BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
Product quality and availability are the most important factors when hydronic heating contractors make purchasing decisions, according to a recent survey conducted by CONTRACTOR. Following close behind in importance are technical support and customer service, states the survey, which was conducted for CONTRACTOR by MST Research. Price, by the way, comes in sixth as a buying factor in the survey.
Heating contractors resoundingly confirm the results in interviews conducted after the survey.
“I would pay more to know that I can order a product and get it,” says Greg Jannone of William Jannone & Sons in Bound Brook, N.J. He is a former vice president of the Radiant Panel Association.
“Quality is first and foremost; that’s No. 1,” says Steve Weiland, vice president of Heatmasters in Chicago. “If we don’t feel the quality of any product is any good, we won’t sell it to the end user.”
The most important factors for Bob Dudley of Harris-Dudley Co. Plumbing and Heating in Salt Lake City, are “the service and the knowledge of the hydronic specialist at the supply house. Anybody can sell cheap, but the good guys know how to help you install it correctly so you can make more money than you would if you sold it cheap.
“Getting it right the first time is always cheaper. A good salesman at the supply house uses his knowledge base from all the different projects he’s seen, so if you’ve got something unusual, he may have seen it someplace else and can help you solve your problems. In my area there are guys who I don’t deal with because I know more than they do.
I’ve got to deal with guys on my level or better.”
Importance of wholesalers
Other contractors interviewed for this story confirm the importance of a knowledgeable and customer-oriented distributor. If hydronic manufacturers want to sell more product, they better have good wholesalers. That theme was repeated constantly by the contractors who depend on the wholesalers for a variety of services.
Dudley uses his supplier for system design and sizing. He stopped using a wholesaler who dropped a boiler off in his driveway – literally. The delivery driver pushed it off the tailgate of the truck.
On the other hand, Mike Ackmann, president of New Century Comfort Systems in Burlington, Ill., does his own loads, flow rates, pump sizing and pipe sizing, but product availability is crucial. It costs him money to have a man standing at the counter only to find that a product isn’t in stock or when an order arrives at a jobsite incomplete, says Ackmann, who’s president of the RPA.
“It drives me nuts,” Ackmann says. “It might be specialty fittings or components. Or the pumps are delivered but the isolated flanges aren’t there. Or the Spirovents are delivered but the copper adapters aren’t there. It’s almost worthless. Or they say to me, ‘We’re out of ball valves.’ Or they send the wrong ball valves. Or they say, ‘We didn’t have the sweats so we sent out threaded.’”
Jannone has similarly found himself on a jobsite short of manifolds. He ended up stocking about $50,000 worth of parts and pieces, mostly tubing, hardware and electrical components. While he gets good prices from buying in bulk, it creates a storage problem.
“It’s something I really didn’t want to do, it was something I was forced to do,” he says.
Jannone tries to explain to customers that he needs a little time to order and receive products so he doesn’t end up scrambling. Nevertheless, he still keeps 10,000 to 15,000 ft. of PEX in his facility, just in case.
Tubing isn’t a problem for Dudley in Salt Lake City because there’s a Wirsbo distribution center in town. Even so, because of the popularity of radiant heat in his area, Dudley says a wholesaler can be cleaned out by a couple contractors if he doesn’t have 30,000 ft. in stock.
Dudley’s company hasn’t had chronic problems getting anything because manufacturers have even overnighted parts when need be, he says. Other than large diameter PEX, such as 11/4 in. and larger that has to be ordered from Europe, everything is available near him.
Training counts too
The contractors say they often rely on their suppliers for training. While Jannone notes that his company is pretty much self-sufficient, manufacturers reps and wholesalers are good sources for technical help for new or inexperienced contractors. Dudley says he gets much of his training from either the factory or from his distributors.
Ackmann, on the other hand, says he prefers RPA training. Training from suppliers is skewed toward a particular product, he notes, while RPA training focuses purely on system design.
According to CONTRACTOR’s survey, mid-efficiency non-condensing boilers comprise 75% of contractors’ installations. Nevertheless, 41% of survey respondents say they had installed high-efficiency boilers.
The contractors interviewed are enthusiastic about high-efficiency boilers and believe the trend will continue to grow.
High-efficiency boilers are now 50% of his company’s sales, Ackmann says. “Our past philosophy was keep it simple, but the quality of today’s products is more proven so I have more confidence in them.”
He feels the high-efficiency products have been tested and are reliable.
“I particularly favor the new Viessmann, the Vitodens,” he says. “It’s very promising as far as the installation, the quietness, the condensing efficiencies. It’s a super product.”
Jannone says he prefers Monitor Products wall-hung boiler and believes we’ll see more condensing wall-hung boilers in the future.
“We’re pigs over here with fuel,” Jannone says of the United States. “We can do a much better job with the use of fuel over here. We treat it like it’s an endless source.”
Dudley installs 92% efficiency Munchkins almost exclusively.
“There are going to be cast-iron boiler manufacturers wondering where their market share is going,” Dudley says.
Well, perhaps not right away.
According to CONTRACTOR’s survey results, more than 87% of respondents install cast-iron boilers and no other boiler type comes close.
Nevertheless, Dudley notes about the Munchkins, “They are pretty amazing on snow melting because it eliminates a lot of piping. You can take cold water straight from driveway; adjust the Delta T and the high limit, and they just cruise. Some technophiles might argue with me because they worry about shocking the slab, but if you adjust the Delta T as it goes out, you can’t put that much heat in concrete that fast anyway.”
The price issue
Price is not a big factor either among survey respondents or the contractors interviewed.
Some customers hear the price of a radiant system and are shocked, Jannone says, while others want comfort and are willing to sit down and talk about it.
On the one hand, some customers are building a house and look at it as a lifetime investment, he says, while others plan on moving in seven years and want something cheap.
“I up-sell hydronics as a long-term purchase,” Ackmann says. “You don’t put in a radiant system and expect to change the boiler in 15 years. You should have a 30- to 40-year system.”
Radiant customers are looking for comfort and efficiency and want a system that will be trouble-free, Ackmann says. Some customers are dead-set on radiant heat and much more educated than in the past because of the Internet. If a customer, however, looks at his house as a short-term investment, he might as well put in a furnace.
“If you can afford 21/2 times the heating system, let’s talk,” Ackmann says. “I can show you the comfort and efficiency. Otherwise we don’t need to sit down and talk about it.”
The aforementioned Internet is both a help and a hindrance. Jannone has seen more customers who have researched radiant online. Dudley has encountered customers who have read misinformation, such as you can heat your house with a water heater and drink the water that came out of the radiant floor.
Marketing and promotions trailed in both the survey and in the opinions of the contractors interviewed, although the contractors say they serve their purpose. The contractors want high-quality, up-to-date literature that they can give out at home shows or that they can present to customers in a way that makes them look more professional.