Most of the time, it starts with a phone call that goes something like this, “You installed a new heating system for my sister, and you came highly recommended.” We set up a date and time that we both can make, I write down some notes from our conversation along with the address and cell phone number. While on the telephone, I always ask questions when they call. Some of the questions I start with might be, what type of heat do you have now and what are some of your concerns? I write the answers down as they have proven very helpful when I finally get to visit the client.

I am not one for being 30 minutes early for an estimate. Instead, I try to be standing at the front door at exactly 1 p.m. for a 1 p.m. appointment. When I was much younger, I believed I could make time go backward if I raced to my destination (my wife and almost every employee I ever had still believe this), but none of us were ever successful. My point here is to try to allow yourself enough time to be on time. If I am going to be late, I have their phone number in my notebook and call them ahead of time, customers appreciate this.

Greet the customer and enter the site, I try to pay attention to my surroundings while closely listening to every word. Side note, if you regularly receive phone calls, text messages and Facebook notifications all day long, I suggest silencing your phone before you get to the client. Many customers have mentioned that they appreciate that I am not on my phone when visiting. While heading to the boiler room, I might write a few notes about the thermostat, type of heat emitters, floor coverings, stair condition, door widths, etc. These items are something that I consider in almost every job we do. You would be surprised at how many times I’ve seen doors (or door openings) that were too small for the removal of the old equipment or delivery of the new equipment. Keep in mind the route you and your team will be taking carrying out the old beast and installing the new boiler, it really is important.

Once in the boiler room, spend a few minutes sketching the existing piping layout, including pipe sizes. Take a few photos with my phone at different angles. My goal is to know all the pipe sizes before we return to replace the boiler. We take note of the gas pipe size and measure the length and load of this pipe from the gas meter to the longest run. We often see jobs where the original gas line that was sized to feed the stove was customized to also feed the boiler when they converted from oil to gas years ago. Take a glance at the chimney and take a few rough measurements, including the approximate height, inside diameter and location (interior or exterior). Briefly examine the wiring, both high and low voltage (be careful this is not a millivolt system). Look at the feed water and try to determine if the water shutoff valve to the heating system functions or if we will have to shut the water off to the entire building and install a new valve.

On steam heating jobs, look at the condition and pitch of the steam mains, this is critical to the system performance. We find that many steam mains are poorly pitched or have been improperly modified over the years. We will also look at the returns and note the end of the steam mains. Look for main steam vents and note the condition. As most of you know, there are no “newer” steam-heated structures that I am aware of, as such, you really need to study the existing piping. In my area (New Jersey) the average steam heating system is about 100 years old and coal-fired originally. As a result, we rarely see a system in its original condition. We often have to play detective and figure out what was originally there and how it was supposed to work. We note the type and condition of the pipe insulation if there is any. On one pipe systems, we’ll examine the radiator vents and shutoff valves. On two pipe systems, we’ll examine the stream traps, condensate stations, boiler feed stations, etc. Unless the steam system is identical to the other houses in the neighborhood that we are familiar with, we will measure all the heat emitters to determine the standing square feet of radiation. Keep in mind that this could take an hour or two on larger commercial systems.

On hot water jobs, examine the circulator pump(s), write down the information and take close-up photos of the pump information. We measure pipe size, expansion tank size, relief valve pressure rating, etc. We also try to determine pump orientation and how well the existing system performs. Based on system type and location of check valves, we try to get a rough idea of how long it will take to drain the existing system (some take hours, not 15 minutes).

You would be surprised at how many times I’ve seen doors (or door openings) that were too small for the removal of the old equipment or delivery of the new equipment. Keep in mind the route you and your team will be taking carrying out the old beast and installing the new boiler, it really is important.

Remember, I mentioned we ask lots of questions — this helps us understand what the customer expects. For example, if the master bedroom has been cold since the couple purchased the house 20 years ago, a new fancy boiler will probably not solve this problem. Keep the master bedroom issue in the back of your mind when looking at all aspects of the system. You may find a possible solution that you can propose to the couple that will fix their issue. This key item may also put you ahead of your competition for two reasons. One, you listened to the customers’ needs. Two, you have the expertise to come up with a viability solution to their problem that makes sense to them.

Keep in mind that many potential customers are not heating experts. Oftentimes, we visit sites and find the customer expects that a new boiler will magically fix every heating issues in their system. It could be banging pipes, creaking pipes, cold or hot areas of the house or building, excessive fuel bills, etc. I prefer to address these issues during the site visit and not to over promise. Yes, we can fix almost every issue on these systems, but sometimes it just isn’t practical.

When I leave the house or building with my notebook stuffed with notes, I drive a few minutes away and park my vehicle. During this time, I go through my scribble notes while they are fresh in my mind and transfer them from hieroglyphics to English. I might even make a usable sketch of the near boiler piping if I find there is anything unusual. I find this exercise a necessity, as I may not have the time to sit down and write the formal estimate for a week or so if we are busy. Between the notes and the photos, we can provide a detailed estimate.

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