Your customer wants hydronics – who do you call?

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Richard Trethewey, longtime manufacturers rep and plumber on the television program This Old House, left, conducts a hydronic heating training session.

By Roy Collver

In the early 1980s, radiant tubing manufacturers worked hard to spark the re-introduction of hydronic heating to consumers. Their efforts revitalized the fading residential hydronics market, but the rest of the industry took a while to get up to speed.

Many heating contractors were in a bind when trying to access information and product after a customer requested warm-floor heating. I was one of those contractors back in the day, looking for information that was hard to find in a forced-air furnace market.

Hydronic heating product manufacturers, various industry groups and trade schools began to provide training. Their efforts continue to advance the knowledge of those who are interested in keeping up-to-date.

The fluid piping is often the least complicated part of the installation. This is the hydronic air handler ductwork, nicely sealed by the contractor.

Where are we today? Who do you turn to when a customer asks about hydronic heating? What is your process for taking their requests and turning them into the high quality, comfortable heating systems they expect? The process varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction due to regional and municipal code differences and local conditions, but the basics are the same everywhere.

The first stage of the process is to interview the customer and make sure you understand what their expectations are. Be careful – many will have spent countless hours researching these systems, and I have heard from many upset consumers who were told:

  • These systems don’t work in this (type of house, area, climate, etc.)
  • These systems are too expensive, and you won’t save any money
  • They break down all the time and cost a fortune to fix
  • Nobody around here knows how to install them
  • You can’t have air conditioning or proper ventilation

You get the drift. I once had a frustrated, multi-millionaire car dealership owner ask me: “What kind of idiot would try to talk me out of putting in a premium system when it is clear that I want it?”  Indeed.

So be ready to answer questions and offer suggestions. There are heating contractors in Canada who specialize in providing hydronic systems and have the facts, the literature and sales support in-house to carry the sale forward through the design stage to completion. If you don’t “do” hydronics at all, call someone who does, and see if they will work for you as a sub-contractor. I see this all of the time.

Many contractors fall in between these two extremes and just need a little extra help. Their best resource is likely to be a local supplier who is ready, willing and able to help them out. Keep in mind that the hydronic radiant floor is only one part of the whole system. You still need to come up with cooling and ventilation options, a DHW solution and maybe some auxiliary equipment, such as air handlers. Some of these systems can be very complex. Codes may require a mechanical engineer’s stamp, so it is a good idea to find a firm you can get along with – they can save you a whole lot of stress (and liability).

Working with a knowledgeable heating specialist like John Dennis at Andrew Sheret in Parksville B.C. will make the contractor’s task easier.

Getting started

So, here is the usual process for most residential applications, regardless of where you work:

1) Determine customer needs and desires: if it is a complex system the customer should be willing to pay you for stage two – you can offer to apply the cost as a credit if they go for it.

2) Get a set of detailed plans and start designing. Do a detailed heat loss (plus heat gain if required), calculate ventilation requirements, DHW requirements – whatever is needed. This is where your trusted supplier(s) or mechanical consultant comes in.

3) Come up with a design and cost for presentation. If applicable, negotiate with the general contractor regarding their cut. Gather sales literature together related to the equipment you are going to recommend and put together a proposal.

Make sure you have fallback options if they balk at the cost. The good, better, best presentation will usually get you the middle-cost sale. Don’t bull**t during your sales pitch if you don’t know something off the top of your head. Most people see it as a sign of honesty when you tell them you are not 100 percent sure and will get back to them – it is not a sign of weakness to go get further information and advice.

4) Put together the contract when they say yes and finalize the design and equipment schedules with your supplier(s). Work closely with the general contractor to make sure they know what to expect and ensure the scheduling works. Really focus on these details because you do not want to be the weak link in the construction process – you don’t want any fingers pointing at you. Make sure you establish a regime for requesting progress payments.

5) Pull the necessary permits. This can vary by jurisdiction, so check it out before you get in too deep. Some municipalities have strict and strange requirements. If the project is outside your normal work area, you will want to check for the unexpected prior to Stage 3 – make sure your business license and trade qualifications are acceptable.

6) Order the materials and schedule delivery. Check on equipment lead times with your supplier(s) in case you have to light any fires.

7) Do a great installation job! That’s self-explanatory; you want people to be impressed.

8) Document the start-up and commissioning and finalize installation. Put the system through its paces and advise and instruct the customer, as per last year’s articles in the October 2018 & November/December 2018 issues, available online at  www.plumbingandhvac.ca.

9) Get paid and pay your suppliers promptly!

This tidy residential installation will give years of quiet, comfortable and efficient operation.

Building a supplier relationship

Now about those “trusted suppliers”. This is a very symbiotic industry. Heating contractors need their wholesale suppliers, who need their manufacturer’s reps, who need their manufacturers and back on down the line.

John Dennis is a good ‘heating guy’ who works at my nearest wholesaler, Andrew Sheret in Parksville, B.C. In this part of the province, contractors need a designer certified by the Thermal Environmental Comfort Association (TECA) to provide the necessary paperwork in order to pull a hydronics permit.

John took the time and paid the money to become a certified TECA designer, and here is what he will do for you: heat loss/gain, system design, loop layout, equipment schedule and fill out the paperwork and stamp it. If you buy the equipment from him, he does this all for free!

Plus, he usually has all of the equipment necessary for a typical residential installation in stock! Just back up the truck and load. There are good hydronic heating people all across Canada, but all wholesalers are not equal in the expertise they have to offer. Look for someone in your area like John, who can help you through the process. These experts are also likely to be familiar with most of the building inspectors and their quirks, some of the general contractors, and may occasionally refer a homeowner to you if you do good work and buy a lot of your stuff from them.

Many heating contractors I know will cultivate a relationship with more than one heating person and wholesale supplier, just to keep things competitive. If I don’t like John’s price or a specific product at Sheret’s, I can always phone up Ernie Halliday at Wolseley in Nanaimo and see what he can do for me.

Nothing’s wrong with doing that, but keep in mind what services are being offered by each. If company A provides more and better service than company B – then it isn’t right to use the B price to try and drive down the A price.

If you want consistently good service, you need to treat these people fairly and keep the shopping around to a minimum so they will invest time in your company. You want them to have your back when things are going off the rails.

The same applies to manufacturer’s reps and their engineering people. They are more than happy to help you, but they expect you to help yourself as well. Don’t just pick up the phone and demand they send someone to a job site if something isn’t working the way you think it should be. They expect you to make the effort to read the instructions, go to their training seminars and attempt to troubleshoot things on your own.

You can learn a whole lot of good stuff from these people if you pay attention. In time, as you get more hydronics jobs under your belt – you will find that you don’t need to bug the experts much at all. Welcome to the club. With the help of your supply-chain business partners, you have become a hydronician – and that is a good place to be at.

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