BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
DALLAS — Ah, the excesses of the 1990s! Remember the mid-’90s when business was booming, everybody had money for remodeling jobs and you couldn’t hire a plumber to save your life?
Joseph DiFrancesco III, president of Public Service Plumbers here, remembers the ‘90s and he’s making a good living off it, fixing all those mistakes made by handymen or general contractors who thought they could get by without a real plumber.
In some cases million-dollar homes were remodeled with huge master suites and master baths added on with either inadequate hot water or too long a run from the water heater. In many cases DiFrancesco is using a retrofit re-circulating hot water system called the Grundfos Comfort Series. The loop section can be installed on the piping of whatever lavatory is farthest from the water heater. A circulator with a timer is installed on the hot water supply pipe at the water heater.
In other cases master bedroom/bathroom suites were added onto houses that were built as early as the 1950s. When the houses were built, the water heater was centrally located in the kitchen, a concept that hasn’t been accepted for years. The water heater was subsequently moved into the attic or outside the house during the 1970s. Once the master suite is added, it’s so far away from the water heater that it’s difficult to get hot water without a re-circulating system.
Surprisingly enough architects and developers didn’t think about re-circulating hot water systems even in luxury developments. DiFrancesco recently fixed some of the hot water systems in a luxury high-rise in the Turtle Creek area of Dallas.
“In what’s typical of a high-rise, they provide hot and cold water, but these are 6,000- to 8000-sq.-ft. suites, so how do you get the hot water to other end even if hot water is provided,” DiFrancesco asked. He installed a storage tank and conventional re-circulation system in one penthouse, but he was able to get into the space before the owner had occupied it. He usually proposes the retrofit re-circulation system.
“A lot of these suites are already dressed out so we have to work with the existing walls,” he noted. “Most of the people who live there expect instant hot water.”
DiFrancesco has also made money replacing that bane of homeowners nationwide, the early ‘90s 1.6-gpf toilet.
DiFrancesco is a big fan of the Kohler Ingenium system. “It actually works,” he says. He also likes Toto water closets and one from American Standard’s Porcher line. For light commercial applications his favorite is from Universal Rundle.
One of his customers is Tom Hicks who owns the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Stars. Hicks has 20 toilets on his property in his 50,000-sq.ft. main house and 8,000-sq.ft. guest house. DiFrancesco said that Hicks’ first complaint was about the functioning of his toilets; the water closets were specified by a designer who thought a toilet was a toilet. DiFrancesco replaced them all with Kohler models.
“The irony is that a lot of homes in these high-end areas in Dallas like Highland Park or University Park, just to buy the dirt alone on a 60’x150’ lot is $1 million,” DiFrancesco said. “In a lesser-quality area you can hope for $400,000 for the dirt. These areas have the school districts, mature trees, they’re close to the city and positioned well in regards to the toll roads. So in a lot of these communities they have $1.2 million to $1.5 million homes between 5,000-sq.ft. and 7000-sq.ft. A lot of homebuilders buy a lot, bulldoze a cottage and build a home with granite and crown molding and expensive hardware and cut costs with lesser-quality plumbing.
“So the plumbing contractor, without thinking it through, just runs a direct pipe from the water heater to a spot and drops it,” DiFrancesco continued. “You walk into a nice home, turn on the kitchen sink and wait and wait for hot water to come from the attic; you can wait for a minute and a half. We’ve recognized that as market, targeted that, and are educating people that we have a solution to the problem.”
DiFrancesco has also put in a lot of larger pipe as people retrofit their showers with multiple showers heads and body sprays. It’s really necessary to have the sheetrock down so DiFrancesco can install 1-in or 1-1/4-in insulated pipe to try to use the circulating loop for part of the storage. He also uses 75-gal. high recovery water heaters.
Developers of The Mansion at Turtle Creek built a high-rise condo next to it where the owners have to put in their own hot water systems and can only use electric water heaters because it’s a high rise. DiFrancesco’s solution was to use so two Bradford-White 50-gal. high-recovery electric water heaters, a 1-1/2-in. circulating loop and either a Watts or Amtrol expansion tank. He insulates the hot water loop, which can hold as much as 50-gal., with 1-in. fiberglass insulation with sealed joints.
DiFrancesco has also focused his attention on the drain and waste end of his business. With flow restrictors and 1.6 toilets, “with the reduction in volume a 4-in. waste line works against you,” he said. He sells inspectors and code officials on 3-in. waste lines whenever he can. If he’s working on a gut remodel that includes pulling out tubs and ceilings, he’ll often reduce the size of the drains.
Finally, he has seen geothermal systems popping up in Dallas in the last five years where the geothermal system is run through a heat exchanger to supply domestic hot water. He pipes the heat exchanger into a bladder tank as a buffer and then into a water heater. The geothermal system can often supply 60% of a home’s hot water needs and the water heater only fires when necessary.