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Selling boilers is not like taking candy from a baby — in fact, sometimes it’s the exact opposite. “You have to put the work in,” said Dave Yates, president, F.W. Behler Inc., York, Pa. “They don’t just walk out the door. The only time they walk out the door is if a boiler’s broken.”
But even then, they don’t sell themselves. These days, it’s not just going into a house and installing a cast-iron boiler. Today’s units offer consumers multiple choices regarding efficiency and performance.
For example, Yates said, if a homeowner wants an 80 percent efficient cast-iron boiler that goes into a chimney, a chimney liner must be considered. Add all that cost up and you’re heading into a new territory.
“Once we talk about the cost of adding a chimney liner, it really becomes a no-brainer to move them toward high-efficiency units to avoid throwing all that energy out the door,” he said.
Brian Stack, president, Stack Heating & Cooling, Avon, Ohio, said if a customer already has a boiler in his home, selling them another one is much easier. The big challenge, though, comes in yet-to-be-constructed dwellings.
“New construction is a lot harder,” Stack said. “If they’re building a house and have the choice of a forced-air system with air conditioning, or a boiler, hot water radiant floor system, plus an air conditioning system, that’s a very, very hard sell, mostly because of the cost.
“It’s $60,000 to put that system in the house, and that’s without air conditioning, which is another $20,000. If you get a new construction guy who just slaps forced-air systems in all the time, the cost is typically around $12,000-$15,000.”
Technological advancements have made selling boilers a completely different game today compared to 10 years ago. Now, nearly all manufacturers are rolling out high-efficiency units, bringing a whole new world of features to the boiler game.
“In the past six to eight years, there have been huge improvements in technology,” Stack said. “It used to be a cast-iron boiler with the flames underneath it heating the water up, and you can still buy those, but the technology on the hot water side has changed to modulating, condensing, high-efficiency boilers that are up to 98 percent efficient. They have very sophisticated controls integrated into them. Technology has come a long way, not just with the boilers, but with the pumping, too.”
But all the technology in the world doesn’t mean a whole lot if it’s not installed properly, said Henry Haley, president, Haley Mechanical, Dexter, Mich. That’s a big part of how he sells boilers to consumers.
“You could put in a 96 percent efficient boiler, but if it’s not installed properly, you might as well put in an 80 percent unit,” Haley said. “So, we talk about how important it is that the system is installed properly so that the homeowner can get the maximum efficiency of the system. You don’t want to try to be heating the ground, the dirt, and the concrete. You want the heat to radiate up. The new boilers work better than the old cast-iron ones.”
The advances in technology have allowed customers to more easily achieve some of the goals they strive for when purchasing a new boiler.
“At the top of most lists is that they want their energy bills reduced. They’d like to save some money if they could. And, No. 2, they’d like the work done for free,” Yates said. “So that’s where the challenge comes in. We, as contractors, have to present the value. The way I do that with customers is to explain to them what the energy conservation value is. We look at the difference in cost between the two types of boilers, to reduce that sticker shock they may get by just looking at the total cost.”
The requests for radiant heating options are dwindling, at least, according to Yates on the southeast Pennsylvania market, where he said there is not as much demand for it now as there was 10-15 years ago.
“People are still asking for it, but it comes down to cost and how much they want to spend,” he said. “Most of the time we’re doing smaller additions. If a homeowner is doing maybe a master bathroom, we put some radiant floor in there, or a family room or a kitchen,” Yates said. “Radiant has a lot to do with the size of the house. People with bigger houses are spending the money on it.”
For Stack, the radiant surge his business once experienced has also leveled off.
“I don’t think it’s been marketed by the manufacturers as hard as it could’ve been,” Stack said. “Obviously, marketing is a big player. Canada has a big program going right now called Beautiful Heat, and the U.S. manufacturers have picked up that ball and are running with it, and the Radiant Professionals Alliance is back up and running.”
Sticker shock, though, remains a big concern for those considering radiant heat, Yates said, adding there’s really no way around it because of the cost of the materials and the time it takes to install. “I don’t see the cost ever coming down,” he said.
Haley said it is important that contractors know what they’re dealing with, calling system knowledge the most important aspect to selling boilers. “Contractors must have a good knowledge of the operating system of boilers,” Haley said. “The last thing you want to do is sell a boiler to a customer who knows more about it than you do. You have to have a very good understanding of hydronics principles, and then capitalize by selling based on the features and benefits the boiler systems may provide.”
Stack said he’s benefited from other contractors’ failures and has encountered numerous boilers that were incorrectly piped. He knows that even if he loses a job due to price, chances are they’ll be called upon to fix the job after the fact.
“Some contractors don’t understand the whole system, and a lot of times they just don’t open up the manual to find out how to properly install the boiler,” Stack said. “They just don’t understand the whole heating system itself. They think they can throw a boiler in there and they’re good to go. But, it’s important that those installing the units really understand the system. That’s something we’re trying to emphasize at the ACCA [Air Conditioning Contractors of America] Radiant Hydronics Council.”
When Yates is looking to seal a deal for a new boiler, he has a twofold approach.
“You have to be able to present in a manner where it’s an offer they can’t refuse,” he said. “I put everything side-by-side and tell them what it’s going to look like 20 years from now for its life cycle and we’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars that they aren’t giving away to the gas company.”
Secondly, he said a heat-loss calculation is a must. “It’s the absolute rock-solid foundation that I build every one of these systems on,” he said. “Without that knowledge — without that knowledge base — it’s really tough to go in and sell these things. You can go in and just pull the numbers off the existing boiler — which a lot of guys use as their foundation — and oftentimes, 99 percent of the time, that boiler is oversized.”
What does the future hold, though, for boilers? In Stack’s mind, maybe something a little out of the box is on tap.
“As far as the boiler itself, other than maybe fine-tuning the parts that go into it and how they’re built, they’ve probably met their peak-end design,” he said. “I don’t know how you can make them much more efficient than they are. I think now what’s going to happen is the way the home is heated with that water, the way that heat is transferred to the house, that is what is going to change.”
Publication date: 1/27/2014