ACCA’s Mr. Hydronics: Dan Foley

Sept. 16, 2013
If you call Dan Foley a wethead, you might get a baleful look. The president of Foley Mechanical and chairman of ACCA’s Radiant and Hydronics Council, he thinks the notion of wetheads versus airheads is outdated. It’s about comfort, and this successful contractor, whose hydronics focus represents more than 50 percent of his business, is more than ready to discuss ACCA, hydronics and the future.

ACCA’s Radiant and Hydronics Council is new: It was formed in Nov. 2011.

Paul Stalknecht, ACCA’s president, suggested to Foley that there was enough interest and members in the organization to warrant its own hydronics and radiant council, but it needed an experienced hand to take the lead. Foley was an obvious choice with more than 25 years in the HVACR industry, who had experience as a contractor, owner and involvement in various related organizations.

“We’re a contractor organization, our constituents are contractors, and our focus is on hydronics and radiant from the contractor perspective,” Foley says.

If a focused constituency is the makeup, its benefits are both specific. “We educate our members so they learn or can exchange ideas on how to deal with specific hydronics issues,” Foley says.

Foley explains that when contractors first step into the hydronics market, there’s always a certain amount of trepidation because they are often in uncharted territory. They wonder: Will I “do it right?” Nothing offers more compelling security than having an experienced, hydronics-focused contractor offer a helping hand or advice. It’s a shortcut to quick, reliable assistance. “An ACCA member knows that if he reaches out to a fellow member, he’s going to get the guidance he needs. The one-to-one is buttressed by a hydronics newsletter that members can sign up for to remain current on issues and trends. [Ed. Note: Contact ACCA’s Emily Rogers at [email protected].]

While having a personal “help desk” with an ACCA membership helps ease a new contractor into the hydronics area, Foley also says that attending various conferences is critical to obtaining that vital face-to-face contact that allows for the fermenting of ideas and a bit of camaraderie. Last September, a hydronics conference in Providence, RI, drew more than 120 attendees. After the conference, however, Foley also realized that he did not want hydronics contractors “talking to themselves.” Next year at ACCA’s 2014 Conference, March 17-20, 2014 in Nashville, TN, the radiant heating council will be part of the main educational track.

“The official structure is the council,” says Foley. “But then at the annual conference, you have a mix of people who are either directly or indirectly touching hydronics or radiant and they get a chance to see product and exchange ideas in a relaxed, informal setting.” For contractors who are considering hydronics or only dabble in it with a few projects each year, this exchange helps provide a clear picture of how it can help the business, he says.

Beyond the structure, advice, meetings and communication is the idea that a separation in the world of wetheads and airheads is slowly dissolving, according to Foley. His mission then is not only to preach to the proverbial choir, the wetheads, but to convince others that hydronics is here to stay. Foley says that when a contractor has more options available to the consumer, he increases the likelihood of offering a solution that ends with a satisfied buyer. He is convinced that the long-term viability for all HVACR contractors is removing the idea that it’s enough to be a one-discipline answer for “comfort,” a word he drives home repeatedly when discussing hydronics and radiant topics. “We want to introduce them into what hydronics has to offer,” says Foley. “You can’t look at a job anymore and say I’m just a hydronics guy or I’m just an air guy. You have to think in terms of comfort, and you can’t provide comfort without air or without hydronics.”

While hydronics remains underrepresented when compared with the “air” side of heating and cooling, its impact is growing, and many contractors (and wholesalers) see it as a possible way to expand their business and to offer consumers a broader choice of options for reaching that much vaunted “comfort” zone to which industry members constantly refer.

While Foley bubbles with enthusiasm as he chats, he also doesn’t miss the big picture. When asked what is the “next big thing” for hydronics, he doesn’t need much urging to explain: “We want standard manuals for hydronics and radiant … We have manuals for load computation, for ductwork, but we don’t have any for hydronics.” He acknowledges that this goal won’t occur in the immediate future, but is convinced that it will become a reality and remain at the forefront of the council’s goals.

Given the workload of running a successful contracting operation, it’s almost mandatory to ask an industry leader like Foley how he manages to operate his own business while attending conferences and adopting the role of ACCA’s “Mr. Hydronics.”

Foley is down to earth and frankly pragmatic about a management lesson he learned many years ago that helps him juggle the myriad responsibilities he faces. “I realized a long time ago that I used to think if I didn’t come to work in the morning, the sun wouldn’t come up,” Foley says. “I realized that was a handicap regarding my management, that I was handicapping my own employees. I realized that I needed to empower my employees. Let them make the same mistakes that I made when I was younger. I can’t handle every decision on a job site. I told them, ‘make a decision, go with it, it’ll be all right.’ And if they’re occasionally wrong, as I have been, I’m here to help them out.”