Jan 13, 2022 | Business, Front Page

Riding along with Ivan Voelker of Northstar Plumbing

Staff Writer

The pandemic has changed a lot of things for us on the mountain. It’s harder to get things, important things like lumber and tools, as well as frivolous things like Pop-Tarts and Beefaroni. Gearing up for dinner out feels like decamping for battle. And exercising, well, it’s easier to buy bigger pants rather than go to the gym – online of course.

But not for Ivan Voelker. Voelker is an HVAC technician at Northstar Plumbing and he gets up at 4 a.m. every day and goes straight to the gym.

Some things can’t stop working. We have to have roads. We have to have hospitals. We have to have heat. We have to have plumbing. For people in these critical jobs, letting the pandemic get in the way isn’t an option.

The rush of folks to the mountain during the pandemic has only created more work for Voelker, and he’s determined to not become a resource that’s impossible to access.

The gym is his way to center in the morning because, although Voelker works on the mountain, he lives in Riverside. But, more importantly, he wants to be mentally ready for what can be long days.

“I have a process,” he says, “and by 4:45 a.m. I’m already at the gym working out.”

He uses this ritual to prepare for what can be long days once he drives up here. “Six clients, often, 12 hours,” he tells me. And it’s not just the physical work; it’s the face-to-face services. Making sure his clients are getting the information and reassurance they need that he’s going to do right by them.

“Customer service,” he says, “is hard, but it’s also really important. I walk into my first client mentally ready to provide the level of service they expect from us.”

Northstar Plumbing, where Voelker works, is based in San Dimas and began offering services in the Rim communities this past April.

When the opportunity to take responsibility for the mountain territory came up, Voelker jumped at it. “I love it up here. I come up the hill and, especially the further I go up as the weather cools, I love it.” He’d eventually like to get a home here – another resource that has become hard to come by.

We’ve been talking an hour already at the Valero in Blue Jay when Voelker reminds me we have an actual client to go to.

It’s 9 a.m. when we get in his truck and drive to an address on the North Shore. This visit is going to be for a maintenance request on a furnace. Yearly maintenance checks are free. “Maintenance on older furnaces, we always take a look at them,” Volker explains, “to make sure they are safely running.”

I get a thrill when we pull up to the house because Voelker asks me to put on these orange plastic booties that fit over my shoes. They remind me of something someone on CSI might wear. It’s to keep the client’s home clean, and I can’t ever remember a technician being that considerate in my home. A nice touch.

Voelker knocks and the owner, an older woman, answers the door. He introduces us and she lets us in. This is the part on ride-alongs where I keep my mouth shut and let the experts work. And Voelker is clearly an expert.

I can see his morning mental prep immediately paying off, because the owner is rightly a little anxious. We’re a couple of strangers about to crawl around the dark places under her home and tell her whether she’s safe or not and how much it will cost her to fix things. I’d be worried, too.

But watching Voelker talk to her, explaining everything so clearly, and laying out what’s free and what will cost and what his main priority is (her safety), I get to watch her anxiety melt away.

She lets us into the crawlspace under her house and leaves us (I don’t blame her, it’s quite dusty).

Voelker immediately goes to work disassembling the furnace. It is an older model from the 1980s. He shows me some of the inner workings of it but, even though I nod as though I understand what he’s talking about, I really don’t. It is cool though, as he goes step-by-step through his diagnostic, and I tell him that. It’s also working just fine, especially for an older model. “It’s clean,” he tells me. “No problem here.”

Turning from the furnace, though, he shows me the ducting that carries the heat throughout the house, and that’s quite a different story.

He points out how most of the insulation wrapped around the ducts is ripped and sagging. “This here, this is not supposed to be falling apart. She should replace this. She’s losing more money in heat than it would cost to fix.”

Back in the house with the client, Voelker now has to do one of the more difficult parts of the job. The owner really should spend some money to have her ducts replaced. I watch as he sits with her and walks her through the problems he encountered as well as what she can do to fix them. He’s as good with numbers as he is with people.

The owner is concerned but relieved there’s no safety issue. And Voelker puts absolutely no pressure on her. He lays out all her options, and then we’re saying goodbye.

Twenty minutes later I’m back at the Valero and Voelker and I are saying goodbye. I’m headed home, but he’s got a day full of calls ahead of him. We shake hands, he climbs back up into his Northstar truck and that’s it.

I see these trucks around the mountain. I see the logo, the uniform. For me, I find that I often get caught up in that, in the uniform somebody is wearing. I start thinking of them as say a “mechanic” or a “fireman” or a “plumber.”

It’s a dangerous trap, because mechanic/fireman/plumber isn’t a person – it’s a role. The human is left out when the logo is slapped on a shirt pocket. The uniforms are important, certainly, because they come with a set of expectations, of responsibilities and commitments. But none of those expectations outweighs a person’s core humanity.

I love knowing that Voelker spends an hour before his day begins at the gym to be the best he can for his clients. I love knowing that he cares first and foremost about his clients being safe. I love knowing that he loves our mountain, not just as clients, but as people he’d like to be around and build a community with.

And I love that knowing this changes me and gives me the power to look not just at him differently, but at every single person wearing a logo who I might unthinkingly take for granted as they go about the work of keeping this mountain alive.



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