The Internet — the wide expanse that surrounds us, charged with millions of invisible messages and images — is still a mystery to many of us. At least we treat it like a mystery. Despite its potential to profoundly affect the way hvacr contractors do business, most still choose to do business the “old-fashioned way.”

For example, when The News polled 528 readers last year about their Internet usage, only 188 res-ponded that they purchased parts from manufacturers over the Net. Of that total, 93% said they purchased less than 10% of their parts through Internet e-commerce.

The percentages weren’t much better for contractors who purchased from wholesalers over the Internet — 195 respondents; 89% of them purchased less than 10% via e-commerce.

And here’s the clincher: When asked how much service work resulted from website visitors, 45% of respondents said they do not get service calls via the Web. That should come as no surprise, since 31% of contractors polled said they didn’t even have a website.

So The News decided it was time to revisit the Internet issue with its Contractor Consultants. We asked them the following:

  • How much do you rely on the Internet in your business (e.g., purchasing, project bidding, communicating with competitors, subcontractors and general contractors, wireless communications with the field, direct communication with customers)?
  • Do you project any e-commerce growth for your company?

  • Some Do, Some Don’t

    Mary Marble said she is one of the many who do not purchase supplies or parts over the Internet. She said that once her company sets up DSL service, it will get into B2B transactions.

    “All of our workstations have Internet access and our estimator will pursue online bidding,” she said. Marble said that a “project-specific jobsite” is set up on the Internet where workers can communicate with each other and store project data.

    Jeff Somers said that his company uses the Net to purchase computer equipment, office supplies, and training courses. “We are still only purchasing hvac-related materials from www.,” he said. “I don’t see much increase in the use of the Internet for directly purchasing services, but I do see the continued use for communications and information exchange.”

    News consultant John Spezza of AAA Heating & Cooling in Portland, OR, said his accounting staff uses the Internet to pay some bills and salespeople use it to look up vendor websites when they need an answer, but its usage is unpredictable.

    “We rely on the Internet for our website but usefulness and productiveness seem to be nebulous,” he said. “It is really hard to put a figure on the bucks it brings in. I occasionally use the Net to talk with my old college buddies,” he added.

    Scott Getzschman has a lot of good things to say about doing business via the Internet. “It has been a great tool for us,” he said. “It allows us to communicate with general contractors, which eliminates phone tag. I have been able to communicate with customers before and after the sales have taken place.

    “We use it to track freight if we are having delivery problems,” he said. “And as a member of Service Experts, this truly is the main form of communication with district managers and regional managers. It gives us the ability to find vendors of specialty products that typically take us a day to get information back on. If we have the information immediately, we can place the order within minutes.”

    Communications Too

    Bob Dobrowski sees the Internet as a valuable communications tool. “When you have to communicate with many people and companies, it would not be practical without it,” he said. “It has become a tool that increases productivity in day-to-day work.

    “We use it for all forms of communication with customers, booking service calls, ordering parts or equipment, networking, training, etc. The list goes on and on.”

    Bill Flynn addresses his company’s recruitment needs via the Internet. “We use it to recruit prospective employees,” he said. “We subscribe to www.HVAC and I get at least 10 resumes a day to review. There are also other sites I’ve used to source candidates.

    “We’ve only hired two persons through the source, but I believe that in the future it will be one of the best places to find prospects. When you find a candidate on the Internet, you know they are in tune with today’s technology and are progressive individuals.”

    “Our Internet usage is growing,” said Harry Friedman. “Our company has a website where anyone who wishes to can tap into our knowledge base through an ‘ask the expert’ interactive e-mail. People can ask questions about their hvac or plumbing problems.

    “We also have an Intranet site that is devoted solely to our team members and their locations. We can download daily operational forms, keep up on key issues in the industry, post job openings, buy company merchandise, post messages, see company contest results, access our 401k accounts, and more.”

    Not Worth Pursuing?

    Charlie Klapperich said his company uses the Internet mainly for communications within the company. He noted that very little communication between his company and vendors or customers takes place over the Web.

    “E-commerce has been bandied about for some time,” he said. “However, I have not seen anything that is worth pursuing yet. Many of the dot-coms promoting their sites have gone by the wayside. The truth is that they really cannot offer the same products through e-commerce portals at any real significant savings over what national and volume pricing already achieve.”

    Tom Lawson said his company uses the Internet for a number of different services. “We use it to do research, order equipment, and for our extended warranties,” he said. “We also file claims on extended warranties, which speeds up the payment process and saves money.

    “We have e-mailed photographs of jobs to clients in the U.S. and Canada and are currently collecting e-mail addresses from our customers so that we can have electronic correspondence with our existing client base.”

    Being part of a national operating company has its advantages for Dave Dombrowski. “Our most exciting consumer-based program is the use of the Internet to communicate through our websites,” he said. “As part of a large national company, we use our website at to discuss our values, services, and identification of our service centers.

    “Our design-build team has been transmitting and receiving project information via the web. We can accept AutoCAD drawings, add our layer for the hvac, and return these documents very quickly without paper copies. This also allows us to use more sophisticated processes such as collision checking and a download to our Estimation programs for quick and efficient bidding.”

    Future of E-Commerce

    “The Internet should be thought of as a means for better time management, faster communication, and more opportunity,” said Dobrowski. “I do not feel we have even seen the tip of the iceberg yet.”

    “We expect e-commerce to expand,” added Marble. “We are investigating how the Net will grow and how we can use it in our company.”

    “I don’t see much increase in the use of the Internet for directly purchasing services,” said Somers. “However, I do see continued use and expansion of communications and information exchange.”

    Getzschman said, “I foresee this being just the tip of the iceberg as far as what its capabilities will be. The Net will become a very necessary tool in all businesses.”

    As part of ARS, Dombrowski is excited about his Internet future. “Our plans are to allow direct placement of service calls on our website by our customers,” he said. “Our second site is www.weserve, which is based through a venture with Service-Master. This is a full-service site to consumers not only in hvac, but in all household needs.

    “The bottom line is that we all feel there is wonderful potential in the Net when used properly and combined with professional service and customer care.”

    Publication date: 04/02/2001