If the fuel oil industry is at a crossroads, as many people say, then Al Breda can be seen standing at that juncture, embodying its history and at the same time having insight into its future.
Breda doesn’t claim to have a crystal ball, allowing him to see what lies ahead, but in his role as vice president of the National Association of Oil Heating Service Managers (NAOHSM) the thirty-year industry veteran recently had the eye-opening experience of reading close to 100 scholarship applications that include essays from young hopefuls about what attracts them to the fuel oil industry, and how they see themselves figuring into it.
“After reading all of these scholarship applications and the essays, I got a great feel for what is important to the younger people coming in,” Breda said. “Many are basing their view of the industry on alternative energies. A lot of the essays are on bioheat.” Many of the applicants also recognize that “if you attach a solar domestic water system to a modern oil heating system – that‘s the way to go for a greener future,” Breda said.
He is the chair of the committee evaluating the applications and choosing the half-dozen winners of scholarships, each worth $5,000. The winners will be announced at the NAOHSM show in Hershey, Pa., May 22-26.
Perhaps some of the winners will one day be service managers, like Breda, who was NAOHSM’s 2010 Service Manager of the Year. Breda started in the fuel oil business in 1979, driving a delivery truck and making service calls for a small company, Hillcrest Fuel, in Ansonia, Conn., operated by distant relatives, and attending technical school. After three years, he moved on to Standard Oil in Bridgeport, Conn., where he worked as a technician, broadened into installing equipment, moved up to supervisor and in 1993 became service manager, a job he held until 1997 when he left to launch his own HVAC business. For five years until 2002 Breda worked for himself.
“The grass wasn’t as green on the other side of the fence as I thought,” he said, and he then spent a couple of years in a couple of jobs, one with an HVAC company, the other an encore with Hillcrest.
Toward the end of those two years, Breda recounted, “I couldn’t believe it, but I wanted to be a service manager again,” and when the opportunity came up at Sippin Energy Products in Monroe, Conn., in 2004, Breda grabbed it. Sippin has more than 8,000 accounts and some 15 technicians; as the service manager Breda oversees the selling of equipment, installations, servicing and repairs.
“This is the most automated place I’ve been – and I like it that way,” Breda said, referring to the use of information technology. “We’re pretty far advanced. We’re very close to being paperless. It’s possible for a technician to go through the entire day and never talk to the dispatcher.”
All of the service vehicles have computers bolted into the space between the front seats. Sippin uses petroleum management software from Automated Wireless Environments (AWE). When a technician starts the vehicle and signs on to the computer, he is in effect clocking in for the start of his day. He then requests his first call, which has been loaded into the system by the dispatcher, and includes the address, a brief customer history and what the job entails.
Once he arrives at the location, the tech presses a button to start the clock ticking, for accurate billing. After the job is done he enters “work performed” codes, notes parts that were used, adds any comments, and hits a “send” button to transmit the information to an employee at the office who handles dispatching and billing. “It’s on his screen in a second,” Breda said of the office employee, “so he can bill it out immediately.” (Technicians drive their vehicles home at the end of the day.)
In addition to the technicians handling such calls, there is one other technician assigned to installations of a remote tank gauging system, VisiTank, made by Original Equipment Manufacturing, Inc. The system is a boon to the delivery side of the business, because it accurately indicates the fuel oil levels in customers’ tanks, Breda said. The system also helps Breda and his service techs detect a developing problem in dual-tank setups.
“When they have two oil tanks together – twin 330s or twin 275s – one tank sometimes goes dry and the other tank still has oil,” Breda noted. Via the remote gauging system, he said, “We can tell that the tanks aren’t balanced and they’re not going down evenly. We assume that there is a problem with the equalizer between the two tanks and head that off at the pass.” In such cases, responding technicians often find that the tubing at the bottom of one tank has become clogged, so the fuel has been drawn only from the other tank.
The role of service manager includes teaching and training.
Breda is a board member of the Independent Connecticut Petroleum Association (ICPA) and is certified as an instructor at the association’s school, which is at its headquarters in Cromwell, Conn. With the association’s and his boss’s blessings, Breda periodically conducts the association’s training classes in Sippin Energy Products’ building. “The Sippins were gracious enough to open the building for the classroom and let me teach an oil burner course here for other companies,” Breda said.
For Sippin technicians, Breda said, “Manufacturers reps come in from time to time when we have service meetings. Typically I’ll have half the crew come in on Tuesday and half Wednesday at four o’clock and we’ll have reps come in and show us the latest and greatest.”
Breda conducts in-house training on issues of pressing importance or on subjects he is targeting for business reasons.
“I wanted the guys to understand outdoor resets really well because I want to start marketing them,” Breda said. “I pulled in four men at a time and brought them into the conference room and went over the outdoor resets, what was available in the market and what we want to sell.
“It’s a constant ongoing thing,” Breda said of training. “If you just keep up with it, it’s not that hard.”
For years now Breda has offered an optional class on selected Saturday mornings. The program lagged over the recent winter, with heavy snowfalls causing cancellation after cancellation, but Breda plans to resume it.
“I let the guys tell me what subject they want, whether it’s low-voltage wiring or whatever, “he said. “If they ask me to teach it, I will. They can drive their company vehicles here. It’s completely voluntary on their part. We start at exactly eight o’clock in the morning and we finish exactly at ten o’clock in the morning, and then they can move on with their Saturdays.
“I expected that out of 15 technicians I might have three or four there, which I thought would be a success,” Breda said. “I probably got eight to nine every single Saturday morning, coming in on their own time. I thought that was great.”
As the industry undergoes change, Sippin Energy Products has demonstrated adaptability, venturing into air conditioning and installation of heat pumps, for example, and Breda has also taken instruction in solar system installation. He is waiting for the state of Connecticut licensing authority to offer a test for that license.
“I do see solar as a supplement coming down the road,” Breda said. “Back at Hillcrest Fuel, I installed my first solar hot water system – back around 1981,” he recalled. At that time a 40 percent tax credit was available, “so it made a lot of sense,” he said. “And then as soon as the tax incentives went away, solar died.”
Now with four dollar oil, tax incentives might be in the offing again, and solar could shine again.
Sippin also offers energy surveys, which are performed by a subcontractor. Customers can go to the company’s website to request a survey, and Sippin will manage the process. The company also is a bioheat provider, delivering B5. Breda said customers like bioheat, in part, because they feel they aren’t “funding Middle East palaces” quite so much.