The Heat's On
Andy Stack has found it helps to recruit all five senses of sight, sound, touch, hearing and taste to sell radiant heat. Taste? Let’s just say with the passion Stack brings to the business, he more than gives potential customers a taste of what radiant heat is all about.
The other senses he leaves up to his year-old radiant heat showroom.
“I designed this myself,” Stack says of his 1,000 sq. ft. showroom. “Not bad for a service guy.”
Armed with stories on radiant heat in the mainstream press, customers walk in knowing a little bit about radiant heat. “All the magazine articles help,” Stack says. “But there’s so much more that they don’t know anything about which we can really explain with the showroom. People can see, touch, feel and hear everything we sell. Once they leave here, they’re convinced they really know what a radiant floor heating system is.”
Stack runs the showroom from his contracting business, Andy Stack & Sons, Avon, Ohio, which is near Cleveland.
The showroom gives customers a walking tour of their new heating system. Stack usually pulls them into the boiler room to start — which is pretty hard to miss anyway, what with a bright orange boiler sitting inside a picture window. He makes everyone begin by putting their hands on the supply. “Most people think they’ll get burnt. Nobody imagines how relatively warm the water is until they put their hands right on that pipe.”
Along one wall people can run their hands over the main display of baseboard, radiant panel, towel warmers and kick space heaters all powered, of course, by the boiler.
“Nobody expects to see this much nor do they expect to see it all working,” Stack says.
Stack’s wall of products also includes thermostats and the latest in hydronic controls. For the controls, Stack goes the extra mile by encasing them in clear plastic so people can see the diodes going on and off and get a sense of what zoning is all about.
“Some people don’t care about controls,” he adds. “But you never know. I once had a customer who wanted to know all about flow rates.”
At a certain point, the whole 7,000 sq. ft. facility becomes one big showroom. Keep in mind, the boiler not only heats the products on display, but provides underfloor warmth for the building, keeping it at a comfortable and energy-efficient 65-68 degrees F.
“My heating bill for the winter months totaled just $180,” Stack adds.
That bill also pays for the snowmelt system installed under the handicapped entrance ramp to the building and at the shop service door sidewalk.
And to showcase cooling options for wet heat homes, the facility also boasts an operating high velocity air-conditioning system, which features two-inch supply outlets that are almost invisible if you don’t know what to look for. (Incidentally, the a/c system is also equipped with a hot water coil for milder days.)
“The showroom gives us a lot of credibility,” Stack says. “I don’t think anyone who comes in believes that a contractor who went to the trouble of creating this is going to do shoddy work on their projects.”
The showroom offers an exciting opportunity for the 23-year-old family owned business. While the lion’s share of his business is in the rather dependable boiler repair and replacement market, Stack’s goal is no less than to introduce hot water heat to the new home building market.
New Territory: A year ago, he purposely built his new facility in the western suburbs of Cuyahoga and eastern Lorain counties, an area with an ever increasing supply of new homes. And the fact that 90 percent of these homes are forced air doesn’t phase him. Last year, he put in radiant systems in six homes — a modest beginning, but the game’s just starting.
“Radiant’s coming on strong,” Stack says. “I think we’re three years ahead of other contractors thanks to the showroom. So when it really takes off, we’re going to be way, way ahead of everyone else.”
Cracking the homebuilder mindset is no small chore. But he knows if he can just get steady business from one homebuilder, then others might go along. “Price is a big concern with these guys, but so is staying competitive. If someone is offering a feature no else is — such as radiant heat — then other homebuilders will follow suit.”
So far, he’s made headway with one builder in the past year. It helps when he’s your next door neighbor. Recently, Stack installed a radiant system for the 5,000 sq. ft. facility of Schafer Development Co., which constructs about 50 homes a year priced at around $200,000. The space even includes a 500 sq. ft. workout room, complete with European towel warmers and radiant tubing underneath the shower seats.
A high velocity a/c system cools the space. (Like Stack’s site, a hot water coil provides fast heat for milder spring and fall days). Outside, a snowmelt system makes zero work out of shoveling the snow.
Stack first did business with Schafer when he chose the company to build his new house — although Stack himself installed the radiant system on the first floor and baseboard on the second floor. The homebuilder was intrigued enough to let Stack install the same setup in a model home.
Stack works on the same principle as many contractors with high-class plumbing showrooms: Work with the builder on upgrading the heating equivalent of a chrome and white plumbing package. Stack figures that a complete radiant package and the high velocity a/c system is quite an upgrade. Figure $6,000 for a conventional forced air system, and $18,000 for the complete radiant and a/c package.
Same Ball Park: At these prices, Stack knows it’s not for everyone. And he’s willing to deal to a certain extent. “We’ll usually walk the customer through the showroom, and then give them a ballpark of $10 per sq. ft. And that’s a very basic system. If that scares them, then neither of us is in the same ball park. It takes time from that point on so we both have to be committed to doing this.”
Once he sells customers initially on the idea of hydronic heat, he can offer a good, better, best approach by, say, offering top of the line European boilers or less expensive American equipment. In other cases, he’ll push for radiant, but also offer to install baseboard.
“The No. 1 thing on their minds is the cost,” he says. “If we get over the $10 hurdle, then we can have some fun.”
How do you get them over the hurdle? “Comfort,” Stack says. “Everyone wants the comfort of radiant heat. Then once we sell that the energy savings just go along for the ride.”
Thanks to his relationship with Schafer, Stack is hoping to piggy back on the builder’s ads by including a line that touts: “We offer hot water heat.” Sort of an “Intel Inside” approach to marketing.
But he’s not pinning his hopes on the largess of another business. Keep in mind, he hasn’t forgotten about his existing customer base. After all, he built a solid reputation serving an area of Cleveland loaded with older hydronically heated homes and businesses all with aging boilers. As a result, he gets plenty of referrals from wholesalers, local building inspectors — even the local gas company and his own competitors when they get up to their necks in an ancient steam system.
Thanks to the showroom, he has a good opportunity to upgrade much more than just the boiler. And he adds the market for retrofitting hot water homes with the high velocity a/c systems is tremendous.
He knows reputation, although enviable, won’t be enough to grow his business. He does some advertising of his own, such as a commercial on the local showing of “This Old House,” and also sends a quarterly newsletter to existing customers promoting the showroom. Stack has additional plans to hold more open houses, and maybe even host some mini-seminars on such topics as how to clean a steam trap.
“We’ll do what we can to lock in a customer,” he says.