I presented a “Business of Contracting” seminar at the 1997 Radiant Panel Association (RPA) meeting in Providence, RI, on April 16-17. Radiant heat is growing fast from a tiny base but still comprises just a niche market. Forced air systems comprise over 90 percent of the market. Many customers are not even aware they have other options.

How to market radiant heat is a subject that has come in for much discussion among the so-called “Wet Heads,” led by my friend Dan Holohan. At the 1996 RPA convention, Dan shared his vision of building two houses, side-by-side, identical except for their heating systems. One would have state-of-the-art hydronics, including radiant panel heat. The other forced air. Customers could compare the comfort of the warm floors to what Holohan sarcastically refers to as “scorched air.”

Great idea! But, only people close enough to drive over to the two houses would stop in. Still, I’m not discounting the idea. I think it should be done. My friends Ellen and Hot Rod Rohr have even offered the use of their land in Missouri to put up the two houses.

But, the question arises as to what to do on a national level to create a fever for hydronic heat. And that reminds me of a program that I participated in back in the early 1960s.

The “Wateright” Home: “The Wateright Home” was a promotion by the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Information Bureau (PHCIB). Fred Rexford, the former marketing vice president of Elkay who recently passed away, originated the concept.

It was a time when household items like automatic dishwashers, disposals and two-compartment sinks were considered luxury items. Now, even the cheapest tract home comes with a dishwasher and disposal, but that wasn’t always the case.

In 1960, PHCIB formed a strategic alliance with various plumbing manufacturers and plumbing contractors to convince new home contractors to promote sales of homes with modern plumbing appurtenances. Basic Wateright requirements included: 1. Full-flow, safe water supply; 2. adequately sized water heater; 3. two full bathrooms; 4. large, stylish kitchen sink; 5. water and drain facilities in the laundry area. Additional Wateright features were an additional half-bath, an extra lavatory in one bathroom, a food waste disposer, dishwasher, water softener, a combination patio sink and drinking fountain, a laundry sink, hot and cold water in the garage, three lawn faucets, tempering valves and stops under fixtures. The purpose, of course, was to sell more plumbing products.

At the time, Blau Plumbing was heavily involved in new construction plumbing work. This may come as a surprise to many of you who have heard me advise contractors to stay clear of low-profit new construction. But it is possible to make money in it. Then as now, the key was in selling upgrades. Milwaukee area builder John Luterbach, whom I worked with on Wateright projects, used to comment that “no one wants to live poorly just to save a few dollars.”

He was right. The Wateright Home promotion introduced many Americans to the comfort and convenience that our industry could bring to their lives. It created public interest in plumbing products, contributed to the acceptance of higher quality products and dramatically showed the important part plumbing plays in homes. When coupled with a little salesmanship, the added cost of Wateright devices were well worth the extra benefits they brought to homeowners.

Applied To Radiant: Just as the Wateright Home helped make garbage disposals and dishwashers a standard feature in most American homes, I believe a similar promotion tied to radiant and other forms of hydronic heat could go a long way toward stimulating demand for this most comfortable form of home heating. The thing is, though, you must make it easy for folks to try it out.

The Wateright Home was a cooperative effort in which manufacturers donated products to build the model homes and subsidized half of builder advertising. What if a similar program were to come about promoting the building of model hydronic homes in areas of the country where hydronic heating is a factor?

Perhaps the RPA could even institute a special assessment of its members for a promotional fund to back the effort. Union agreements set aside certain cents-per-hour contributions for industry promotion. The concept is a good one that can be replicated elsewhere.

Hydronics probably will never capture anything close to a majority of the American heating market, but it is too good a product not to do better than the 5 percent or so that it now gets. Besides, these systems represent a premium technology in which profit margins can be substantially higher than with conventional HVAC.

Here’s your chance. Use the Wateright Home example as a marketing strategy to create demand for radiant and other forms of hydronic heat. Then, meet the demand profitably.