A Call for Education

by Bob Miodonski

A lively exchange between a general contractor and a consulting engineer was a highlight during the Hydronics Roundtable. The debate centered on the chief obstacles to contractors trying to increase their hydronic heating business.

The second annual Hydronics Roundtable took place May 26 in New York City. Burnham Hydronics sponsored the event along with co-sponsors Contractor and Contracting Business magazines. The theme of this year’s discussion was increasing profitability in the hydronics business. Much of the talk focused on how to better educate the entire industry — from building owners to architects to subcontractors — on the benefits on hydronic heating.

Heating contractors and wholesalers made up most of the roundtable, which also featured representatives from Burnham, Honeywell, and R.W. Beckett. One general contractor and a consulting engineer also joined the discussion.

Necessary Communication

Several contractors and wholesalers identified general contractors as their chief impediment to increasing their hydronic heating profitability. The consensus was that builders generally object to hydronic heating, either because it’s more expensive to install than forced-air systems, or they simply don’t understand hydronics.

“We do have a problem with builders,” one contractor said. “The builders are hurting us. I have builders who will tell Joe Average that he can’t afford hydronic heating.”

General contractor Pat Panza, who works on both residential and commercial projects in Connecticut, pointed the finger elsewhere. He noted that the cost of some of his renovations has exceeded $1 million.

“Where we get into problems isn’t so much the general contractor or the builder,” he said. “It’s the education of the architect and engineer. When you get into this type of market, money doesn’t become much of an issue. Education is the issue. They don’t understand the benefits of hydronics.”

“I disagree with you,” responded consulting engineer Marty Bauer, who added that about 20% of his design business in Chicago involves hydronics. “We understand the benefits of hydronic systems.”

Panza answered, “You may understand it, but I can tell you that if you did an actual market evaluation you would probably fall into the minority rather than the majority. I have people designing things that don’t have a clue of what it is.”

Bauer pointed out that the engineer isn’t at fault when he designs a perfectly acceptable hydronic system for a large new home, and the homeowner doesn’t want to give up any closet space for an adequately sized mechanical room. “That’s the architect’s responsibility, “ he said.

“I’ve been in this industry for 31 years, and I can’t begin to tell you the lack of understanding of what and how we should put the product out there,” Panza said. “My only point is the general contractor isn’t really the enemy. It is a matter of how we tie everybody in so that we are all on the same page.”

Getting all parties to work together means educating subcontractors as well, said some heating contractors in the room. Even when a builder can be convinced of the benefits of a hydronic installation, an electrician or carpenter may object to it.

“I have actually lost jobs because after I talked the homeowner and the builder into it, all of a sudden the electrician, the tile guy, or the floor guy said, ‘Man, if you do that I’m not doing the job. I want nothing to do with it. I’m walking off the job,’” one contractor said. “Then, you have to sit him down and reassure him, saying, ‘I’ve done it before, don’t worry about it.’”

Education is Key

Contractors serious about hydronic heating will continue to educate customers, builders, subs, architects, and engineers on an individual basis. Yet, the consensus of the roundtable indicated that something more is needed to move the industry forward.

“What I am looking for, as a builder, is how to bridge that gap of information,” Panza said. “There is a huge market for this industry if it’s cost effective. So, how do we bridge the gap between what you call scorched-air systems and hydronics? How do we make hydronics more competitive?”

Panza adds, “I need the education and background in order to say, ‘This is why you should consider hydronics, these are the benefits, and this is how quickly you’ll see a return on your investment.’”

Some contractors at the roundtable said that they and others in the hydronics industry could do a better job of educating people on the benefits of unlimited hot water, radiant warm floors, energy efficiency and comfort. Others felt that hydronic equipment manufacturers could do more to raise the visibility of hydronic heating through national builder programs and advertising.

One contractor even suggested that hydronics manufacturers get together with their colleagues in related industries, such as floor coverings, to raise awareness.

For its part, Burnham said that it had taken steps since the first Hydronics Roundtable in April 2003 to raise the level of awareness of hydronics. These have included a “road show” of mobile displays that has traveled to events attended by contractors and wholesalers, and may visit builder shows in the future. The company also is working to improve its website.

“Homeowners are increasingly visiting our website,” said Daisy Lilley, advertising manager of Burnham. “Before they make a major purchase, they want to find out more on-line. Therefore, we’re trying to add information, ranging from basic to technical, that’s useful to both the homeowner and the contractor.” n

Bob Miodonski is publisher and editorial director of Contractor. He served as moderator of the Hydronics Roundtable along with co-moderator Mike Weil, executive editor of Contracting Business magazine.

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