by Bob Miodonski
A LIVELY exchange between a general contractor and a consulting engineer was a highlight during the Hydronics Roundtable in a debate over the chief obstacles to contractors trying to increase their hydronic heating business.
The second annual Hydronics Roundtable took place May 26 in New York City (June, pg. 42). Burnham Hydronics sponsored the event along with co-sponsors CONTRACTOR and Contracting Business magazines. The theme of this year’s discussion was increasing profitability in the hydronics business, and much of the talk focused on how to better educate the entire industry— from building owners to architects to subcontractors —on the benefits on hydronic heating.
Heating contractors and wholesalers made up most of the roundtable, which also featured representatives from Burnham, Honeywell and R.W. Beckett. One general contractor and one consulting engineer also joined the discussion.
Several contractors and wholesalers identified general contractors as their chief impediment to increasing their hydronic heating profitability. The consensus was that builders generally object to hydronic heating because it is more expensive to install than forced-air systems or they simply don’t understand hydronics.
“We do have a problem with builders,” one contractor said. “The builders are hurting us. I have builders who will tell Joe Average that he can’t afford hydronic heating.”
General contractor Pat Panza, who works on both residential and commercial projects in Connecticut, pointed the finger elsewhere. He noted that the cost of some of his renovations has exceeded $1 million.
“Where we get into the problem is not so much the general contractor or the builder,” he said. “Where we get into the problem is the education of the architect and engineer. When you get into this type of market, money doesn’t become much of an issue. Education is the issue.
“They don’t understand the benefits of hydronics.”
“I disagree with you,” responded consulting engineer Marty Bauer, who added that about 20% of his design business in Chicago involves hydronics. “We understand the benefits of hydronic systems.”
Panza answered: “You may understand it but I can tell you that if you did an actual market evaluation you would probably fall into the minority rather than the majority. I have people designing things that don’t have a clue of what it is.”
Bauer pointed out that the engineer is not at fault when he designs a perfectly acceptable hydronic system for a large new home, and the homeowner doesn’t want to give up any closet space for an adequately sized mechanical room. That’s the architect’s responsibility, he said.
“I have been in this industry for 31 years and I can’t begin to tell you the lack of understanding of how we should put the product out there,” Panza said. “My only point is the general contractor is not really the enemy. It is a matter of how we tie everybody in so that we are all on the same page.”
Getting all parties to work together means educating subcontractors as well, said some heating contractors in the room. Even when a builder can be convinced of the benefits of a hydronic installation, an electrician or carpenter may object to it.
“I have actually lost jobs because after I talked the homeowner and the builder into it, all of a sudden the electrician or the tile guy or the floor guy said, ‘Man, if you do that I’m not doing the job. I don’t want nothing to do with it. I’m walking off the job,’” one contractor said. “So then you have to sit him down and explain everything to him and say, ‘I’ve done it before, don’t worry about it.’
“But it just seems that hydronic heating is definitely not something you walk into where they go, ‘Oh, great!’ Somebody is going to stab you in the back about it.”
Contractors serious about hydronic heating will continue to educate customers, builders, subs, architects and engineers on an individual basis. Yet, the consensus of the Roundtable indicated that something more is needed to move the industry forward.
“What I am looking for as a builder is how do we bridge that gap of information,” Panza said. “There is a huge market for this industry if it’s cost effective. So, how do we bridge the gap between what you call scorched-air systems and hydronics? How do we make it more competitive?
“I need the education. I need the background to say, ‘Hey, you may be considering a scorched-air system, but let’s consider hydronics. And, this is the reason why you consider it because we can offer this, this, this and this, and in the long run your payback is in this particular period of time.’”
Some contractors said that they and others in the hydronics industry could do a better job of educating people on the benefits of unlimited hot water, radiant warm floors, energy efficiency and comfort. Others at the Roundtable said that hydronic equipment manufacturers could do more to raise the visibility of hydronic heating through national builder programs and advertising.
One contractor even suggested that hydronics manufacturers get together with their colleagues in related industries such as floor coverings to raise awareness.
“There needs to be coordination between all the manufacturers, like tile manufacturers, so that they understand when we are putting this product down this is how members of your industry need to be related to it,” he said.
For its part, Burnham said that it had taken steps since the first Hydronics Roundtable in April 2003 to raise the level of awareness of hydronics. These have included a “road show” of mobile displays that has traveled initially to events attended by contractors and wholesalers but may visit builder shows in the future. The company also is working to improve its Web site, www.burnham.com.
“We get a lot of homeowners coming on our Web site,” said Daisy Lilley, advertising manager of Burnham. “Obviously, before they are making a major purchase, that is where they want to get information. So, we are trying to add information that they can use from the basic to pretty technical information.”
Bob Miodonski is publisher and editorial director of CONTRACTOR. He served as moderator of the Hydronics Roundtable along with co-moderator Mike Weil, executive editor of Contracting Business magazine. Heating contractors participating on the Hydronics Roundtable were Gabriel Santoro, B&G Heating; Mike Christensen, Christensen Heating; Marc Robitaille, East Coast Heating & Air Conditioning; Jim Reid, James Reid Plumbing & Heating; Robert Miles Jr., Robert Miles & Son Plumbing & Heating; Larry Meyer, Custom Air Systems; Mike Chickos, Chickos Oil Co.; and Rich Goelz, T&F Enterprises.