Contractormag 3406 Fairway1810

G. F. Wilbur Plumbing replaces apartment buildings’ water heaters

Oct. 12, 2016
Gargalino had done his job so well at Chestnut Lakes that Chris Boehnen, Benchmark’s national service director, asked him to transfer to Fairway Trails, a 21-building/231-unit apartment complex.  Shortly after arriving there, it became apparent that the 21 water heaters at Fairway Trails were limping along on borrowed time. Rather than replacing them one or two at a time, Boehnen secured funding to replace them all.  
The G. F. Wilbur Plumbing crew.

YPSILANTI, MICH. — It’s easy to find stories about how — by fluke, luck or great effort — some business engagements work, despite the obstacle of international treaties or thousands of nautical miles. Persistence is often the fuel for enterprise. 

And then there those local business successes that seem to bloom from little or no effort at all. Somehow, when all the right things are in place, or circumstances just lead to it effortlessly, a sale is made or a relationship becomes the conduit for business success. 

This is one of those instances where good things happen simply.

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, (or, to locals, it’s just “Yip-see”), Brad Howe, project manager and commercial estimator for Ann Arbor, Michigan-based G. F. Wilbur Plumbing, and a crew of talented UA Local 190 union tradesmen installed a bunch of replacement water heaters for the Chestnut Lake apartment complex in Yip-see a few years ago.

For the most part, it was one of those jobs where the mostly-commercial firm’s technicians did their best work to install reliable products, and moved on.  

“The job was one of those we felt good about at the time, knowing that — when we turned it over the facility’s maintenance staff — they’d have little to do,” said Howe.   

After years of nuisance, Band-Aid maintenance, and sometimes late-night and holiday service calls to coax the facility’s 27 water heaters back to work, it was a huge relief for the residents to learn that, in May 2014, all of the old water heaters were replaced with workhorse systems, sure to meet or exceed the resident’s needs.        

All the water heaters were replaced in 15 days.

There were no call-backs or maintenance calls, so Howe and other members of the installation crew simply forgot about the work they’d done there. That is, except when they passed it on their way to a current job, recalling only that they worked there and put in a bunch of water heaters.  As is usually the case, most of the details were simply paved over in the wake of new jobs and priorities. 

Believe it or not!

For Santo Gargalino, service manager at Fairway Trails, a 231-unit apartment complex just two miles from Chestnut Lake apartments, the job soon took a curious turn toward life stories befitting “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!”    

You see, it was from August to December of 2015 that he served as the service manager for Chestnut Lakes, employed by Buffalo, New York-based Benchmark Management, owner of that facility and many other multihousing properties. 

During those five months, Gargalino became well acquainted with the Bradford White “eF” 199 MBH, 98.5% efficient condensing water heaters installed there by Howe and his crew back in 2014. The equipment did its job well, never requiring a single maintenance call, so he said he “never got to know the water heaters or the firm that installed them.”

“I simply came to appreciate their super-quick recovery and high efficiency,” remarked Gargalino. “Of course, that they required no maintenance was a huge plus, too.”

Gargalino had done his job so well at Chestnut Lakes that Chris Boehnen, Benchmark’s national service director, asked him to transfer to Fairway Trails, a 21-building/231-unit apartment complex just two miles from the Chestnut Lake Apartments in Yip-see. 

Shortly after arriving there, it became apparent that the 21 water heaters at Fairway Trails were limping along on borrowed time. So, rather than replacing them one or two at a time, Boehnen secured funding to replace them all. 

Clearly, there were advantages in drawing on Gargalino’s experience at the other property. Managers were so pleased with performance of the water heaters at Chestnut Lake that they decided to install the same systems at Fairway. 

Boehnen took a trip back to Chestnut Lake and, with notepad and camera in hand, made sure he captured essential information about the Bradford White eF’s. He then called Tom Zimmerman at the manufacturer’s rep firm, Burke Agency, the firm that reps Bradford White regionally. Boehnen also asked Zimmerman to provide three contractor referrals — one of which just happened to be the G. F. Wilbur Co.

And so it was that bids were solicited from three local plumbing and mechanical contracting firms. 

What goes around, comes around      

By now you’ve probably guessed that the winning bid came from Brad Howe at G. F. Wilbur Plumbing (and you’d be right).  After learning that Benchmark also owned the apartment complex where he and his crew installed the 27 eF water heaters two years ago, he told Gargalino and Boehnen that he recommended the same exact water heaters that they’d grown so fond of.

“I guess it’s true, what they say:  what goes around, comes around,” said Howe.  “We standardized on Bradford White water heaters years ago, as long as I can remember, for just that reason — they’re reliable.” 

In another curious twist of fate, the water heaters weren’t far away, as the eFs are manufactured at Bradford White’s Middleville, Michigan, newly-expanded plant, just 124 miles from Yip-see.  

A few days later, a truck arrived. The big block diesel just barely had time to warm up from the short trip to Fairway Trails where Gargalino and a few maintenance technicians awaited the delivery of the just-manufactured and boxed eFs.

The next day, Joe Wiseman, field supervisor, Garrett Oscarson, Bill Egbert, Kyle Stutzmann and Jim Hantz (among others), all crew members and technicians, began the 15-day job of replacing all of the water heaters there.

Fortunately, both apartment complexes receive excellent municipal water quality from Detroit, so there’ve been no issues with the sacrificial anode rods.  “They’re in there,” said Boehnen, “but having seen how well they stood up against the overall good quality of water at the property where they were installed a few years ago, we expect the same here.”

Heading problems off at the pass

“Had the water quality been an issue, the eFs are built to handle it,” said Zimmerman.  “Unlike traditional bottom-fired water heaters far more prone to mineralization of the heat exchanger, the top-fired eFs perform well even when water quality is poor.

“Another advantage is that Santo [Gargalino] and the G. F. Wilbur guys were able to protect the water heaters from a common source of problems at apartment complexes – tenant tampering to increase storage water temperatures,” continued Zimmerman.

Gargalino learned how to set maximum temperature limits while in service mode. Once set, if someone attempts to increase the temp setting, the unit’s control simply returns to the previously set limit.  “We especially like that this function eliminates the risk of scalding,” he said.        

Boehnen added that he and Gargalino expect to service the condensing water heater’s acid neutralizers annually. “That’s just a matter of course – something always to be taken care of,” said Boehnen. “And, Santo and the guys will also check the service codes on the control panel to detect potential problems, too — all standard procedure to protect the investment and to ensure that residents always have hot water whenever it’s needed.

“Key advantages also include elimination of chimneys — something we could do because the water heaters permit through-wall venting,” added Boehnen. “This eliminates the risk of flue liner deterioration and the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning, clearly something any owner of an apartment complex should be concerned about.”

“Who knows — there may be another apartment acquisition, and another water heater swap-out in our future,” concluded Boehnen.

G. F. Wilbur — 30 years of customer satisfaction

According to Inc. magazine, statistics reveal that 96% of small businesses die within the first decade. Ouch!

So, for the survivors, there’s real victory in muscling through a first decade, and second . . . and then a third. And, when a firm continues to grow and is profitable, morale among employees is good, and customers are happy, it’s an especially good feeling for guys like George Wilbur, president of G. F. Wilbur Plumbing in Manchester, Michigan, and Brad Howe, project manager and commercial estimator, George Wilbur’s son-in-law.  

The company’s small office staff also includes Joe Wiseman, field superintendent, and his wife Denise, account manager and office manager. 

George Wilbur grew up in a union family of electricians. Back in 1986, when he started F. F. Wilbur operations, it only made sense to lock-in a solid relationship with UA Local 190 based in An Arbor, Michigan. Today, UA 190 serves all of Washtenaw and Livingston Counties in the southeastern part of the state. So it’s no coincidence that G. F. Wilbur’s territory matches that precisely.     

G. F. Wilbur’s plumbing, HVAC and mechanical contracting business these days is made up of 60 percent commercial and 40 percent residential work — all remodel and new construction work, with minimal service work. The family-owned company employs about 35 dedicated pros.  

Manufacturers whose products and technology they’ve installed for decades includes Bradford White, Evapco, Kohler, Laars, Mansfield, Moen, Taco, Watts  and Zurn.  

“We do lot of hi-rise work,” explained Howe. “And when we do, our crews most often find themselves installing Evapco cooling towers, by preference.” Also, Watts backflow assemblies, Laars boilers or volume water heaters, and Taco pumps and circulators.”

“We treat all customers with the greatest respect and work each day to differentiate ourselves by maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction,” he added. “That means doing the job correctly the first time, and yet with efficiency that comes from skill, education and experience.”

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