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Contractors Talk Radiant
There's a Lot More to Good Radiant Work than Some Contractors Assume
With radiant becoming more popular with discerning homeowners these days, radiant work has become a significant segment of business for a growing number of plumbers and mechanical contractors. Some do radiant full-time, because they can. Others advertise radiant as part of their overall expertise. Younger tradesmen see radiant as the business model they want to focus on; older, more experienced contractors, tired of the same old- same old, view radiant as simply the best heating solution available and seek to "graduate" to radiant work as a smart business move while fulfilling their quest for continuing professional development.
But not all radiant work is being carried out by trained radiant specialists, despite what might be stated on the side of some of their trucks. Experienced radiant contractors will be the first to admit that radiant work is more challenging than it might look at first, and that education, collaboration and networking among their peers, coupled with on-the-job exposure, are the keys to doing superior radiant work. Training is the key.
Taco, Inc., which manufactures a number of Radiant Made Easy products (the latest being the Radiant Three-Speed Pump) brought four Rhode Island and Massachusetts-based radiant professionals together last January for a roundtable on how they work together, what their radiant experiences have been, and their approach to the business.
The quartet is part a local Radiant Home Comfort chapter, formed some three years ago, meant to disseminate education and solicit feedback and discussion on radiant and broader hydronic work. Significantly, all four are graduates of Uponor's (formerly Wirsbo's) Home Comfort Team school in Minnesota and participants in Dan Holohan's Wall postings www.heatinghelp.com and Wetstock events.
The four collaborate with each other on a regular basis, asking questions of each other on jobs they're doing. They even sub-contract each other on bigger jobs, like the mechanical room installation the four completed for the new warehouse addition of Taco, in Cranston, RI. They host periodic dinner meetings for the chapter, averaging 12-15 participants, during which they network and hear from radiant equipment manufacturers and sales rep agency trainers.
The four roundtable members are:
John Perry, Jr. of Advanced Comfort, Inc., North Smithfield, RI, is the unofficial dean and radiant guru of the group. John and his father have been doing radiant work exclusively for the past 14 years. John doesn't need to advertise his services at this point; all his work is by referral. He and his father spent a year learning radiant from the ground up.
Dominic DiMambro of Dom's Radiant Heating, North Billerica, MA, has been in the heating and air conditioning business for almost thirty years; tired of hot air jobs and what he saw as a lackadaisical approach to work on the part of fellow contractors, he started doing radiant almost 12 years ago. He told his son at the time, "If we're going to do radiant, let's learn it and do it properly. Let's know our stuff and have the right answers. So we went to the Wirsbo school."
Vic Waskiewicz of JV Mechanical Contractors, Webster, MA. While his firm, which he runs with his dad Joe, handles mostly mechanical contracting jobs, everything from HVAC and steam to fire protection, residential radiant jobs have also been in the mix since 1991.
Steve Gronksi, of Gronski Plumbing & Heating, Cranston, RI, is the newcomer to the group. Steve, a one-man shop, has made the commitment to radiant training through Wirsbo and Taco and is looking to do more radiant work. He's big on education from wherever he can get it: "Training is the key. You have to train."
When it comes to radiant, why is training so critical?
John: I learn something new everyday. Once you think you know it all you don't, because our business is changing. It's constantly changing. There's new things out there all the time. You have to keep up.
Dom: If you don't you're going to get left behind real quick.
Steve: Some guys just won't go to school. That's a mistake. I made a big move when I went to the Wirsbo school. I wasn't out there earning money while I was there but I don't regret a minute of it. It's an investment, and in the long run I see it paying off. You learn what the good products are, what aren't so good, and what's the best way to go with different applications. You want to give your customers the best value for their money. Just about everyone discovers that radiant is more expensive than they thought it would be, so you want to be able to give them the comfort they desire at a price they can live with. Training and product exposure helps do that for you.
I've learned a lot, and I look back on some of the early jobs I did and now I see that, because of the training, I could have done some things differently.
Dom: I was taught by a plumber years ago how to pipe a boiler. But because of my training, I began to do it differently. Some of my old friends in the business would see how I did it and look at me as if I had ten heads. Then they'd do it themselves and say, "Wow, this really makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?"
I'm 55 years old but I've still got to trainand go to schoolevery chance I can get."
How did you all meet?
John: I met Vic's father Joe at a Wetstock event. In fact, it was Joe and I who decided to form a local chapter. We've met a lot of guys we still keep in touch with. I can call guys out in Washington state, in Seattle. We also continue to network through Dan Holohan's Wetstock events. Those have been very beneficial for us.
Steve: I met John Perry through John Barba when he was with Wirsbo (Barba is now with Taco). They're good friends. I said to John Barba, "I'd like to get more involved with guys in my local area. Guys who want to share information and tips, help new guys like me along." So he gives me John's phone number. It took me another year or so to call him, but when I did we must have been on the phone an hour and a half talking.
Dom: The good guys are the guys who want to get into training, to network.
John: When Joe and I opened up the chapter, we opened it up to all regional Home Comfort Team members. But only a few people showed up for our first meeting. We've gone up to 25 people at a meeting, but they come and go. Many don't continue. Those that do are our core group: They're the quality guys. They're the people I want to deal with.
How do you guys work together? You worked on the new mechanical room installation at Taco, right?
Vic: We did. We partner up. We can do a better job because we've got more people involved, more talent, and more vested interest between us. At this point we're on the same page when it comes to a lot of things, jobwise. We're all of the same frame of mind when it comes to the way it should be done, the right way.
Dom: We're all basically small companies. But now I can take on bigger jobs knowing that I have these guys behind me, and that's a real plus. There's pride involved between us. I still get on my son now and then, and he's like, "Dad, let's just get it in, get it done." I tell him, "No, let's get it done neat. We're putting our name on this after all." This is true among all of usI haven't seen a job any of us has done, separately or together, that's got any sloppiness at all to it.
Steve: Dom's right. All of us take pride in our work. It's all a work of art, if I may say so. All of us look closely at our work: we marvel at it actually. It's great to see some of our work featured in the trade magazines.
That's not to say that we always see things the very same way. We're all individuals after all. Dom might put in a radiant job one way, John or Vic another way. I might do it a little differently. But you know what? Any of them should be able to walk into my job and know exactly what I did. I can walk into one of John's jobs and know exactly what he did, what controls he used, what's doing what. We can all troubleshoot each other's jobs and fix them too if we just came in off the street. The reason is that we all have the same principles in mind.
John: A good example is the new Taco mechanical room that we all worked on together. We had it drawn out on paper but when we got to the jobsite things began to change. Vic had his idea. I had mine. So we sat down and hashed it out. We went back and forth listening to each other's ideas before we made a final decision. It's democraticwe even vote on it!
Vic: The Taco room was especially tight and everybody had a different idea of how best to utilize the limited space. So we stood back, and then we all started seeing the best idea, and we all said, "Ok, let's do that." Nobody had a problem with it.
How do you keep everyone happy and profitable when you're all working together?
John: To make it work right, you can't get greedy. You've got to think of the other guys. We divvy up the work. We put in the numbers. As things change you deal with them.
Dom: You've got to be willing to help each other out. That's the name of the game. This is a tough thing to do because there's a lot of guys out there who would say, "No way. He did less than me and is making more." Or "I'm not making enough on this job."
John: We had differences of opinion, even arguments on the Taco job but they weren't about money. They were about how best to do things, to solve a problem or technical fix.
What's the homeowner’s level of awareness of radiant? Is radiant a tough sell?
Steve: Sure, there's a lot more awareness out there for radiant. People are looking for the comfort and energy efficiency which radiant supplies.
Dom: The radiant market is definitely growing. It's growing steadily, and the more people who do radiant the more prices will come down.
John: People who want radiant have either had it before, experienced it in someone's else house or they've researched it. They're an easy sell because they've already made up their minds about it.
Vic: People are surprised by the cost, however. Always. Everybody is looking for the best way to go but sometimes there has to be trade-offs based on the budget.
John: That's why I always give customers the best design I can for the budget available. Sometimes I give estimates to people that I know will experience sticker shock because they're totally unprepared for the cost. It's like, "Why am I wasting my time here?" But it's also an education thing. At least they'll get educated out of it.
We should look at that as part of our business because we're not going to get every job we bid for. Then again I've had that happen and later they'll come back to me and say, "We're ready now, let's do it," and that's sweet.
John: I did radiant for a guy who works here at Taco. I think it was two years before he got furniture in his house because of the radiant. He had to have the radiant but his wife was against it. They had big differences of opinion over it apparently. But after the first winter his wife said to me, "You know what? I'd never admit it to him but it was the best fight he ever won." She saw the comfort value in it. He told me himself, "Once my house is built it's in the floor. I can get granite countertops and furniture later."
Steve: Sometimes radiant is a tough sell because people are all set to spend seventy thousand on a kitchen, let's say, but aren't willing to spend six grand to put radiant in the floor for warming. They want to spend their money on things you can see, things they can show you like a sixty-inch flat screen TV for the family room.
Dom: People don't see the resale value of radiant heating. Having radiant is a big plus when it comes to selling a home. And just consider the energy cost savings year to yearpeople can save up to 45 percent on their annual heating bills. I don't think we're going to see heating prices coming down in the future.
Steve: Right. People don't get the energy savings part of it, how you can run your boiler water temperature at such a low, low temp. and save that money on your heating.
Dom: Utilities don't tell the consumer that for every three degrees that they lower that water temperature they're saving one percent off their heating bill.
What about builders? Are they on board with radiant?
John: Some are. Most still like to put in hot air systems.
Steve: I'm educating my two big builders right now. I'm trying to get them to bring up radiant with their customers. Before you start talking about seventy thousand dollars for the fancy kitchen and hundred and fifty thousand dollars of stonework around your foundation, let's talk about the heart of your house. Let's talk about the heating system first.
Vic: I think it's the consumer that's driving the builder towards radiant now. They're aware of it and asking about it.
John: And that's why it's so important that a builder gets in with an experienced radiant guy because if they get the wrong guy it just turns sour in their mouth and they say, "Never again, no way!"
Steve: That goes back to the training thing, starting off on the right foot.
John: I've got a project right now that I'm looking atsixty-five units for folks 55 and older. The contractor wants them all radiant.
And what about architects. Are they in the mix?
John: There's some architects that do understand radiant and recommend it. I once gave a presentation to a group of architects with Wirsbo. There had to be 75-80 architects there. They were quite interested in it. So every now and then I meet with a smaller group, usually from one firm. Most of them say, "We can give you an hour," but it always goes longer because there's so much information to give them. You've got to have the answers for them.
For interior designers, radiant gives them so much more freedom to place furniture. With baseboard they should be leaving the furniture at least 18 inches away but usually it goes right up against it, so the boiler in the basement really has to pump out to try to make up for it. That can drive energy costs up.
How do you qualify yourself as a radiant expert? Is there a Good Housekeeping symbol of association you can show to builders or homeowners?
Vic: Not really. The best way you qualify yourself when you get your foot in the door is to make a really good, thorough presentation. I always bring in my laptop. I show them pictures of my jobs. I give them referrals. I make myself valid to that client.
John: Most of us don't advertise so it's word of mouth, referrals. Say they're talking radiant for their home. Who did yours, they ask. They get my number and call me. We meet and they talk about their plans and they ask questions. I spend thirty-five, forty minutes answering their questions until they're done. Then I start asking my own and they're like, "Oh, my gosh. How come the other guys didn’t ask these questions?"
"Well, the other guys are probably taking your plans to their local supply house and asking the counter guys to look at them and provide a quote," I tell them. They don't even study them themselves. I don't do that. I'm doing the design work so I need to know the answers to my questions. If the other guy didn't ask these questions, what kind of a design do you think you're going to get? Are you going to get a true heat loss system for your house, because that's where everything should start.
I say to them, "I need to know what size walls you're planning, what kind of insulation, what windows will you be using?"
Steve: What kind of floors are we talking about…
John: Exactly, because it's a system. The house is a whole system. People need to understand that. The house works with the a/c, with the heat, with the ventilation. It's not just a house with this a/c system or this heating system. It's all going to work together.
Vic: I've got an example of that thinking, and about not knowing all the information and just winging it. It was a log cabin house we did. I did the design: everything was perfect.
The flooring was supposed to be hardwood. Well, we finished up and the homeowner was still taking his time with the trim and the floors. But then he goes and puts wall-to-wall carpet in two bedrooms that were supposed to be hardwood. That's how I had cal'd it out.
He comes to me and says that he can't get the rooms to warm up above 62 degrees. Plus, they're on the north side of the houseno sun. "Well, where did this carpeting come from, what's the padding like?" I ask him. Turns out he got the padding at Home Depot. He tells me, "When my kids go to college in a few years I'll rip up the carpeting."
If he had just told me about it in the first place I could have set it up for two different water temperatures. He changed the scope of work.
Dom: The other thing is trying to get people to understand what a difference a radiant room and a non-radiant room will feel like, especially when you cross over from one to the other. You can't see it of course but you sure can feel it.
John: It's like a curtain, an invisible curtain. As soon as they step over that line, it's like wow! That's why radiant is a whole different animal to try to explain to people.
Vic: That's why you have to educate the client, ask a lot of questions, as John says. Because when you have a client that tells you they just want the radiant in the kitchen and they have a connected pantry or a dining room area, you have to tell them that they're going to notice a difference.
Dom: As soon as they step from that room they'll feel it.
Vic: I did a very expensive house in Needham, MA and the lady of the house had an Argus stove, a big old stove with continuous gas in the kitchen. She thought the kitchen was going to be heated by that stove. I told her, "Absolutely not. The air will but not the tile floor." So she said, "Let's do the kitchen." She had an adjacent pantry and I said, "Well, what about that? You're going to feel it." Things like that you have to make them aware of because if you don't tell them and just go ahead and do what they ask, then it's going to be, "Well, you should have told me."
John: Ninety percent of my customers will tell you that if they had to do it all over again money wouldn't be the deciding factor in a radiant purchase decision; it would be the comfort level.
Well, what about retrofits? Either because a homeowner couldn't afford to do more radiant originally or they found out what a difference radiant makes?
Steve: You can do radiant retrofits. I have a lot of people come to me after their house is up and now they want radiant. But that's not the ideal time because their options are more limited.
Vic: We did a radiant retrofit, believe it or not, on a little two bedroom ranch house. It was a guy of modest meanshe was a school janitor and his wife was a driver for UPS. They had electric heat and wanted radiant. We stapled up the whole house. It was definitely more money than if we had done baseboard. But he wanted it so we did it.
I've done my own 1800s-era house.
Dom: I did three four-story brownstones in Boston.
Steve: I can get up to the second floor, rip up the carpets and quick track the tubing through the hot air ducts. Where some of the returns are located on the inner wall a contractor will cut the wall to put the manifold in. So the options are there. You don't have to gut a house to do it, and you don’t have to be rich to do radiant.
Let's go back to the manufacturers you work with and whose products you use. What is it about those manufacturers, and their products, that set them apart?
John: Everyone involved in radiant knows what Wirsbo has accomplished with its training. Because if you make the effort to train the contractor, and the contractor does well by it, you've established a loyalty factor. And there's not really very much loyalty in the heating business. But loyalty can mean a lot.
Dom: Wirsbo was the first manufacturer that I heard about that trained. Not only are they training but they stand behind you. Taco too. If you've got a question and you call them up they'll get you an answer. If you've got a problem they'll help you solve it.
Vic: The support is there.
Steve: Call Taco. Believe me, you're not going to sit there pressing buttons. You get a person to talk to. Call Wirsbo in Minnesota: same thing. Call some of these other manufacturers and see what you get. Press for this, press for that. And then voicemail and you hope you get a call back.
When you get together with Taco, you start getting familiar with the products and you get involved with the guys here, that's the beauty part.
John: I got involved with the Taco radiant X-Pump Block right up front. Every one that we've used has been great.
Vic: I just used one in my father's house. It had nothing to do with radiant. He's resetting a panel radiated building, which was great because it was overheating a bit.
John: I try to give Taco as much feedback as possible. For example, when one of their newer zone valves first came out they had some problems with it. I was using a lot of them at once: I had a house with, like, fifteen zones in it and some of the valves would open and some wouldn't. I didn't know if it was the zone valves or the thermostat, so I called Taco. I said to them, "I've got a problem here. What can we do about it?"
Next thing I know they're asking me if they can come to the jobsite. They want to bring an engineer. I said, "Bring as many Taco people as you'd like. Let's get this thing fixed. As far as I'm concerned, you own this problem."
We started taking readings. We had like four different thermostats hanging down with wires going everywhere. What they discovered was that there was a problem with the circuitry board inside the valve. They changed that out and called me up and said, "We've got ten built that you can try."
"Yup, give 'em to me." I put them in the job and tried them out and we kept going back and forth while Taco was working with Wirsbo on it. They'd be sending out different thermostats. We were trying all kinds of different things until we got it right. Now those valves open up real quick.
Dom: That's the way Taco operates. They stay close to the customer. They ask a lot of questions. They ask for input from the people who use their products, like us. A lot of companies don't do that.
Information supplied by Taco, Inc.