Hydronics brings comfort, efficiency to Alaska

CHIEF EDITOR, CONTRACTING BUSINESS THE CITY OF Homer, Alaska, is known as the " end of the road." It's nestled among rolling hills and overlooks Kachemak Bay and the Kenai Mountains. This seaside community has 4,000 residents and another 8,000 beyond the city limits. In addition to the downtown area, a unique attraction is the Homer Spit, a long, narrow finger of land jutting 4.5 miles into Kachemak

CHIEF EDITOR, CONTRACTING BUSINESS

THE CITY OF Homer, Alaska, is known as the " end of the road." It's nestled among rolling hills and overlooks Kachemak Bay and the Kenai Mountains. This seaside community has 4,000 residents and another 8,000 beyond the city limits. In addition to the downtown area, a unique attraction is the Homer Spit, a long, narrow finger of land jutting 4.5 miles into Kachemak Bay. The Spit is home to the city's harbor and more than 700 charter and commercial boat operators year round.

Homer offers all the amenities of a small, first-class city, including the services of plumbing and heating contractor Steve Eayrs, who has been in business for more than 20 years.

"The bulk of our business is residential new construction," he explains, "but we do about 20% of our HVAC revenues in commercial as well. And virtually all of our heating work employs hydronic technology."

Using hydronics and radiant technology is substantially driven by energy audits and incentives, Eayrs says. He notes that 25 years ago, most installations in Homer, and around the southern cities of the Kenai Peninsula, consisted of forced-air systems.

But from a comfort and energy-efficiency standpoint, that changed. The preferred technology is on the wet-heat side of the industry.

Eayrs Plumbing and Heating has 10 employees and struggles to find good people, as mechanical contractors do everywhere. The problem may be more acute in Alaska because of the sparse population.

But Eayrs says that when he finds good people and then trains them, he can usually hang onto them. He adds that many of his best workers come from the commercial fishing trade. Much of the training comes from Eayrs himself.

"These are hard-working folks who have technical abilities," he says. "They just need to learn about plumbing and heating."

One of the biggest differences for Alaskan contractors when compared to their counterparts in the lower 48 is the limited number of distributors in the area. The closest distributor to Eayrs' operation is an 80-mile drive from Homer, he says.

So Eayrs and other contracting firms in Homer must stock their own equipment and supplies. They must plan far enough ahead on projects to have the right lead time to order equipment and have it delivered to the site.

"It's part of a cycle we've grown accustomed to," he says. "The advantage to this is we develop a real sense of what's needed and plan ahead to make it come together as efficiently as possible, and with the time we have.

"The good news about this is that you don't have technicians wasting time talking and eating doughnuts at the distributors," he says with a smile.

The other good news is that Homer is experiencing a new-construction boom.

"It's incredibly beautiful here," Eayrs says, "and the cost for land and building homes is not overly high. This attracts many people to move here or to build vacation homes here.

"Many people who come here are not familiar with hydronics and radiant heat. But once the house is completed and they move in, they fall in love with it because of the energy efficiency and the comfort."

Homer, being the small city that it is, is a place where news spreads quickly by word-of-mouth. Consequently, reputation is one of the most precious commodities a company can have, and marketing and advertising aren't as important as it would be in the lower 48, Eayrs says.

"We've installed more than 600 boiler systems in the last 16 years without spending a nickel on advertising," he says.

One of those projects was commercial in nature.

Surprisingly, it was an ice skating rink. Hockey is the No. 1 sport in Alaska and ice rinks are important.

The Homer Hockey Association commissioned the skate park. The mechanical part of the project cost $90,000 and included not only comfort heating for the entire facility but also 160° F water supply to refill the Zamboni machine.

Eayrs' design called for the use of three direct hot water heaters as well as two Buderus boilers. Other products included Grundfos SuperBrute threespeed pumps, VersaFlo variable-speed circulators and Caleffi air separators.

Competitiveness is the name of the game in Alaska as everywhere else. Eayrs says a contractor must have established relationships to be successful in the higher-end boiler business.

He works with a number of general contractors, but he also finds that an increasing number of homeowners are acting as their own general contractor while building their own homes.

"So we always work on educating the homeowner on the best systems for their dollar," Eayrs says.

"We find, however, that most people go with what we recommend."

Mike Weil is chief editor of Contracting Business, a sister publication of CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at [email protected]