Near the headwaters of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River lies the Pennsylvanian Borough of Northern Cambria – a one-time logging community that became a major mining area with the discovery of bituminous coal in the 1890s.
It is here, in the late 1940s-early 1950s that Andrew Brletrick ’s grandfather started a Plumbing/HVAC company. His grandparents, Andrew and Mary Kupetz, started the business with very little capital.
In fact, Kupetz didn’t even have enough money to buy a truck, so he used an old funeral hearse, that he fixed up, as the company vehicle.
In fact, for 40 years Kupetz ran the business, serving customers, raising a family, and working hard to keep up with the changes happening in the U.S during those years. Back then new construction was king.
Eventually the Kupetz children grew up and chose not to enter the business. Instead they sought other careers and began starting families of their own. His daughter married and eventually, her son Andrew Brletrick, began working with his grandfather while he was in high school.
Eventually Brletrick headed off to college, earned his degree in biology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but later thought better of that and came back to work for his grandfather.
“I decided that biology wasn’t my thing. There weren’t any real jobs in the area for a biologist unless I went into teaching, and I didn’t think that teaching was my thing either,” Brletrick says.
“By the time I graduated, my grandfather was in his early 70s and he was ready to retire. I hated to see all his hard work go to waste, so in 1990, I bought him out and found myself in the HVAC business for real.”
In 1990 George W. Bush was president of the U.S., the Hubble telescope was launched into orbit, Nelson Mandela was freed from his 27-year imprisonment in South Africa, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the Cold War finally came to an end.
In Northern Cambria, Andrew Brletrick took his newly acquired company and began formulating plans for the future. He changed their focus away from new construction because making money in that business was difficult. He worked hard to become a service and replacement company and 25 years later the company remains so focused. In 2018, Kupetz Plumbing and Heating achieved $350,000 in gross sales.
“We are a small company,” Brletrick says, “but we are driven to be the best in the HVAC service business in our area.”
Besides himself, Kupetz’s employs three other field co-workers and a part-time office manager to help with all the paperwork and bookkeeping. The company fields four vehicles – one service truck, one four-wheeler service truck for the hard-to-reach areas in mostly rural Northern Cambria (as well as for use when the tough winter snows fly), as well as a transit truck and a standard pickup for delivering product and hauling.
Today the company operates mostly in the residential marketplace (90%) but does keep a foothold in commercial (10%) as well. Brletrick says there is a small percentage of the residential business that is new construction, but his company remains focused on service and replacement.
“Much of our work is in the hydronics arena,” he says. “So, we work with hot water and boiler equipment (Bradford White and Buderus) for heat, and many non-ducted mini-split systems (Mitsubishi). We also sell and install American Standard heat pumps, Waterfurnace geothermal systems, and for those cases when gas-fired forced air is the answer, we use ThermoPride HVAC equipment.”
Keying in on Training
To attain his goal of being the best HVAC service contracting firm in his marketplace, Brletrick keys in on training for himself and his team.
“We do a lot of different things, from going through manufacturer-based programs to training through our local wholesale distributors. Plus, I hold hands-on training with my guys weekly. I don’t like a week to go by without some kind of training,” he explains.
When he does the training, Brletrick says he likes to go over issues encountered in the field – things like duct systems not performing properly.
“We’ll go over the static pressure measurements, air rise measurements, voltage, and other readings that I took, , and then diagnose the system together. I like to see whether or not they come to the same conclusions I did, and then talk about why. I think that works better in a lot of cases than being lectured to or reading a book. Hands-on is always the best training,” he says.
“I also like to send the guys out for training when I can. We found the very best technical training we receive is from National Comfort Institute (NCI). It is from NCI that I learned the power of measuring statics and diagnosing systems. It is also where I became certified in Combustion Safety and CO.”
Brletrick says that he also has a tech certified in combustion through NCI and is working on getting the others to class as well. “One thing I know for sure – much of the combustion training available in the industry isn’t very good. The classes taught by NCI’s Jim Davis are among the very best.”
Brletrick himself has attended NCI’s commercial and residential air balancing classes, system redesign, and is certified in CO Safety and Combustion.
A Different Approach
The Northern Cambria marketplace is a small one, but according to Brletrick, his company is busy all the time. Because of its small size, Kupetz must run fast and hard to keep up with all the work, which Brletrick says comes in from word-of-mouth recommendations by his customers.
“We have a solid reputation here and have to run on all cylinders quite a bit. We are so busy, I don’t actually go after air upgrades like I should. My approach to performance-based contracting is to make sure that every system we come into contact with is operating to factory specifications.”
The key is that the Kupetz field team does static pressure testing on every system onto which they install equipment. If something doesn’t check out right, they find out why and offer the customer choices.
Their test instruments of choice include Dwyer manometers to test draft; Testo wireless thermometers to measure subcooling and superheat, and air rises; and Bacharach analyzers.
“In all the years we’ve been operation,” Brletrick says, “I have yet to run into static pressure test holes in any of the HVAC systems that we didn’t install. In terms of selling air upgrades, our approach is different from what NCI teaches. Simply stated, I only go after upgrades when called in to solve a problem.
“For example, when a customer has a no heat problem and we find that the three-year-old limit is fried, I try to discover why. By measuring the system airflow and temperature rise, I find that the limit is fried because the Delta T is off the charts. That means we need to increase airflow, maybe cut down the nozzle size, or something else, and then have a discussion with the customer – providing him or her with options.
“Many times, during that discussion phase, I get that look from customers. That blank deer in the headlights look. Like, ‘why hasn’t anybody talked to me about this before.’
“That opens the door for us to talk about true performance and what we do to help them achieve it. So, that is the way that I approach the air upgrades. And it leads to more work for us.”
The biggest challenge the technicians at Kuptez Plumbing and Heating encounter is that customers do not understand airflow or what Andrew Brletrick and his team are talking about.
“Nobody else in our market talks about airflow,” he says. We need to find a way to make things understandable for the homeowners.”
Brletrick doesn’t use the ComfortMaxx™ software – mostly because he and his team are well-versed using other platforms. They use their software to show what system imbalances look like—including lack of returns, wrong-sized ductwork, and airflow issues. They own and use airflow hoods and, though right now Brletrick doesn’t have homeowners take the reading with him (something he hopes to) he can share real numbers to help them visualize the issues.
Looking to the Future
Andrew Brletrick says he looks to continuing his journey down the path to performance. He says he knows he must find the time to continue his training and that of his team. He knows that High-Performance Contracting is the way of the future. And, he says that requires even more training and education.
Which means renewing not only his own NCI certifications, but getting his other technicians to classes as well.
“The first step is to understand and always practice HVAC fundamentals,” he explains. “Especially since so much of the training out there is like drinking from a firehose – too much information delivered too quickly can be overwhelming. Understanding the fundamentals first makes all the difference in advanced training.
“In the end, no matter where you start out,” he concludes, “it’s important to keep trying to learn something new every day. It doesn’t matter if it is by reading, going to a seminar, or job shadowing somebody.
“Just try to make every job a little bit better once you get your foot in the door. Education is huge. I firmly believe that. I don’t think we do enough of it in the industry.”
Congratulations to Kupetz Plumbing and Heating, Northern Cambira, PA, for being High-Performance HVAC Today’s January 2019 Contractor Spotlight recipient.