn brain surgery off Youtube these days.  I'm willing to bet that most workers in the field have *not*, for example, read the in-depth Purdue paper on the testing done on elastomers versus some of the new-generation hydrocarbon and hydrofluoroolefin refrigerants.  But I had to answer for myself, *why* did the study guides warn so vehemently against using silicone gaskets in these new systems?  My perspective eventually reached a point where I could discern where an online practice test was actually *wrong*, or at least ambiguous, so my self-guided preparation had gone quite well.  I had several other options to get this test done, including various online methods.  In times of isolation, that's made more difficult by the fact that it's a closed-book test, and proctoring effectively over Zoom to ward off cheating isn't the easiest thing to set up.  But I had spent the time learning the material and having fun chasing its numerous technical ratholes, so it was no time or reason to give up.  I figured I'd just have to "go undercover" for the next attempt, if it was to be in-person at all.  Yuck, but it's a once in a lifetime thing.

    [Update, about a week later]

Two days after the incident, I went to the company's competition, much closer to where I live, and successfully took the test they offered.  This time I went "stealth mode" with a pair of china flats, and of course no comment was made about footwear or anything else.  They just plopped me down in a back office and handed me the material and a couple of #2 pencils, totally routine for them.  Afterward I even got to geek HVAC stuff with the trainer a bit, talking tools and refrigerant prices and leak-chasing, getting some outstanding questions answered while slinging enough "pro jargon" to not seem like too much of a clueless n00b.  They fully realize that everyone has to start somewhere, and that not everyone who might be just breaking into the field, even a little bit, is necessarily a youngster.

Early the next week I actually received a reply from the first company's CEO via email, and reposted it to SBL that evening:

Subject: Re: [SBL] Well, maybe it ended a little better
Date: Mon, 1 Mar 2021 20:13:36 -0500

Wow, I actually got a prompt(ish) reply back from the company CEO.

     From: Matt Bedard 
     Subject: S. G. Torrice Site Visit
     Date: Mon, 1 Mar 2021 20:36:23 +0000

     Dear [me]:

     Thank you for your letter dated February 24, 2021. I have reviewed
     the circumstances that you referenced within your letter and I
     apologize for the way this situation was handled. Respect is one of
     our company's core values and we failed to execute on that value
     when you visited our Mansfield location. I fully respect your decision
     to be a "barefooter". Unfortunately, our safety protocols require
     that proper footwear be worn in order for anyone to enter any of
     our facilities.

     Best Regards,
     Matt Bedard
     S. G. Torrice

I was tempted to reply to this and even composed a message, but then never bothered to send it.  Here's what it would have said:

Thanks for responding; I wasn't sure you would even get my letter with
everyone working remotely these days.

I'm fairly certain that if I had walked into Mansfield with flip-flops on,
even in February, that everything would have been fine.  It's kind of hard
to find those with ASTM-F2413 ratings, though, not that it matters.  It
depends on how you define "proper footwear", and I doubt that your staff has
been given any solid criteria in that regard as far as screening customers.

So while you and I both know it's simply about appearances, I doubt that I'd
be able to convince you on "protocol".  Just so we have an understanding.
I'm quite sure that no HVAC supplier in its right mind has trolls posted at their doors to make sure that every *customer* who walks in is wearing ASTM rated footwear.  Maybe for their own people working in the warehouse or something, but as barefooters we know we'd be perfectly happy and quite safe in that environment without such klunky constraints.

_H*   210225, 210303

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