New mantras for residential design

EVEN THOUGH FRIDAY'S still payday and poop still runs downhill unless an ejector pump is involved, many of the old rules of residential plumbing and HVAC design are simply too antiquated to be worth the space between your ears. The ultra-competitive world of residential design and contracting is definitely a different one from just a decade ago. No longer will typical homebuyers settle for what's

EVEN THOUGH FRIDAY'S still payday and poop still runs downhill unless an ejector pump is involved, many of the old rules of residential plumbing and HVAC design are simply too antiquated to be worth the space between your ears.

The ultra-competitive world of residential design and contracting is definitely a different one from just a decade ago. No longer will typical homebuyers settle for what's offered them initially by the builder. Thanks to the Internet and 800-lb. gorillas such as Lowe's and Home Depot, consumers come loaded with more details about more options on mechanical systems than they typically can understand.

This isn't a bad thing. It allows you, the contractor who's going to design and install their HVAC and plumbing systems, to try to educate and up-sell them. Let's take a look at these current trends in design.

Nice kitchens and bathrooms sell homes, so they're getting larger while the rest of the rooms in a typical new house are being forced to shrink.

With aging baby boomers trading up to nicer second and third homes and gen X'ers, who are used to having everything luxurious and being in debt past their eyeballs, virtually every new home built today has a kitchen 50% larger than ones a generation ago. Bathrooms, especially "master bathrooms," are often 100% larger than what was built 20 years ago, with every possible luxury crammed in them.

This presents obvious up-sell opportunities but also possibilities for increased homeowner complaints because of poor system design.

You must take into account the additional heat loads of what amounts to commercial-capacity stoves and ovens. Moreover, many homes have an open plan combining the kitchen, breakfast nook and dining area often bleeding into a large living/great room. You're going to have homeowner complaints if you put in two 8-in. supply ducts into what may have turned into several hundred square feet of living area.

In fact, if you've not made the switch over to Version 8 of ACCA's Manual J for doing your heat loss/heat gain calculations, you're asking for trouble. Keep in mind it's moving air as much as mechanically cooled air that gives people the perception that they're cool. When you do the design, allow for one or two extra runs for maximum coverage in airflow patterns.

In bathrooms, even though it's not your fault, most homeowners want enough water pressure in showers to be able to sandblast with it. If the municipal water supply doesn't have the pressure, the best you can do is either try to sell a booster pump or run larger supply lines right up to the fixtures, even though it'll cost you more. Even if you piped it to code, if the homeowner isn't happy, you'll get warranty calls.

A master bath in a new house, even a starter home, without a whirlpool bath? Unheard of! Just remember that it also puts an additional load as an appliance in your Manual J calculations and can create humidity issues, depending on your local climate.

Nicer baths and kitchens are also required to sell existing homes, which is where you should be selling, selling, selling.

You should intimately know every single neighborhood in your coverage area and be aware of which ones have equipment and systems that are eight to 12 years old. You'd be foolish if you don't aggressively go after the change-out market since margins are higher and risk is low. Hang attractive but cheap-to-produce flyers on every single front doorknob in these neighborhoods at least once a year and send refrigerator magnets to individual homeowners whose condensing units are obviously on their last legs.

Cable shows on the Discovery Channel and HGTV are educating a new generation of potential sellers that if they really want to sell their homes quickly and for more money, spending a few grand on remodeling their outdated kitchens and bathrooms with new plumbing fixtures often leverages the expense. This may or may not be true depending on your local market, but you still need to be aware of this perception. To take advantage of this trend, you'll need to know the higher end fixtures by memory and possibly partner with a one or more local showrooms and interior decorators to generate leads.

Most homeowners don't know a SEER from a psychic, but they do know the higher a unit's SEER the lower their utility bills will be.

With automated Manual J V.8 and design programs such as WrightSoft (www.wrightsoft.com) loaded onto your laptop, you can walk into a home-owner's den and often walk out with a nice fat check for a high-efficiency replacement system, once you show him how much money he'll save. He'll have to do it eventually since the old equipment will fail some day.

The master bedroom/suite should have its own zone to keep the owner happy. The old saying, "If Mama ain't happy, then nobody's happy," also applies to Pappy. Since it's usually the two of them that pay the mortgage together, not having proper airflow and temperature where the bed will be located is usually a mistake.

If the owners get a good night's sleep because they're comfortable, chances are they'll be happy campers even if the rest of the house might have a couple dead spots. At least they won't be whining to the builder that the house's AC system wasn't sized properly.

Selling a "poor man's zone system," i.e., a two-unit system, is actually a logical up-sell, especially when the house is either two story or split-level.

It's a trade secret (remember that since you're reading CONTRACTOR, it means you're a member of "the brotherhood," so no telling the general public) that all the risk for a typical job is in labor and very little is in the equipment. The more you can boost your equipment-to-labor-dollars-ratio, the more actual net profit you'll put in your pocket, which is why it might make more sense for you to sell two units for a house. This also fits in with the master bedroom as sanctuary concept, telling the homeowner that even if the other system that supplies the rest of the house temporarily goes down, then at least their bedroom will be comfortable.

Don't forget that hot tubs and whirlpools require a lot of hot water. You may still see standard-size tubs, but I've been seeing many larger "garden tubs" at minimum and usually larger jetted tubs inside and multi-person hot tubs on the back deck. All require copious amounts of hot water, which means you should be trying to sell something different — dedicated water heaters, tankless heaters, re-circulating hot water systems, 50-gal. or 75-gal. tanks, boilers with high-recovery indirect tanks or multiple manifolded water heaters.

A homeowner who runs out of hot water before the giant tub is filled is not going to be happy with the rest of his plumbing, even if it works great.

H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor and project manager with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. He can be reached by calling 919/367-7488, or via e-mail at [email protected]