Jump back about one year to the conclusion of the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic Regional Meeting. Turnout for this meeting was less than projected, so concerned distributors started to think about ways to build interest in this meeting in the future. Someone suggested that the meeting's close timing with the annual convention of the National Association of Oil Heat Service Managers (NAOHSM) may have created some conflicts and limited regional meeting attendance. We took a closer look at NAOHSM and found that a number of distributor and manufacturer members of HARDI were also active NAOHSM members. From this, we realized that most people were ignoring possibly the greatest commonality among Northeast and Mid-Atlantic HVACR distributors: the hydronic business, primarily oil heat.
Being a longtime distributor of such products, I've always hoped that HARDI would get more involved in the hydronics side of the industry. It was easy for me to suggest to the Membership Committee that HARDI consider creating a new council to focus on these specific issues and challenges within the membership — especially if it could help revitalize my Mid-Atlantic Region. Along the way, during a casual conversation, Bill Bergamini of suburban Chicago-based ILLCO expressed his interest in such a council because they too sell lots of hydronic products. As discussions continued, it became impossible to exclude the exploding radiant segment from these discussions, resulting in a formal recommendation to create the Hydronics & Radiant Heat Council, which the board of directors quickly and unanimously approved. I was fortunate to be named the inaugural chair of the new Council, and Bill Bergamini was the obvious choice to serve as vice chair. Trade publications picked up our press releases, and we made several announcements in association communications. Interest in our new Council was instant and constant, so Bill and I knew we had to start getting organized.
I looked forward to our first conference call to try to finalize the structure and agenda for the Council's first meeting, but my agenda was ruined five minutes into the call after learning that Bill sells very few of the same products as I do, and those he sells are for very different applications to a very different customer base. This diversity was going to be our greatest challenge and our greatest strength as a council. We ended the meeting deciding to create Council Subcommittees, the first two being the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic and the second the Central/Great Lakes. Both Subcommittees would meet at their respective regional meeting to focus on regional issues, and the full Council will meet for the first time at the Midyear Business Meeting in Texas this June. We hope to add more Subcommittees in the future, but first we have to get a better understanding of this market that is hydronics and radiant heat.
Exactly how diverse is this market? Luckily, some very talented members immediately asked to join the Council, so we thought we'd ask them. What we heard back was interesting indeed and provides another example to the membership of the value of local distribution with focused product knowledge.
Most people attribute the diversity of installers across the country to a simple explanation: the wide variety of applications.
In the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, there is a combination of gas and oil boiler systems, with some regions almost exclusively reliant on oil. However, gas applications dominate the Central and Great Lakes regions where there is much less oil usage. Northeast hydronic and radiant heat distributors are supplying contractors, plumbers and oil dealers, yet in the Chicago suburbs, mechanical contractors and pipefitters darken most distributor doorways. For all of this diversity, however, everyone seems to agree that there is one predominant commonality.
Hydronic and radiant heat installers, be they HVACR contractors, mechanical contractors, plumbers or pipefitters, all desperately need product, application and sales training, and the distributor's ability to provide such things determines their success in this marketplace. “I believe one of the biggest challenges is contractor training — a lot of hand-holding with some contractors,” says Mark Rose of Aireco Supply Inc., headquartered in Savage, MD. “Some [contractors] will just walk away from radiant jobs because they have little or no idea how to install, properly pipe, control or maintain a radiant system.” I couldn't agree more. Technology has far outpaced training and installation aptitudes, and distributors have no choice but to close this gap.
“There is a tendency to sometimes take a ‘one-size-fits-all' approach with equipment, especially the new high-efficiency products,” says Lee Ensminger of Crown Boiler Co. “This is not necessarily the best practice. Customers need to understand that the equipment should be matched to the design and the demands of the system, whether it is an older system in search of more efficiency or a new radiant system.” I know at APR Supply, Lee's assessment lies at the heart of our challenges with today's hydronic and radiant heat products. The demand for greater efficiency — urged on by the leadership of many states across the country in the form of legislated increases in minimum efficiency mandates — and comfort has spurred unprecedented technological advancements.
As technology has produced more efficient and complex hydronic and radiant heat products, so have installations and control systems become more complex. In fact, before installation begins, the design process can now be too daunting for many installers, especially if they are installing an integrated radiant heat and A/C system. HARDI Vice President Talbot Gee noted how similar this situation is to that of residential locksmiths over the last decade, which paints a very bleak picture if ignored. The number of residential locksmiths has plummeted by more than half in the last decade, and today many of those still in operation no longer have a storefront but rather run entirely mobile operations out of vans and trucks. Two things caused this to happen. First, most locksmiths refused to get serious about their appearance and professionalism when families expect to entrust them with their security. Second, many ignored the emergence of electronic, integrated alarm and locking systems, refused to learn the new technologies and witnessed large, integrated security system providers replace locksmiths in the residential market. Distributors' ability to keep up with the rapid technological advances in hydronics and radiant products and to educate and train their customers will determine many installers' futures.
“I believe that we as wholesalers are the keystone between the contractors and the end-user … as hydronic systems become more complex and homeowners become better educated via home improvement programming and online research, WE must provide the educational opportunities and pre- and post-sale support to ensure that installations are seamless and effective year-round,” says Keith Northey, Johnstone Supply's northeast regional account manager. Northey and I agree that doing joint sales calls with our customers and helping installers work directly with home-owners not only improve the sale and the design but also offer the biggest benefit. Northey described it best when he noted that “the bond between customer and wholesaler is strengthened and the profitability on both ends is enhanced.”
Education and training will be a primary focus of our new Council. We've already reached out to other industry organizations, most notably Gas Appliance Manufacturing Association and its I=B=R school. We as a council need to act quickly to provide distributor members with all of the tools and knowledge needed to train and prepare their customers for the multitude of new products, capabilities and applications that are emerging. Secondly, the Council will need to keep a close watch over the eight states that have initiatives in their legislatures to increase the minimum efficiency standards for boilers and furnaces. These standards dictate products and systems, and I, as one who had to endure the recent 13 SEER conversion in air-conditioning, understand how changes in standards have extensive ripple effects throughout any industry.
I can't help but be excited, though, about the opportunities for smart and aggressive distributors in hydronics and radiant heat. Having a formal network of others selling these products will be invaluable, as they have been for the other parts of our business. The doors this Council's creation opens with other organizations like NAOHSM and the Radiant Panel Association, to name a few, widen the exposure of HARDI and its distributors and expose more people to the value we deliver every day. I welcome any and all to participate in our new Council and invite those interested to contact HARDI or me for more information.
Randy Tice is the chair of the Hydronics & Radiant Heat Council and chairman of Lebanon, PA-based APR Supply Inc. Contact Randy at 717/274-5999 or at [email protected].