There is no question that homeowners like their hydronic heating systems, which typically include boilers paired with radiators, baseboards, and/or in-floor radiant heating. Even though the first cost of hydronic equipment is usually more expensive than forced-air units, customers often remain willing to pay the premium for the constant, even temperatures a properly designed hydronic system can provide.

In addition to comfort, homeowners like the flexibility of hydronic systems, as they can be zoned to suit a particular application, as well as be used for everything from domestic hot water to snowmelting. Add in the new, highly efficient modulating condensing boilers that are now available, and customers can enjoy their comfortable environments while saving money on their energy bills.

Add Water, Grow Customers

Central Cooling and Heating Inc., Woburn, Mass., is a good example of how popular hydronics are with homeowners. Until six years ago, the 45-year-old residential/light commercial company primarily offered forced air equipment for new construction and replacement applications. Looking to branch out into the hydronics market, the company hired Mike Bernasconi, vice president, piping operations, who grew the new department, so that today it comprises 30 to 40 percent of the company’s sales volume.

“I was very lucky because the company already had a good sales force in place, so I just needed to provide some direction and training, both of which are ongoing,” said Bernasconi. “It also helped that our current customers were very willing to let us start handling everything because they did not want to have to deal with a sheet metal guy, a heating guy, and a plumbing guy.”

Training is particularly important, noted Bernasconi, because it breaks down a lot of the barriers between customers and salespeople up front. “Customers are looking for you to give them the proper expert advice, which only comes through extensive training. Then they become comfortable with you and respect you, knowing you are the expert.”

The additional training has definitely paid off at Central Cooling and Heating, as customers are now very receptive to hearing how new boilers can improve their comfort while saving energy. “Most customers understand that if they have a boiler that’s 25 years old, it’s probably going to break — most likely when it’s freezing outside. Then it’s just a matter of educating them that if they change out their old boiler and replace it with a high-efficiency one that comes with rebates and tax credits, it will only cost maybe 20 percent more than replacing it with a standard efficiency boiler. They usually understand that their return on the 20 percent increase will probably occur within the first three years, and they’ll have a better system that’s more comfortable and economical to operate.”

T.F. O’Brien Cooling and Heating, New Hyde Park, N.Y., is another company that has experienced marked growth as a result of an increased interest in hydronic systems. The third-generation, family-owned service and replacement firm started in 1934 with a focus on refrigeration and appliance repair. Forced air heating and air conditioning service and installation were eventually added, as well as hydronics, which currently makes up 30 percent of the company’s sales. “In years past, we did hydronics more by opportunity rather than by design, but now we’re actively going after that business,” said Kerry O’Brien, owner.

The reason for O’Brien’s new emphasis on hydronic systems is primarily a result of local gas utilities dropping the free service and maintenance they used to offer to customers. “When the utilities stopped servicing equipment for free, that opened things up for us and gave us the opportunity to sell service contracts and increase our gas boiler business. That was great for us because there are a lot of hydronic systems on Long Island, and we are seeing more and more customers who are looking to replace their older equipment with high-efficiency boilers.” These new opportunities have allowed T.F. O’Brien Cooling and Heating to increase its hydronic equipment sales between 15 and 20 percent each year for the last few years.

At Climate Control Co., Glenwood Springs, Colo., approximately 30 to 40 percent of the company’s sales can be attributed to radiant heating systems. Selling these systems has been tough in the new construction market, noted Chris Allen, sales manager, but he said customers in the replacement and upgrade market are going as high-end as possible. “The economy has made selling high efficiency easier for us, especially since we’ve changed our marketing to focus on being there first and educating the most. Once we educate and build rapport, the sales come.”

Dave Boelcke, president, Boelcke Heating and Air Conditioning, Stevensville, Mich., has also found that even in the current economy, new construction and remodeling customers are willing to pay extra for the comfort that a hydronic system can provide.

“Cost is secondary to comfort in these markets. These customers are either going to go all out and put in a condensing boiler with in-floor radiant heat, or they’re going to forget it altogether and go with straight forced air. Many of our customers have second homes up along Lake Michigan, and they are buying the comfort that hydronics can provide — they want quiet warmth, toasty feet, and high efficiency. We sell very few standard 80 percent boilers anymore.”

Sophisticated Systems

While customers may prefer the warm, toasty environment a hydronic system can provide in the winter, they also require cool air in the summer which can be a problem if a home has no ductwork. For this reason, Boelcke provides a wide range of cooling products that can fit just about any need, including standard air conditioners and mini-splits.

“We offer just about everything. You almost have to in this market because as soon as you find your niche, two years down the road you find that someone else has jumped on your bandwagon. It’s very difficult to stay ahead of the curve.”

Cooling is no longer a problem for hydronics customers now that mini-split manufacturers are offering multiple indoor units connected to one outdoor unit, said Bernasconi. In fact, most of his remodeling customers now opt for a combination of high-efficiency boilers, in-floor radiant heat, and ductless mini-splits. “Customers want radiant heat, as well as air conditioning, so we often install a high-efficiency condensing boiler system with radiant heat and a mini-split system. This system may cost more up front, but its operational cost is not that far behind a geothermal system, which makes it very attractive.”

These types of high-efficiency heating and cooling systems are a little more sophisticated and often come with extensive controls, which has been a benefit for O’Brien.

“We have been installing high-efficiency air conditioners and furnaces with sophisticated controls for many years. As a result, when the new high-efficiency boilers came on the scene, we were able to adapt to this equipment very quickly. Traditional plumbing and heating contractors tended to shy away from the new technology because it was too complicated. Even our local supply houses did not stock boilers with pilotless ignitions until just a year or two ago. Our ability to install these more complex systems has definitely given us an edge over the competition.”

As can be seen here, offering hydronic systems has been a definite benefit to contractors during this economic downturn. As Bernasconi noted, “I expect the hydronics market to increase, as it is the most versatile and efficient form of heat. The key is to make sure your sales force is properly informed and trained so that they can educate the customer as to which products will give them the best performance and value.”

Publication date: 10/24/2011