Young and Ambitious
The number of remote, full-time workers in the US has grown from pre-pandemic levels of 17 percent to 44 percent today. Densely populated and traditionally high-paying areas – think: New York City and Los Angeles – have experienced a population decrease while many office workers, with newfound freedom, have left for greener pastures.
Some vacation destinations, especially rural ones, have experienced sharp population increases as a result. Coeur d’Alene, ID, St. George, UT, and Cody, WY are good examples. Many of the new “transplants” bring big-city salaries.
Evidence of this can be seen in Cody, where the demand for services is higher than ever before. This presents an opportunity for young, ambitious entrepreneurs. Yet the influx of big-city money is a plague for first time homebuyers-to be. The housing market in Cody soared 45 percent in 2022 alone, according to Cowboy State Daily. Quite the challenge for young millennials and gen-Z’ers hoping to stay in their hometown.
So what’s a young, professional tradesperson to do?
Opening up shop
Two young Cody residents, both born and bred, founded their own businesses in 2022 and are now well positioned to grow as a direct result of the burgeoning local economy.
Wyatt Kincheloe, 27, founded Mountain Man Plumbing, LLC in August of last year and currently employs one other full-time technician.
Derek Johnson, 33, founded Dropout Fabrication, working out of a shop on the family farm to create high-end, custom metalwork of all kinds; campers, truck beds, signage, architectural banisters, and ultralight snowmobile components, to name a few.
Kincheloe worked for his father’s company for 10 years before hanging out his own shingle – longer, if you count summer work. The larger company has one of the best reputations in the area. While there, he became the lead boiler technician, designing and installing hydronic systems in residential and commercial applications. Shortly after he and his wife became parents to a set of twins, he set out on his own.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s company was fast outgrowing the space available at the farm. He acquired a piece of property next to the Shoshone River, just outside of town, and began drawing up plans for a 3,000 square-foot shop-house. With living quarters in a second-story loft, the entire ground level serves as office and fabrication space, including a CNC plasma table, sheet metal brake and a powder coating oven.
Time for a change
“I’ve been welding and working on equipment in an unheated space my whole life” said Johnson. “I was renting a small house and wanted my own place. By building a shop-house, I could solve both problems at once.”
Johnson had crews lined up for excavation and steel shell assembly, and planned to do all interior framing himself. The only unknown was how to heat the space.
“We have long, bitter winters here, with lots of wind,” said Johnson. “I really wanted a radiant system, but I didn’t know if it was in the budget. I contacted Mountain Man Plumbing to find out.”
Kincheloe had an idea to help fit a radiant system in the shop-house budget. He suggested Johnson install radiant PEX tubing himself, and Mountain Man would return to install the rest of the mechanical system once the slab was poured. He conducted a heat loss calculation based on Johnson’s drawings, using a -20°F outdoor design temp. Not including DHW load, the building required 140 MBH.
After the heat load was entered into Watts’ LoopCAD software, Johnson installed 11 loops of 1/2-inch oxygen barrier PEX at 12-inch centers. The loops, which averaged 275 feet, all terminated in the small mechanical room and waited for Mountain Man to install the boiler.
Quick decision, quick installation
As Wyoming’s early winter began to set in and Mountain Man’s phone rang with early heating calls, Johnson’s mechanical system took priority.
“Due to the size of the boiler room, I suggested the use of a wall-hung combi boiler,” said Kincheloe. “We’re at 5,000 feet above sea level, so that was a consideration when selecting a model. I’d recently heard that U.S. Boiler Company’s Alta mod-con is rated for high elevation, and I wanted to try the new gas-adaptive technology. I was told that you simply pipe water and gas to the boiler, connect power, and walk away.”
The combi unit Kincheloe selected provides 200 MBH of DHW capacity and 150 MBH heating capacity, just above the building’s design-day load.
Working alone, Kincheloe spent two days installing and connecting the boiler to the PEX that Johnson had sleeved and terminated through the mechanical room slab. The boiler was sidewall vented with Centrotherm polypropylene pipe. The only unusual aspect to venting the boiler was avoiding the large steel beams used to frame the structure.
This was Kincheloe’s first time installing an Alta, so he used the start-up wizard within the USB-Connect mobile app. The new app, which interfaces with all models of Alta, Aspen, Alpine and K2 boilers through a Bluetooth adapter, allows technicians to access the boiler control via smartphone or mobile device rather than the boiler display.
“I downloaded the app in two minutes, plugged in the adapter, and could immediately see and modify all boiler functions on my phone, like DHW setpoint, supply and return temps, etc.,” said Kincheloe. “It blew me away, it even had all the manuals, and the start-up wizard walked me through the whole process. I set the slab supply water temperature to 120°F, set the DHW setpoint to 119°F, and took an extra minute to register the boiler serial number under Derek’s name and address.”
The concrete slab is served by one large zone, circulated by a Taco 0015e3 ECM circulator set to its highest mode. The upstairs living quarters is served by a single zone of staple-up radiant. This zone uses a 007e circulator, given the lower head requirements.
Late on the second day of the installation, after quickly removing air from the system via the purge port on the Alta’s heat exchanger, Kincheloe injected three cans of Fernox F3 Express Cleaner and went home.
“Because of the outdoor temp and the thickness of the concrete slab, Wyatt told me it could be 24 hours before the building reached the thermostat setting,” said Johnson. “I sent him a text 16 hours after he left to let him know that the building was at temperature.”
Mountain Man returned to the job several weeks later to flush the system cleaner and inject enough Fernox Alphi 11 antifreeze to provide burst protection down to -20°F. He also plugged in the USB-Connect adapter to look at the runtime data on the boiler.
Even in the very worst conditions, when ambient temperatures remained below zero around the clock and dipped toward -20°F overnight, the boiler never fired during the day. On the coldest of nights, the boiler came on when the sun went down. On milder winter nights, it fired around midnight and ran until 5:00 or 6:00am.
“That’s exactly what we want,” said Kincheloe. “Long cycles and few of them. There’s a lot of thermal mass in that slab, and the boiler is running exactly as intended.”
There’s another advantage to the thermal mass, too, one that Johnson can feel.
“It always feels 10 degrees warmer in here than the thermostat reads,” he explained. “The slab warms everything else up in this space; sheet metal, machinery, snowmobiles, the shop’s metal frame, and so on. I’m pretty spoiled now.”
While Johnson installed two-inch foam board beneath the concrete, he has yet to insulate the exterior sides of the monolithic slab, a critical element to saving energy. His worst monthly gas bill, which includes heat and DHW production, was $300. This came mid-winter, when northwest Wyoming saw a week-long stretch when daytime temperatures never rose above 0°F. As spring approached, those fuel bills dropped off rapidly.
“This shop will serve Dropout Fabrication very well,” said Kincheloe. “I’m busier than I need to be, and so is Derek. Actually, I just asked him to build some pipe racks for one of my work rigs. He told me he was a few months out. I’m really excited about my business, and to see other young guys in town making big moves. There’s absolutely no shortage of work right now.”