Make the product switch, but it may cost you

July 9, 2015
By the request of the builder/architect I started installing the same brand of PEX tubing for potable water distribution piping as I had installed for the in-floor and hydronics systems. For a few years now I have been installing PEX-a tubing and manifolds for in-floor systems.
Photo: iStock/ThinkStock.

About a year ago I started working with a local architect who designs and builds high-end vacation homes in Central Minnesota. I have worked with this firm on four different projects so far, each vastly different in scale and design.

Out of the four projects I have designed and installed hydronic heating systems for each; however on the fourth project the architect requested a bid for both the heating and plumbing. Reluctantly, I provided them with both bids and when they accepted both bids I had no idea what it would cost me.

Normally I offer plumbing services such as water heater change-outs, tankless installs and full remodel services. New construction has long since been a source of regular business for my company; the hurried schedules of multiple trades stacked on top of each other along with the extremely low margins and constant negotiating costs for upgrades and extras are all I need to convince myself that there may be money in new construction housing — but not for me. All that and I still put a bid out there for this architect, so let me explain.

The plumbing company that had been working on each of the previous projects I had been involved with had been expanding and taking on more and more work, according to the plumbers onsite.

I had been approached two times by the owner with offers of full-time employment and benefits — working new construction — smack dab in the thick of the chaos and hurried schedules. To each offer I politely declined, and it wasn’t long before they were falling behind, which is what led the architect firm to look elsewhere for their plumbing needs.

If you’ve ever worked on housing projects where interior designers and architects are involved you know firsthand how long it takes to make decisions and changes during the actual construction process.  What seem like simple decisions to you and me can take weeks or months.

I roughed in the underground DWV and in-floor tubing on our most recent project in August of 2014. Ten months ago… Ten months ago!

Since then room layouts, window sizing and placement, fixture selection and heating zone layouts have changed so many times I stopped keeping track. But one change I was involved in happened in just a few days and it doesn’t even involve an interior designer or room layout, but it has come at a substantial cost to my company’s bottom line.

By the request of the builder/architect I started installing the same brand of PEX tubing for potable water distribution piping as I had installed for the in-floor and hydronics systems. For a few years now I have been installing PEX-a tubing and manifolds for in-floor systems.

Our heating systems have been a hybrid of sorts with not only PEX-a but also PEX-b. There are a few reasons for this, mainly the cost to changeover fitting systems and tooling.

I have been particularly impressed with a certain company’s engineered plastic (EP) radiant manifold for a while now and have bought the manifolds and tubing from my supplier as a package separate from the potable/plumbing PEX I have been using for more than fifteen years.

Making a request

I hadn’t really identified any need to change this practice until my latest source of steady income requested it. We sat down for a meeting on this exact subject, he bringing his desire to have one product/manufacturer and one fitting/joining system throughout his projects. I, wanting to continue to do business with him, laid out the costs I would have to incur to make the switch and the data proving both systems are reliable and carry many years of successful installations, but ultimately he had the final say. If I wanted to work on his projects, I had to make the switch.

To the tune of a little more than $2,500 per truck.

Let that sink in for a second. The cost to stock a truck with a sufficient selection of fittings and tubing on hand for plumbing/heating service and repairs is nothing to sneeze at. Oh, and then there’s tooling. One tool per guy is a minimum [cordless expansion tool] and one manual tool per truck is a must for when Mother Nature decides to turn the heat completely off and the battery tools take a vacation day.

Cross compatibility between the two types of tubing and joining methods really only goes in one direction, so it is crucial to maintain a lightened stock of the press PEX fittings along with the tools on hand for those times when a tie-in requires them.

So far I will say the tubing and fittings are easy to work with and local stock/supply has been more than sufficient. Having the backing of one of the largest PEX tubing manufacturers [who happen to be in my backyard here in Minnesota] doesn’t hurt either.  Now I just need to see how much cost this architect is willing to absorb for making me switch…

Eric Aune started Aune Plumbing LLC in 2004 and specializes in residential and small commercial hydronic heating systems and service. He is a graduate of Dunwoody College of Technology and Plumbers Local 15, Minneapolis Apprenticeship Training Program, and is currently a United Association Instructor and teaches for the Plumbers Local 15 JATC. Aune is also founding partner and vice president of Contact him at: [email protected].

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