“The reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
— Mark Twain, after reading his own obituary, June 2, 1897
I've always enjoyed this Mark Twain story, and from the news I am hearing from contractors, this same quote could apply to the opportunity that hydronic — and more specifically, radiant heat — is currently bringing everyone associated with the comfort industry. I've recently heard from contractors in California, Texas and Tennessee, as well as the more traditional hydronic outposts in the Midwest and Northeast, all telling me that consumers are driving them to provide hydronic and radiant heating solutions even in this challenging economy.
It seemed like just yesterday when hydronic heating systems appeared to most HVACR contractors like a dinosaur slowly waiting to die. Many had written boiler systems off as a fossil of the comfort industry. Contractors were retrofitting wet heat systems with what was thought at the time to be more “efficient” forced-air systems in record numbers.America Loves a Comeback Story
For those of you who like underdog comeback stories, the emergence and renaissance of hydronic solutions happening right at this point in time rank up there with being as unlikely as the 1980 United States Olympic ice hockey team beating the Russians. As unusual as it may seem, homeowners, engineers, green builders and contractors have put hydronic systems on the “most wanted” poster for comfort and energy efficiency solutions for home-owners today. In fact, growth in radiant heating, particularly in the United States in the last 10 years, has been 100 percent to 200 percent a year.
Yes, the emergence of new equipment and some pretty cool engineering creativity have made the same principles the ancient Romans used to heat their bathhouses 2,000 years ago the new “in” thing to have for the family of the new millennium. The push for greener energy consumption, better comfort and the perceived higher-quality equipment is mainly responsible for this resurgence. Who could argue that the new generation of hydronic heating equipment cannot only compete with but really blow away what forced air can do from a total system efficiency standpoint? Plus it still offers the unlimited flexibility of applications that has always been part of the hydronic heating industry.The Roadblocks That Stand in the Way
With all the hoopla going on, what is standing in the way of the opportunity for contracting professionals in the United States? As much as contractors talk a good game when it comes to these systems, they are far behind their European counterparts, who have clearly taken hydronic and radiant heat to the front burner. In fact, the industry in the United States is less than 10 percent of what it is in Europe.What Will Fuel This “New” Movement
To borrow a line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” I really believe that the hydronics industry manufacturers have done a great job of not standing pat. The significant increase in not only the sheer number of applications but also in the technology of the solutions available today boggles the mind. It is the local HVACR supplier who is ultimately responsible for filtering all of this information on what is now available to contractors to perform their job of selling it to the public.
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The interesting thing about all of this is that in the past, many thought it would be impossible for hydronic systems to penetrate the nonhydronic market. One contractor in southern California recently installed a whole- house radiant heating system despite an original design that used forced air. When I asked how he got the inspiration to even offer such a system, he told me his customer approached him about it. I also asked him how he acquired the materials and know-how to design and install a radiant heating application. He told me his supplier had spent a great amount of time with him and provided everything he needed.
He further went on to say that since the first one, he has installed four others in the past year as well. To say he was excited about this was an understatement. “The great thing is that I am the only one in the area doing these systems.” He said, “It's one of the best things that ever happened to my business.”
So based on the above scenario, we can assume that both the end-user and the HVACR supplier are the determining factors on whether an area of the country will accept the hydronic movement or not. In short, whether you think you can sell it or not, you are correct either way you think. The first place that hydronic solutions are successful is in the imagination of those who sell it and buy it.Start by Believing It Can Happen
The reason I say the success of making hydronic solutions the norm in any given area starts with the supplier is plain to see. For instance, if the contractor approached the supplier and got a “deer in the headlights” look from his salesperson, then the deal would not have gone through. He probably would have talked the customer out of the solution they wanted instead.
You have to believe that homeowners want this type of solution. Also, there are other applications where hydronic solutions may just be better suited. Contractors can design, install and service applications such as multizone forced-air applications with individual gas, electric and flue piping much more effectively with a hydronic touch to them. For instance, instead of multiple forced-air furnaces, why not a high-efficiency boiler piped to zoned variable-speed air handlers equipped with heat coils? Then adding an indirect water heater to provide virtually endless hot water is a snap. A whole-house radiant flooring package or even one that you incorporate just in the kitchen or bathrooms is certainly realistic. The possibilities are virtually endless.
This is the job of a territory salesperson to inspire creative solutions with contractors. All HVACR contractors are looking for ways to differentiate their business. When everybody else is bidding “apples to apples,” the contractor who offers a longer-lasting, better-engineered, efficient, more-premium and cost-effective job will force the buyer to look twice at the contractor who is offering the hydronic alternative. The first decision the buyer will have to make is, do I want the “Rolls Royce” hydronic job? Or the other one that everyone else is offering? Go over the different creative applications that are available to you with your salespeople so they know their stuff.
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Make It Easier to Buy Hydronic
So, other than providing inspiration to contractors on the various applications available, what else can wholesalers do to get the ball rolling? My advice is to make it easier to purchase hydronic solutions. Take the catalogue and “mainstream” these pieces of equipment. Get rid of the “call for price” note in your price database and be ready when someone requests your availability and pricing so you are the “go to” wholesaler. Feature the equipment in a way that inspires contractors to ask about these solutions, no matter what climate you are located in.Package and Bundle It
One of the most effective ways to sell a complex, engineered HVACR system and make it easy to understand is to bundle and package it. Take a tip from some of the “high pressure” air duct system manufacturers. Create an installation “kit” that includes everything that will normally be needed to install a hydronic application. The fast-food industry had known for years that bundling the most commonly purchased products together is an effective approach. Packaging and bundling account for more than 80 percent of sales in that industry.
So the next time a contractor calls to order a boiler, ask them, “Do you want fries with that?” Of course, in this case, the “fries” could be an entire expansion, flow control or zoning system.
Packaging can be especially effective when it comes to radiant heating. Instead of trying to remember all the different clips, connectors, controls and manifolds available, package them in a kit first and then adjust from there. Packaging solutions like this are akin to educating the contractor on what they will need to get the job done and to also consider the labor needed to do such a job. Basically, if they don't know everything they will need, how will they know what to do?Don't Forget the Counter
I remember that when I first started in the HVACR trade in 1983, one of my best resources was a guy named Jeff who worked the counter for a local supplier. He constantly reminded me as a young tech about what to check or what I should not forget to check as he was selling to me. It is Jeff who told me to think about the expansion tank when I was buying a boiler relief valve. He also reminded me to check the sagging motor mounts on the pumps before I replaced the coupler.
When I think back, there was a series of people like this who were always ready to help me. In fact, they saved my skin more than a few times when I was about to do the wrong thing. The point is that if you want to become strong or even grow your hydronic division, you have to be strong on the front lines, and that begins at the counter. This is the unofficial training school of service techs young and old. Educate your people so they feel more comfortable providing these solutions to your buyer.The Future Is What We Make of It
So will hydronic heating solutions lead us into the future? Well, it would certainly make sense if they did. A case can be made for hydronics' comfort, quiet, high efficiency, high air quality, easy zoning and, yes, even hydronics being a “green” solution as well. One thing for sure is that wherever we find ourselves in the future, our imagination or lack of it will be responsible for bringing us there. When it comes to growing your hydronic heating business portfolio, remember that it starts with the smallest of thoughts. Then commit to educating, designing and helping to sell this “back to the future” solution to contractors. As the famous hockey player Wayne Gretzky once put it, “You will always miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take.”