Dan Holohan had no idea what he wanted to do when he was in high school. A helpful guidance counselor told him he should be a cop simply because he was a big guy with an Irish name. So he went to the State University of Farmingdale and received an associate’s degree in police science. However, upon graduating in 1969, the last thing Holohan wanted to be was a police officer.
“The world was on fire — it was crazy,” he says of the time.
Instead, he was admitted to the College at Old Westbury on the North shore of Long Island. There was no application process, no grades and no tests. Holohan stayed one semester, not learning a thing, before deciding to leave. He was working at a food store when his father told him that he should come work for Wallace Eannace, a manufacturer’s rep he worked for in Long Island.
“He said, “It gets cold every year, jerky, and we sell heating stuff,” Holohan says. “And that made sense. But before I could work there, I had to get a job somewhere else within the trade so it didn’t look like I was coming in cold. So I took a job as a truck driver and apprentice counterman at an A/C refrigeration wholesaler on Long Island. That was my first toe in the water — I was making $100 a week.”
Not too long afterwards when a position opened up at his father’s company paying $110 a week, Holohan jumped at the opportunity.
The company represented NIBCO at the time. Holohan remembers a lull one day where he wandered out into the warehouse and looked at some sample fittings. “I picked one up and wondered, ‘How did this come to be? Where did the copper come from and why is it this size? The people who make the fittings, do they also make the pipe, or is that two different companies? And, if it’s two different companies, when did they get together and decide that this one’s going to fit into this fitting?’ Then, I stumbled onto a box of books that were pushed to the back of the shelf — they were all about steam heating and hot water heating from the 1940s and 1950s. So I started to read them.”
Holohan began questioning the lead salesman at the company about boilers — something the company didn’t sell.
“He told me to stop asking so many questions and sell stuff,” Holohan says. “I started to realize that there were people I was working with older than me that had no idea how any of this stuff worked. My father told me I just needed to know the stuff we sold — to take the order and get paid on Friday.”
Not satisfied with that answer, Holohan began making trips to the Manhattan Public Library and checking out books on steam heating.
Little did he know, those inquiries and thirst for discovering the whys and hows boiler and steam systems worked would set him down what would become a very illustrious career path in the hydronics industry.
A seed of an idea
After learning about the early beginnings of steam heating in the library, Holohan approached his boss with the idea of starting a newsletter. He went back to the library and copied 5,000 names and addressed out of the Yellow Pages to start a mailing list.
“I called it the ‘Problem Solver,’” Holohan says. “But my boss told me not to put my name on it because I was too young, so contractors wouldn’t believe me. He told me to write in the corporate ‘we’ style. And it became wildly popular. I said, ‘Look at me, I’m a writer.’ But it was not noted to be me.”
Because of the newsletter’s success, Holohan had the idea of creating a book using the articles he had written. His boss went for the idea, but again, told him he couldn’t put his name on it.
“It was a small, 80-page book we called, ‘The Steam Book,’” he explains. “We took it to a printer, and I got to watch the printer actually cut and paste with an Exacto knife — it was that long ago! It was really old-school stuff. I was so excited when the book came out. They sold like 10,000 copies for this thing at $10 a piece and gave me a $100 bonus. That kind of put the seed of the idea in my head.”
By that time, the rep firm had made Holohan the “Contractor Boy,” sending him out with any contractor having a problem on a jobsite to try and find a solution. Holohan was spending most of his time in the field, not touching anything, but watching and seeking out older, experienced guys to try and fill the knowledge gap.
“Those were the Vietnam years, where people were either going to college or joining the military,” he explains. “And when they came out, they didn’t join this industry because it wasn’t glamourous. So there was this gap in knowledge at the same time the guys from the 1940s and 1950s, who knew steam, were dying. We had professors with no students, and I fell smack in the middle of that. So I reached out to old bookstores all over the country looking for steam heating knowledge. And I was traveling with contractors and figuring it out as we went. If we were looking at an old mansion on Long Island built in 1900, suddenly, I had a book that explained how that system worked, or what it was — I could give it a name. The book was all yellowed and weathered, but there it was. And people would say to me, ‘Gee, you ought to write this down.’”
Holohan thought that over for some time before coming across a trade publication at a local trade show. He began talking with the editor asking if it accepted contributors. After sending a few articles for review, the magazine, called Fuel Oil and Oil Heat at the time, hired him to produce monthly columns.
“That was in 1987, and it was causing me a problem at the rep firm because I began having interpersonal problems with the people there,” Holohan says. “A lot of the older guys were saying, ‘Who the hell do you think you are?’ The newsletter was soaring. At that point, I knew people would buy books from me. I sat down with my boss and said, ‘You know, down the road in 2000, we’ll have four kids all in college at the same time. I don’t see how I can afford that working for you.’ He said, ‘I don’t either.’ So I asked for his advice and what he would do if he were me. He smiled and said, ‘I’d definitely quit. You’ll always have a job here, but you’re not going to have what you’re looking to get.’”
After that discussion, Holohan decided to leave the rep firm.
Taking a chance
Holohan says what came next was crazy.
“We had a total of $5,000 — Marianne hadn’t worked, we were paying tuition for four kids in Catholic school, we had a mortgage, the kids want everything and we had to buy food,” he explains. “I said to her, ‘What do you want to do?’ And she says, ‘Oh, let’s give it a shot.’ She was really good at math, and I wasn’t. So I decided I was going to do a book, and run around and give seminars. I would consult with anybody willing to hire me. I figured people knew me through the magazine, so it should work out pretty well.”
Then, having nobody to write its popular newsletter, Wallace Eannace hired Holohan as a freelancer for half his original salary. He also gave several seminars for them every year.
After three years of work, Holohan finished his first book, “The Lost Art of Steam Heating,” in 1992 — the same year the van he used to do seminars broke down. Holohan knew he needed to replace the van because while he knew the book would sell in New York, he wasn’t sure about other areas and needed to be able to travel and give seminars to supplement his income.
“I was at a crossroads, having lunch with Al Levy,” Holohan says. “He was still working with his brothers in the oil business. He asked me if the book was going to be posthumously published. ‘When the hell is it coming out? We need this book,’ he told me. I said, ‘Well, the printer wants $17,500.’ Al reached in his pocket and wrote me a check. He slid it across the table and said, ‘Pay me back whenever you can.’ He didn’t ask for a paper or anything. That is a friend.”
And so the book was published, with 5,000 copies delivered to the Holohans’ home.
“We had boxes stacked up in the living room, and the kids thought it was the funniest thing in the world,” Holohan reminisces. “Marianne asked me, ‘What are we going to do now?’ So I asked Al what he thought I should charge. He hefted the book and says, ‘$30.’ I asked him how he came to that number. He said, ‘Well, if I was at a tradeshow and saw this for sale on a table for $30, that doesn’t cut into my beer money, so I would buy it. If it was $40, I’d probably keep walking.’ So I said, ‘Al, you’re a marketing genius.’”
Holohan ended up selling a copy of “The Lost Art of Steam Heating” to every attendee at the first seminar he presented in Boston after it was published. “If I had more copies with me, I could have sold them. They couldn’t get enough — they were buying multiple copies. It was cash only, and my daughter Meg had come with me. She was sitting there, 12 years old, beside herself with all this cash. We were so poor at that point that we couldn’t spend another night at a hotel in Boston. I finished the seminar and packed up the van for the drive back to New York. I had a car phone, because I figured I was a businessman and I should have one — but I never used it because it was 25 cents a minute. Meg was all buckled up, and I just put the bag of money in her lap, and she says, ‘Daddy? Can we afford to call Mom and tell her about this?’ I said, ‘Meg, you get on that phone right now!’ And that was the day I knew everything was going to be OK.”
Holohan went on to write hundreds of articles and several more books, including “Pumping Away,” “Hydronic Radiant Heating, “Primary-Secondary Piping Made Easy,” “Greening Steam,” and more.
A lasting impact
There is no shortage of industry patrons who’ve been impacted by Holohan — manufacturers, reps, plumbers and fellow writers alike. His love for teaching, writing, giving back and just undeniable kindness have left a mark. Fellow BNP Media Plumbing Group columnist Dave Yates says Holohan “literally changed his life.”
“Dan Holohan literally changed my life. I had long been a fan of Dan's columns and his book ‘Pumping Away’ was a turning point for me hydronically. Dan had written a column entitled ‘The Sweet Sixteen’ and, in it, gave a glowing plug for a boiler. We were, at the time, building our forever home and it was going to be radiantly heated. That boiler turned out to be one of the worst products I had ever encountered and we were without heat and hot water on dozens of occasions. I sent an email to Dan to give him a heads-up regarding that boiler brand. My secretary was highly trained to screen calls and I heard her giving a caller the third degree. After a few minutes, she came into my office asking if I wanted to take a call from Dan Holohan! On my birthday, no less. Dan, as he has done for hundreds if not thousands in our industry, went to bat for me and managed to elicit a response from the manufacturer who had been stonewalling me regarding the warranty.”
Yates goes on to mention Holohan’s famous “Heating Help: The Wall” where contractors can share thoughts and opinions, ask questions and more. “Then along came ‘The Wall’ around 1995, which was like entering a Wild West shoot-em-up bar room. Contractors gathered nightly and on weekends for banter and no-holds-barred you-best-have-tough-skin bare-knuckle conversations! It was exhilarating and fun. On rare occasions, a DIYer would show up and, if polite, got more than enough help: If not, then they were lambasted.”
Along with helping many feel more confident in their hydronic knowledge, Holohan has helped inspire others to take on tasks they otherwise thought weren’t for them. “Dan’s influence in my writing altered my life’s journey,” Yates explains. “Dan was asking if I would be interested in writing a monthly plumbing column for Contractor magazine. I avoided writing anything and whatever I did write was filtered through my secretary and my wife/office manager. You see, I have dyslexia and my spelling and grammar were atrocious. My wife, Lois, and I discussed, at length, if writing was to be in my future. We decided to accept the challenge with Lois and my mother agreeing to be my ghost editors so that my editor — none other than BNP Plumbing Group Publisher Dan Ashenden — would never see the bad spelling and grammar! I studied hard and three years later, I received my first ghost-edited column without any red marks! I know Dan has also helped launch other columnists, which is his nature.”
John Vastyan, owner of the well-known industry communications firm Common Ground, also says Holohan’s writing made his own writing better. “I’ll always, always recall with warmth the first time I met Dan in person. That warmth has remained a constant throughout our relationship for decades. As a once-young journalist, I also found that my writing improved when I read and studied Dan’s writing. He’s fearless and funny, and looks deeper into people’s eyes and lives than most writers I know,” he says. “To read a Dan Holohan column was always a sunny journey into a topic that otherwise would be impenetrable (the art of steam system piping, pumping away, etc.), boring, or just hidden from view. He introduced us to some of the most fascinating people, and could take us places, or provide an understanding of complex topics in ways that others couldn’t. Amazingly, it seems that just about every other writer in the industry — from Dave Yates to John Siegenthaler and everyone in between —routinely applies things they’ve learned from Dan Holohan.”
Holohan has long been involved with his friends at Caleffi Hydronics Solutions. Ellen Rohr says Holohan made technical writing interesting to her, which is something she never expected. “Once upon a time, Hotrod encouraged me to read one of Dan's articles. I rolled my eyes, thinking, ‘I have zero interest in this technical piece, but I shall humor him,’” she says. “Then, I met Dan through his writing. He talked of ferris wheels and soda pop bottles, and I learned how pumps work and the effect of pressure. He introduced me to his family, and their appreciation of Christmas morning gifts of expansion tanks and air separators. I met Missy, who taught me all about work ethic. And, as the wife of a plumber, I deeply related to The Lovely Marianne — another eye roller, like me. She loved Dan like I love Hotrod, because of, and in spite of, his obsession with hydronics. He also got me my first writing job, sharing what I've learned in the pages of the magazine. Thank you, Dan. You may retire, but your words linger.”
Max Rohr, director, education and technical marketing at Caleffi says Holohan’s influence has elevated the trades. “The people in our industry have always been incredible and hilarious. Through the lens Dan created, millions could see how and why. His dry appreciation for an absurdity was not something that I read, it was something that I felt. I remember the technical lessons, because I can recall internal dialogue Dan had the day he learned the lesson. He excelled in relatability and always instilled a sense of pride in our industry even when describing something as simple as a copper elbow. Dan has elevated our trade and boosted our collective self-esteem.”
Bob “Hot Rod” Rohr, trainer and technical support manager, industry columnist and Carlson-Holohan Industry Award of Excellence recipient says Holohan taught him how to be a better teacher. “The hydronic/steam Industry will have some big shoes to fill as Dan leaves the pages of this magazine. Dan's unique gift of weaving a story into all his writings brought knowledge, smiles and sometimes tears to me and all of his readers. I learned so much from Dan, through his columns and seminars. I devoured ‘Pumping Away,’ and have probably gifted that book to a hundred newbie contractors. Dan taught me not just technical stuff but how to teach and communicate. Even how to be a better dad.”
After decades of writing Holohan has somewhat of a cult following when it comes to readership. Upon learning of his retirement, numerous loyal readers reached out to share the impact Holohan’s writing has had on their life and career.
Jack Koenig of Syracuse Thermal says Holohan has made reps lives a little easier. “You’ve had such a great run, and became a legend in the education of heating tradesmen. Thank you for all you’ve done, you’ve made our jobs as reps a little easier.”
Similarly, Scott Herold, senior estimator at Macri says, “Thank you for your insights, stories and antidotes over these many years. You have truly made reading about what can be very dry subjects enjoyable,” he says. “You are truly a renaissance man and it shows in how you talk about ‘The Lovely Marianne.’”
Diane MacPherson, marketing manager, Air Purchases, says Holohan was one name that always stood out amongst the numerous educational writers in our industry. “I have been working in this industry since 2003 and have read countless trade articles along the way. You are the only writer whose name I've remembered through the years and whose articles I've always looked forward to reading,” she says. “One article, written many years ago now, especially comes to mind. If I recall correctly, it had to do with your having received an old book from an overseas friend which detailed the horrific ventilation conditions slaves experienced while being transported to America. That article made me weep. It also gave me a new window into the impact HVAC has had on humanity, something we still tend to take for granted.”
Mike Kowalczyk of Goyette Mechanical, notes that Holohan’s books and columns helped grant him experience over the years. “Dan, I just wanted to let you know how much you taught me over the years though your books and articles. After reading ‘The Lost Art of Steam Heating,’ and a couple years of experience, I became the one people at our shop contacted for boiler problems. Now 35 years later, and working part-time at 62, they still call me sometimes. I did get to see one of your seminars once, it was great.”
Nate Warren,business development manager – specialty products at Bradford White Water Heaters has also benefitted from Holohan’s writing. “I just finished reading your final column in Plumbing & Mechanical magazine and wanted to thank you as well as congratulate you for your career-long commitment to training and education. For many, experience was the only teacher but your seminars, books, and articles condensed a lifetime of experience into a well-written, easy-to-read books. They were just what I needed in 1999 when I took a job as Don Pratt’s training assistant at The Reed Institute in Westfield Massachusetts. I remember walking around the live-fire lab on my first day looking at the equipment – not knowing the difference between a boiler, a unit heater, or an air handler but aware that everything in that room could probably kill me because I didn’t know how to use it. I had to ramp up quickly and your books and courses helped me to not only survive a few years working in the live-fire lab but to advance and to have great jobs in an industry I never knew existed. Now I encourage my subordinates to use your material to learn how to be the experts they aspire to be.
“Thanks again for all you have done over the years to help improve and advance the industry. After a career’s worth of deadlines and departures, you deserve some downtime.”
The next chapter
Holohan has touched an untold number of lives in the plumbing and hydronics industries. His dedication and commitment to the trade and educating the next generation will be a lasting legacy for many years to come.
As he retires from the industry he loves, he leaves these words of advice:
“Be kind. Realize that everybody has to start somewhere, and everybody is very fragile,” Holohan says. “Don't make enemies, because you never know, that person may be your boss again. Read every day, read widely and beyond the industry. Don't do social media. That's a hard thing to say, it's a massive waste of time. And if you're wrong, say you're wrong. Don't try to cover it up. Be humble, — it's some of those good human qualities that I think are often missing.”
Holohan hopes that he’s left some positive impact with his work.
“I wrote about ‘the Dead Men,’ and kind of coined that phrase. That became a big deal. It’s used widely now. We were able to sell a lot of shirts and hats, and put the kids through college with the logo on it. But I will be one of those soon. I'm leaving the books and the stories and the people that knew me. I did this out of love. I did it to make money, of course, because I had to raise a family. I just hope I did it well enough that they will just remember me fondly.”