Disappearing HVACR Heritage

The history of the HVACR (heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration) technologies has much to tell us about the state of our modern world and where we are going in the future. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and more than ever today, technology has driven change in the modern world.

To understand where technology is taking us in the future and to choose wisely the future direction we want, we need to understand how these kinds of changes have occurred in the past. This is what we can learn from the history of technology.

Unfortunately, HVACR heritage is a fleeting and evanescent body of information. New technologies are rapidly adopted and then dropped again in favor of more advanced technologies. No major academic or governmental body has a mandate to document these changes. Unless we take a hand in recording the history of the HVACR technologies, this information may be lost forever.

The Pace of Change

For some kinds of well-known heritage (Egyptian culture would be an example), it has been possible to study the history of that civilization many centuries later. This is because the artifacts that document the culture have been preserved, for one reason or another. Some of these material aspects of culture have survived because they were preserved in dry desert environments. Others were stored in the great museums because they have been considered works of ‘art.’

The same cannot be said of the HVACR technologies. By and large, our society has considered these artifacts to be disposable. Once they have served their purpose they are discarded and usually destroyed. Because new technologies are replacing one another faster and faster, the rate of destruction and disappearance of the crucial information that documents the history of technological change has reached breakneck speed.

Why Document?

The rapid rate of change in technologies and the disposable attitude of society toward the artifacts of technology is further exacerbated by the fact that the physical implementations of many of these technologies are large and take up a lot of space. For objects of art like paintings and drawings, it is within the capacity of many organizations to store many hundreds of thousands of these artifacts on their premises. But for large HVACR technology artifacts like furnaces, boilers, refrigerators, washing machines, power generators and the like, no organization has the resources to house and preserve indefinitely any substantial number of these artifacts. Preservation of the number of physical examples needed to document the technologies and their evolution is impossible.

As a result, it is important to prepare documentary records (photographs, videos, drawings, and descriptions) while the artifacts are still available, and before they have been discarded or destroyed. It is only in this way, that we will be able to create and preserve a lasting record of the history of the evolution of the HVACR technologies.

Site Selection

The first step in developing an HVACR heritage documentation project is to select an appropriate site. This may involve developing a list of potential sites, such as out-of-service boilers, vintage refrigerators, stoves and industrial equipment that is still in service or still extant, even though no longer in use. Once a list of sites with some preliminary observations for each is available, selecting the appropriate site boils down to a matter of practicalities.

Is the technology represented at the site a particularly important indicator of a type of technology or of a period of rapid or significant technological change? Is the site in danger and the technologies there about to be dismantled or otherwise destroyed? Is the site accessible and are the site owners sympathetic to the objectives of the documentation project? Is the site safe to work in and is the size of the technology documentation project suited in scale to available resources, especially time and personnel, available to carry out the documentation project?

Preliminary Survey

Before undertaking the documentation project proper it will be desirable to undertake a preliminary survey of the site. The preliminary survey will usually consist of a site visit, photography of significant elements of the technology installation, and preliminary observations on size, complexity, ease of access, estimate of time and resources needed, and any special requirements for safety or equipment.

The preliminary survey should also determine the willingness of the site owner to cooperate and establish any special requirements the owner may have. This is also a good time to determine from the site owner if there is any existing documentation (manuals, service records, etc.) pertaining to the site.

Documentation Objectives

The first step in planning the documentation project should be to establish the objectives of the project. Will it be a relatively quick attempt to record the basic characteristics of one or more large artifacts? Will it go on to examine the system of which that large artifact is a part? Will it consider as well the supporting systems (electrical, fuel, etc.) necessary for the technology to operate?

In addition, it is important to consider whether the on-site descriptive work will be backed up by research into already documented and living history sources. Will the team undertake library and archival research to dig up relevant historical information pertaining to the technologies in question? And will members of the team undertake to record interviews with individuals who have knowledge of how the technology was operated in everyday use, and how it was integrated into the lives of those maintaining and benefiting from the installation?

Preparation – Tools and Equipment

As every workman knows, there is nothing worse than getting to the work site and not having the proper tools to do the job. The same is true of a technology documentation project.

Be prepared for every need that can be anticipated. Bring cameras and voice recorders for data acquisition. Bring rulers, tapes and calipers to measure the physical dimensions of the artifacts. Bring flashlights, shockproof lighting and extension cords to illuminate the scene, and pencil and paper to take notes.

Be certain to include waterproof boots if the location will be wet and ladders if high equipment must be reached. Above all, don’t forget the necessary safety equipment to ensure that all personnel avoid injury during the project. Hardhats, work gloves, steel-toed boots, at the least, will be useful on most sites.

Site Data Forms – The System Approach

Planning for the project should include a series of checklists to ensure that all components of the systems that one expects to encounter will be examined and data recorded. A convenient way to do this is to bring along a series of prepared forms that will allow a team to make lists of all of the important components of the system or systems involved and will prompt them for on-site notations on all of the important characteristics of each component that can be observed.

If floor plans of the site are available beforehand, bring multiple copies to the site investigation so that all volunteers can use them to record the location of components of the systems being described.

Several sample forms are available for download from the HHCC website. These should be taken as a guideline only and can be freely adapted for use as required in individual documentation projects.

Site Safety

Every time personnel enter a heritage site, a number of liabilities may be encountered.

First of all, is liability relating to the safety of personnel that are carrying out a documentation investigation. Here it is important to ensure that all volunteers are knowledgeable about how to carry out the investigation safely and have also provided themselves with appropriate safety equipment. It will also be necessary to take into account the site owner’s potential liability with respect to injury or death on the site. If the owner requires it, it may be necessary, for instance, to have all investigative personnel sign waivers of liability.

The second aspect of liability is potential damage to the site and/or equipment in the site, a concern to the site owner. Here the investigators may have to demonstrate to the site owner that they can carry out the documentation project safely and with no risk to the site owner’s property.

In all of these safety and liability issues, it is desirable for the documentation team and the site owner to establish a thorough dialogue as to all of the expectations and terms under which the investigation will take place.

Floor Plans and System Mapping

A basic requirement for the documentation of any in-situ HVACR technology is floor plans for the building or buildings to be investigated. Such plans are necessary, not only to establish the context of the technology installation, but also to ensure that all relevant areas of the building are investigated so that elements of the systems under investigation will be recorded.

Floor plans, ideally, are obtained from the site owner prior to the beginning of the documentation project. If this is not possible, however, the first task of the site investigation team will be to take measurements of the building itself to establish rough floor plans.

The next step of the documentation will be to prepare a list of all of the elements of the technology system under investigation and to situate each element on the floor plan. This ‘system map’ should also give an indication of what types of connecting systems unite the elements into a functional whole.

Photography

Once you and your team are on site and the work of documentation begins, make extensive use of photography as your first and most comprehensive recording tool. Photography is a quick and intuitive way to record all of the equipment and other artifacts that are found on the site. And with today’s digital cameras, photography can also be inexpensive and generate rapid results.

Use flash when necessary and available lighting where a flash would cause a distracting glare off the surface of shiny or reflective parts. Always attempt to place a camera as squarely in front of the artifact being photographed as possible, neither too far above, nor below, nor to one side or the other, as off-centered photographs distort shapes and perspectives.

Try and include a source of scale in each of your photographs, a yardstick, a ruler, or a pole marked with foot or metric markings. The inclusion of an objective source of scale information in the photograph is the quickest way to give your photographic recordings some precision.

Measurements

Add precision to your observations by taking measurements of the equipment you are recording. Basic height, width and length of various components of the system make it much easier in the future to identify these precisely from catalogues and other reference sources.

Use measuring instruments appropriate to the scale of the artifacts: A steel measuring tape will be needed for large artifacts, foot and meter sticks for medium-sized artifacts, and calipers or even a micrometer gauge for smaller items. Measure the diameter and length of piping and ductwork.

Angles can be measured with a plumb line, a carpenter’s level and a large protractor. Some of the new electronic tools incorporating a laser beam can be useful here too.

Field Notes

Using the forms and checklists you have prepared beforehand, take extensive notes in the field, including as much detail as there is time for. The notes should include a list of the components of each system being investigated. For each component, make descriptive notes as to manufacturer, model, color, material, date of manufacture, serial number, characteristics, and of course, detailed measurements.

Often these notes will derive from the background knowledge of members of the documentation team, together with onsite measurements. But frequently much of the required information can be derived from labels, name plates, stamps, and foundry marks found on the equipment itself. It is often handy to have rags and cleaning fluid with you to make it easier to clean off and read some of the vital information that will be found on the equipment. Be sure to take close-up photographs of labels, name plates, stamps and foundry marks as well, especially where there is not enough time to make detailed notes.

On Site Drawings

While photography can document many aspects of in-situ technologies, there are situations where the contrast, lighting, and level of resolution do not make relationships between components and other parts sufficiently clear. In these situations only a drawing, complete with measurements to indicate scale, will suffice. Use quick sketches made in the field to record the relationship between parts of the system, especially where these are difficult or impossible to show in a photograph. And indicate on the drawing the size of the various components immediately upon taking the measurements.

After the site work is complete it will be possible to convert these field sketches into more precise mechanical style drawings to serve as a precise and informative part of the documentary record. Traditional drafting tools can be used to prepare final drawings, as well as computer-aided technical drawing software.

Videography

In addition to still photography and field drawings, video recordings of the field site and of work carried out there can be invaluable additions to the documentary record. Video recordings allow for panning across a broad scene, demonstrating the relationship of components in large installations in a way that no single photograph can. At the same time, the video camera’s on-board microphone can be used to record the photographer’s verbal notes. Digital video equipment will make the preservation of high-quality records significantly easier.

Videotaping volunteers as they examine the equipment and comment on its identity, use and significance can capture a level of detail and observations that may be missed when the same information is transcribed to field notes. Video recordings may also allow one to demonstrate how certain pieces of technology operate, if the technology can be manipulated to show the relative movement of parts.

Existing Documentation

An in-depth documentation project goes beyond the site inspection to include a summary of research into related documentation already in existence. This type of archival research may be carried out prior to the site visit or after it. Places to look for existing documentary evidence include books in libraries, information available on the internet, business and/or operating records that may be in the possession of the site owner, manufacturers’ manuals and sales brochures, and catalogues and professional journals published during the period when the technology in question was being manufactured and/or was in use.

Be sure to look for existing photographs of the installation in operation, of the site, or of personnel involved with the equipment. Useful sources include photo archives and the personal photo collections of the site owner.

For the purposes of the HVACR documentation project, it will be sufficient to include summaries of the results of archival and documentary research together with a complete list of references to the archival sources so that subsequent investigators can locate them as well.

Oral Histories

An additional source of important information for any HVACR heritage site will be found in the recollections of living individuals who have had some association with the site and/or the equipment and technologies found there. Useful sources of oral history will include the site owner and any individuals who have been involved in installation, maintenance or repair of the equipment in question. In addition, residents or inhabitants of the premises may have useful recollections about the equipment and its role in their everyday lives. Service providers as well, individuals and/or firms involved in providing fuel, maintenance, or electrical service, should be contacted.

Interviews with people who remember the installation are conveniently recorded with voice and/or video recording equipment. The depth and quality of information recorded will be greatly improved if the interviewer uses a set of questions that is prepared beforehand and is designed to extract as broad a range of perspectives on the heritage technologies as possible. Digital recordings are to be preferred over analog, where possible.

Reporting Results

All of the preparation and on-site work and research described so far will be of little value unless the results are incorporated into a final report. The report should include text descriptions of the site and the technology systems found there, as well as summaries of the archival and documentary research. This report should also contain the most significant photographs, drawings, and measurement information from the study. A data section can present all of the detailed specifications of individual components of the system.

In addition, thought should be given to making the report available to as wide an audience as possible. It may be possible to have the report published in a journal or reported in a newsletter. It may be published inexpensively through a website, and copies may be deposited in libraries and other archival repositories. The key here is to ensure that the documentation produced is 1. disseminated as widely as possible, and 2. preserved in a reliable way for the future. Be certain that the final report includes a reference to all documentary material assembled that could not be included in the report itself, including detailed information as to where the rest of the documentation may be found and consulted.

Data Repository

While the final report incorporates key results of the documentation process, the project will normally have generated far more material of documentary value than can be included in the report itself. Additional types of data may include photographs, both on paper and in electronic format, film negatives, videotapes, field notes and drawings. There may also be documentation donated by the site owner to the project, such as floor plans, technical drawings, manuals, and other descriptive literature.

Typically in volunteer projects it will be difficult to find a reliable physical repository for the raw materials. Under these circumstances the best strategy is to convert as much of the additional information as possible into electronic format through photography, scanning or other means of digitization.

Digital records will take up far less physical space and may be committed to a CD-ROM, or DVD disks. While questions remain as to long-term archival qualities of these digital media, even when their life is relatively short, it will be much easier to transcribe them to future technologies and to more permanent forms of digital preservation if the digitization step has already been carried out.

Reporting Results

All of the preparation and on-site work and research described so far will be of little value unless the results are incorporated into a final report. The report should include text descriptions of the site and the technology systems found there, as well as summaries of the archival and documentary research. This report should also contain the most significant photographs, drawings, and measurement information from the study. A data section can present all of the detailed specifications of individual components of the system.

In addition, thought should be given to making the report available to as wide an audience as possible. It may be possible to have the report published in a journal or reported in a newsletter. It may be published inexpensively through a website, and copies may be deposited in libraries and other archival repositories. The key here is to ensure that the documentation produced is 1. disseminated as widely as possible, and 2. preserved in a reliable way for the future. Be certain that the final report includes a reference to all documentary material assembled that could not be included in the report itself, including detailed information as to where the rest of the documentation may be found and consulted.

Summary of the Documentation Project

Documentation of HVACR technologies is important work that will increasingly be critical to our understanding of the origins of the technologies that we enjoy today, and of the evolution of those technologies, along with accompanying changes in society. In addition, it is our best source of insight into how we ought to manage technological change in the future.

The tools and the expertise available to volunteers can make it possible to undertake significant documentation projects. And it is also clear that most of this work will have to be done by volunteers if we are to salvage enough of our past to be of value to future generations.

Please feel free to use the methods outlined here to identify and undertake your own HVACR technology documentation projects. Technicians, designers, planners, engineers, and contractors of the future are depending on your initiative and dedication.