HVAC Contractors Tackle the Top Five Challenges With Hydronic or Radiant Heat
Industry experts share their struggles and successes
From keeping up-to-date with technology to simply finding folks to lay the pipework, hydronics contractors face a unique subset of challenges within the HVAC industry. Learning to navigate the hurdles make the race to the bottom line smoother and much more profitable. The NEWS spoke with some industry experts to identify the top five challenges contractors face and the steps they should take to make sure nothing stands in their way when it comes to optimizing their workflow rate.
1. OVERCOMING PRICE OBJECTIONS
Cost perception with radiant is always the first obstacle, according to Jim Patterson, owner of Orchard Valley Heating and Cooling in western Massachusetts.
“Especially people who move into a home with a hydronic system for the first time,” said Keefer Rader, owner at Outlaw Mechanical in Sandia Park, New Mexico. “If they’re used to getting a new system for $8,000, they’re like, ‘Why is my boiler replacement going to be $17,000?’”
Plus, not every house can be totally heated by radiant. Bathrooms or a living room with a lot of glass or high ceilings sometimes need an auxiliary device, something the customer might not know to expect, he said.
Mark Eatherton is a hydronics system estimator/designer at Advanced Hydronics Inc. in Denver and former executive director of the Radiant Professionals Alliance (RPA). Currently, he chairs the RPA technical committee.
“Most consumers have no idea what it takes to put in a heating system, much less a hydronic heating system,” he said. “Unfortunately, they also have no idea of the comfort level difference between the two systems. It’s my job to explain that it’s more comfortable than any other system, and that does come with a cost.
“Basically it’s a matter of education to explain mean radiant temperature, which is what we effect with our systems,” Eatherton continued. “That’s the factor that establishes human comfort. You can have an air temperature of 70 degrees, but if you’re surrounded by surfaces less than 70 degrees, your brain tells you you’re not comfortable.”
Eatherton explains that to customers using examples like standing next to a brick wall after the sun goes down.
“You can feel the heat pouring onto your body,” he said. “And a lot of people who do make the decision to replace … they don’t look at it from the standpoint of return on investment. They’re looking at doing the right thing for the environment, for their children’s future.”
Patterson circumvents sticker shock by taking most of his business from referrals. That way, he’s assured a receptive ear.
“They’ve been in our clients’ homes, and they’re familiar with the process and what their friends might have spent on a quality system,” he said.
He also takes the initiative to start introducing radiant to customers who might not otherwise know about it — even if they’re not currently in the market.
“Lots of times, when I do a quote for a house or a system renovation, I throw something in about radiant, just to put the thought in the back of their mind,” he said. “They might not be thinking radiant right away, but if they’re building a house [down the road], they might want to put the tubing in the garage before they pour the concrete.”
2. FINDING AND KEEPING LABOR
Of all the sectors of the HVAC field, hydronics contractors got hit particularly hard by the shortage of qualified talent because the labor requirement for a hydronic radiant system is significantly higher than it is for forced air.
“You can do the installation for a gas forced-air system in a significantly faster period of time, compared to doing radiant: installing hundreds of feet of ductwork, versus thousands of feet of radiant … and that will drive the price up,” said Eatherton.
Plus, it’s a very specialized craft.
“If you compare us to doctors, hydronics guys are the cardiologists and brain surgeons,” Rader said. “For the most part, almost all furnaces and air conditioners are the same. Every one of these boilers are different. If you had five houses on the same street, I guarantee you, none of them would be identical … [with repair work]. It’s not like going in with new construction, where you can tell all the tubing’s perfect, the flow rates are perfect for every pump. We have a lot of guesswork.”
Rader said one of the problems with the industry is that while there are some great tech schools, no one seems to be going to them.
“So you get apprentices who pick up bad habits, and they bring them along,” he said.
Instead, he’s gone so far as recruiting “not techs, but people who are semi- in the industry,” like a salesperson, and training them on the technical aspects.
“Rather than taking a fired clay pot, now I have a block of clay that I can mold, and teach proper habits and techniques,” Rader said.
Ongoing education helps a contractor’s existing talent stay up to date on best practices and new technology. Some of Patterson’s competitors, for example, don’t use heat transfer plates.
“They’re trying to beat that number and get it in cheap,” he said. “That’s why RPA is so important. You learn how to do it right, how to not wind up in court.”
He’s also seen a lot of contractors install radiant in situations that really aren’t optimal for that type of system.
“Choosing the right application for the radiant is important,” Patterson said. “I sell radiant, I sell air. Especially in New England, these zero-energy homes, the ones you can heat with a candle, super thick walls … it doesn’t take much heat from the floor to keep the house comfortable. You almost miss those warm floors. It doesn’t really fit.
“You gotta be able to speak to the homeowners,” he continued. “Once they’re comfortable with what you’re selling them, they understand the process. It comes down to our education as a contractor. When I’m comfortable with the technology I’m selling, what it can do for a client … it’s pretty tied to the monetary end, keeping myself up to speed on the technology.”
“If you take the time to educate yourself, the technology’s not scary,” Rader added. “Technology-wise, we don’t run into too many issues because everything keeps getting progressively better.”
Those who have issues with technology are not getting proper training, or are using inferior product, according to him.
“Most companies that put in something [poorly made] are thinking ‘this is cheaper than a Burnham or a Lochinvar’ ... it is cheaper, but it’s garbage!” Rader said.
3. MYTHS VERSUS FACTS
When Eatherton is talking to a client about radiant, he likes to bring them into the Advanced Hydronics’ facility in Denver. It’s heated with radiant floors downstairs and radiant ceilings upstairs.
Experiencing that helps manage expectations for customers.
“It’s a matter of explaining radiant comfort, as opposed to warm floors,” he said. “With radiant floors, the consumer’s been sold on the comfort of warm floors, and that’s what they expect. Usually, you won’t notice the floor being warm, but overall you’re more comfortable.”
With super energy-efficient homes, a floor surface temperature is going to be 70°, 72°F max, according to Eatherton.
“If it’s greater than that, you overheat the occupants in the building,” he explained. “With 5 Btu per square foot per hour, you’ll have a floor surface of about 70.5°. It’s a lot warmer than a basement slab, but it’s not warm on your feet. We can’t give you warm floors if you don’t need it. And ‘comfort’ isn’t calling us up and telling us it’s 85° in the middle of winter and you need to open the windows.”
4. THE RIGHT MIX
Speaking of warm floors, Patterson has seen instances through his consulting work where homeowners aren’t getting the full benefits of radiant because they haven’t invested in the right equipment.
“The first complaint is normally: ‘We have radiant floors, but the floors aren’t warm,’” he said. “They’re hot, or they’re cold. Having a system that’s smart, to mix the water and the radiant, is gonna give you the benefit of having warm floors when it’s cold outside.”
Normally, water from the boiler is 160° to 180°.
“You don’t want to send that water into a radiant floor,” Patterson said. “The fixed-temperature mixing valves ... we hate. It sends the same temperature water into the floors, the floors get warm, then the thermostat turns off.
“It’s the same annoying cycle,” he added.
Instead, Patterson puts in a device that slows down the heat going in. It’s a European process called constant circulation.
“As long as the floors have circulation with some water temperature in them, they’ll stay warm,” he said. “You need to invest in a smart mixing system; you can spend a couple thousand dollars on a control system that does just that.”
Normally, he advises clients to select a mixing system based on outdoor temperature or room temperature.
“If I’m working with a homeowner, I tend to have more success upselling,” Patterson said. “Dealing with a builder, you’re fighting a budgetary problem where they’re just trying to ‘make something work.’ I typically have much more luck working on the upsell with Mr. and Mrs. Jones.”
5. ONLINE SALES AND SCAMS
As a contractor, Rader personally loves using supplyhouse.com.
“But I hate it at the same time because that is the first thing that pops up when you Google boiler pumps or valves,” he said. “You get people going ‘I can buy the same thing for $78, why are you charging me $300 to put it in?’ They don’t understand that this doesn’t just happen; I have advertising costs, I have payroll.”
Patterson has had to spend time debunking bad information that’s available on the internet.
“There are numbers out there online, where I just want to find the folks who put them out and strangle them,” Patterson said. “Before the internet was out, people relied on you as the expert. Sometimes we have to debunk a lot of YouTube videos they’ve watched. Everyone comes to me with ‘I want this mixing system, I want this tubing.’ I’m like, ‘Why?’ and they say they saw it on this YouTube site.”
Rader doesn’t beat around the bush with these questions.
“My real easy way to face it is asking, ‘What kind of warranty do you have with that? What happens when you burn your house down? Who’s going to cover that?’” he said. “If I burn a house down, I call my insurance agent, get you into a hotel, and rebuild your house.”
He likes to bring in the automobile analogy, too.
“If they have a brand-new car in the driveway, I’ll ask, ‘Do you change the oil in that?’ They say ‘Yes, I take it to the dealership.’ So what’s the difference between a hydronics system and a car? If you don’t even know how to change the oil on the car, do you really know how to diagnose a hydronics system? It kind of hits home for people.”
Publication date: 2/11/2019