HPAC Magazine

Problem Solving Solutions

December 18, 2022 | By Steve Goldie

To improve your troubleshooting abilities and decision making skills, here are some things you need to understand.

Decision making and problem solving abilities are very useful and valuable skills to have in all walks of life, and plumbing and heating is no exception. Whether you are a first year apprentice, or a journey person with decades of experience under your belt, chances are each and every day presents you with a multitude of decisions to make, challenges to overcome and problems to solve.

Our brains are very complex and mysterious things, and many factors influence and affect how successful we will be in our decision making. Good decisions solve problems and lead to positive outcomes. Poor decisions, rather than solve problems, more often than not create new problems.

The good news is, problem solving and good decision making, in life generally and in our professional lives, can be a learned skill.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways we can all hone our problem solving skills.


The first and most obvious ingredient for good problem solving is knowledge. That is why we go to school, to learn and gain the knowledge of how things work.

Every licensed tradesperson has gone to school, spent time studying and learning, written and passed tests to show they have the knowledge to do the job.

In theory, they all come out with the same knowledge, but in practice, not all plumbers are great plumbers.

I am not picking on tradespeople, not all doctors are great doctors, and not all accountants are great accountants. I think one of the things that sets people apart is those who truly excel at their chosen profession don’t simply learn how to, but they learn the why.

One of the wonderful, and sometimes exasperating traits of young children is their seeming infinite ability to ask the question “Why?”

We need to encourage ourselves, even demand of ourselves, that we continually nurture that desire to know why.


When we truly understand why things work the way they do, not only can we do great work in the first place, but we can much more easily figure out the solutions when something goes wrong.

It’s the difference between learning enough answers to pass a test, and truly learning and understanding the material so you can answer whatever questions are asked, and explain the reasons why.

As a wholesale distributor we see the difference when one contractor calls to complain that a boiler or water heater “doesn’t work,” and another calls in to tell us their boiler needs a new pressure switch or ignitor.

The second caller has understood how it works, taken the time to go through the manual and diagnosed the cause of the problem. As a wholesaler, we are going to work with both customers to rectify the situation either way, but as a consumer which contractor would you prefer to hire?

State of mind

As I said earlier, there are many factors that can impact decision making, and even the most knowledgeable, most experienced, worker can make a poor decision under certain circumstances.

I know for myself, if I don’t eat lunch, I get irritable in the afternoons. Yes, hangry really is a thing!

I am guilty I know, and people close to me know even better, if it gets too late in the day and I have not had lunch, I need to stop whatever it is I am doing and get some food.

I know of at least one contractor who claims he keeps Snickers bars handy in his truck just in case he encounters hangry Goldie.

I am sure I do not make my best decisions when I let myself get there. Hunger, fatigue, poor health—all of these factors can negatively impact our ability to make good decisions. So the bottom line is we need to take care of ourselves and understand our limitations.

Sometimes the best decision you can make is to step away, remove yourself from the situation until you are in a better frame of mind.

Creatively simple

Sometimes when you have a particularly challenging situation a bit of outside the box or creative thinking can be very helpful.

I know that as hydronics gets more popular, especially in the custom housing sector, systems are getting more and more complex. Customers want floor heating, snowmelt, spa and pool heating and such.

More is expected, and at the same time, often less and less space is allocated in the mechanical room. Creative piping solutions are sometimes required. Often boiler rooms do not resemble the piping schematic drawings provided.

Only a skilled installer who truly understands how things work can fit everything in creatively and still meet the requirements of the system. Creativity can go too far as well, which reminds me of another helpful tip when it comes to good decision making, don’t overthink things. Keep it simple stupid (the KISS philosophy) is still often great advice. If you can simplify and still achieve the desired result, it is probably a good idea to do so.

Phone a friend

Another good exercise that can be helpful is playing devil’s advocate. Looking at a problem from a different angle can often reveal a solution you might otherwise have missed.

It may mean taking almost the exact opposite approach from what you would normally do. Getting another set of eyes on the problem can go hand in hand with this approach, so do not be afraid to ask someone else’s opinion.

If we let our egos get in the way, we can miss out on learning.

We may simply confirm what we already knew, or we may gain some new knowledge or insight, either way it is worth the effort.

The other set of eyes you need may also be our own. How often have you been stumped, walked away to do something else, and upon returning to the problem the solution seems so obvious you hardly believe you missed it before?

Light bulb moments

I had one of these moments myself recently when I had to clean up some water that had leaked into my crawlspace. I know, I know, I’ve written about floods in my home before, not a good look for a plumber and plumbing columnist.

To be fair though, this flood was not a result of a plumbing disaster, this time a cracked foundation was the culprit.

Regardless of the cause, water in the basement is never fun, and mopping it out of a crawlspace with limited headroom is even less fun.

Now I hear some of you asking, “You buffoon, why wouldn’t you use a shop vacuum rather than a mop?”

And you would certainly have a point, however, like I said earlier, the brain is a mysterious thing (or is it just my brain).

After hours bent over, back aching, mopping and wringing, my brain finally woke up, or switched gears or whatever you want to call it, and the light bulb went on. I slapped myself upside the head, went to the garage, got the shop vacuum and made short work of the remaining water in the crawlspace.

Lifelong journey

The experience of the old veteran tradespeople will definitely give them an advantage over the rookie apprentice, most of the time, but experience alone will not always lead to the best decision making.

Whether you are the cagey old veteran, or the fresh new apprentice, learning, and specifically learning to make good decisions, should be a lifelong pursuit.

When you think you have seen it all, or know it all, get ready to be slapped upside the head with something new.  <>

Steve Goldie learned his trade from his father while working as a plumber in the family business. After 21 years in the field, he joined the wholesale side of the business in 2002. His expertise is frequently called on to troubleshoot systems and advise contractors. He can be reached at sgoldie@nextsupply.ca.



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