Not-So-Wet Wet Heads
Dan Foley positively loves radiant heat. Time stands still as he gets caught up in the intricacies of piping. He can tell you emphatically why he insists on black pipe for the boiler connections over copper. His crew zones not with zone valves, but with circulators. Yeah, he knows all about pumping away, too.
We met up with the vice president of Arlington Heating & Air Conditioning, Arlington, Va., last July as he put the finishing touches on a few jobs that were anything but run-of-the-mill.
One project provided radiant heat for a new addition of an old cabin that was either 100 years old, 200 years old or 300 years old, depending on who you asked. Radiant heat was also being installed in an $800,000 addition to a contemporary home a few miles away. Finally, Foley’s two-man radiant crew was finishing up an $13,000 snow melt job for the driveway and walkway of a brand new home.
The snow melt system needed its own boiler since the home’s forced air system had already been completed. Foley figured he could have improved on the system had he got called in earlier.
Foley ought to know. He may be a Wet Head with no less conviction than the Wettest of Wet Heads. But 80 percent of Foley’s business is derived from HVAC. That’s right. A scorched air guy who loves to sell radiant.
“I’ve got 300 other competitors who will bid on a heat pump,” he laments. “I could lose a bid by just being $50 over, and I’d have to send out 10 bids just to get one job.”
But selling radiant? Well, that’s a whole different story. “In my market, there are just not many people doing it,” he adds. “But there’s a huge demand for radiant since it’s the consumer who’s demanding it.”
Foley’s emergence into radiant may smack many PM readers as an unwanted incursion into an exclusive club. For other industry observers it just comes down to the unbreakable laws of supply and demand.
“The radiant industry has opened up huge marketing opportunities in what are predominately forced air markets — and that’s attracting a lot of interested forced air contractors,” says Larry Drake, executive director of the Radiant Panel Association. “On the other hand, consumer demand for radiant is so great that there aren’t enough hydronic contractors to do the work so consumers are turning to heating contractors to do the work. So where do we get the new blood?”
Drake does point out that a lot of old-style hydronic contractors — those who just do boiler replacement and baseboard installation — haven’t made the switch yet either and come on board the radiant band wagon.
Meanwhile, Drake believes the attention from HVAC technicians is actually accelerating the growth of the hydronic market for everyone.
“If the hydronic pie was staying the same size, and HVAC contractors-turned-radiant-technicians were stealing pieces of that pie from the traditional Wet Head, then concerns might be warranted,” Drake says. “But I think the stance of ‘all or nothing’ is what’s kept hydronics from growing over the years. It has been sort of an exclusive club.”
Foley’s path to success certainly mirrors a lot of what Drake outlines. Foley got into radiant six years ago, but hired a hydronics tech, originally from Buffalo, N.Y., to specialize in the work just two years ago. At the time the company was doing just one radiant job a month.
“I thought maybe we’d have to teach him how to put in air-conditioning,” Foley remembers. But the radiant and snow melt work has only increased — reaching a half million dollars this past year. “It’s like we created a market instead of waiting for work to come to us.”
And that work is high margin to boot. “It’s not about how cheaply you can do the job as much as whether you’re capable of doing the work,” he adds. “As a result, providing radiant know-how puts our business in limited competition — which is an ideal situation.”
Foley isn’t apologetic about not considering himself a radiant purist. “In New England, maybe 80 percent of my business would be radiant. But here, I’d be on the corner with a sign saying I’ll work for food. I’m not going to limit what we do; there are 34 people working here depending on this company for their livelihood.”
But he’s also not confrontational about the path he takes either. “I’m not saying there has to be a line in the sand anyway,” Foley says. “I respect people for taking a stand for what they believe. But I’m not going to draw that line. I go into a job, and if I know they can afford it, I’m going to offer what I believe is the best, and that’s infloor radiant heat. Not everyone can afford it, unfortunately, but it’s first on my list in terms of good, better, best. Second step down would be a boiler with fan coils so we can offer an indirect water heater and infloor radiant. My last choice would be to put in five furnaces and five air conditioners.”
We met a number of other Not-So-Wet Wet Heads on our swing through hot and humid Virginia and Maryland. Luke Mask, for example, was finishing up on a radiant system and snow melt system for a new church outside of Frederick, Md. He told us he only does a few new homes with radiant systems a year, and, in fact, the church project was the very first time he’d put in a snow melt system. Despite his modesty, a trip inside the church’s boiler room would convince anyone of Mask’s hydronic craftsmanship.
“Radiant was something that kept coming up more and more,” he explains. “More and more people are interested in it, and I believe that every home should at least have a radiant slab in their basement.”
Later that day, we met Moe Haislip who along with partner Jim Selzer runs John C. Flood, Falls Church, Va. “We always like to stay ahead of our competition,” Haislip relates. “We’ve never been afraid to try something new.” The company’s motto, “We Do It All,” means just that and then some. The company not only does HVAC, but also electrical. “We’ve always been involved in hydronics, changing out boilers or installing baseboard. But we just got involved in radiant a few years ago.”
We visited a project in which Haislip put in radiant not only in the floors of a brand-new second story addition to a home, but also in the ceiling, too. “We gave the homeowner the option of baseboard or radiant,” he explains. “Currently, the home has baseboard. But the owner had heard all about radiant and wanted that. It really is the most comfortable.”
Could hard-and-fast Wet Heads face new competition from HVAC types? As Foley attests, the matter may largely depend on what part of the country you’re in.
However, Foley, for one, is prepared to spread the radiant message to other HVAC contractors at a national HVAC convention this month with a seminar on radiant heat entitled, “Adding Radiant To Your Arsenal.”
“Some of the hot air guys are turned off by radiant,” Foley explains. “They want to stick with putting in air conditioning. And that’s fine. But I know that I’ve gotten heating jobs that I wouldn’t have otherwise because I can also put in radiant in the master bath. I’ve automatically excluded my competition since the homeowner didn’t want to deal with two contractors.”
Not surprisingly, considering Drake’s stance on the matter, the Radiant Panel Association is presenting a special one-day Radiant Basics course at the same convention.
Blame it — if “blame” is the right word — on an information tidal wave that’s provided consumers with the knowledge of radiant. Currently, 6 million people watch This Old House each week. Thanks to the long run of that show, radiant isn’t viewed as a quirky New England anomaly anymore. But that show’s been on for ages. The Internet, meanwhile, has provided instantaneous information — with contractors on the East Coast fielding e-mails from consumers on the West Coast, and vice versa.
“We do need the nontraditional Wet Head, too,” says Mike McDonnell, regional manager, Burnham Corp. “One of our big markets is heat pump conversions. Install a boiler and a hot water coil to fit in the ductwork to either supplement the heat pump or take over the heating needs completely. That way the heat pump acts as an air-conditioner — and you provide heating comfort from a boiler.”
Once done, contractors can branch out and offer, say, an indirect water heater “Chances are,” McDonnell explains, “if they have an electric heat pump they have an electric hot water heater.”
As a result, the homeowners now have an abundance of hot water. But it gives the heating contractor two other important options:
- Basements are impossible to heat properly with forced air, so tubing could be on top of the existing surfaces and covered with a pour of gypcrete.
- Plus, there’s additional possibility of providing a staple-up radiant system for the first floor.
“What we’re trying to do is what good contractors need to do — find out what customers want,” McDonnell says. “Too many contractors go in the door already convinced of what they’re going to sell without ever talking to the customers.”
A more ecumenical approach to selling radiant is good news for RPA’s Larry Drake. “The thing I don’t understand — and what’s gotten me in the most trouble — is why it has to be an either/or situation,” he adds. “I don’t think it means abandoning the philosophy that radiant is the best.”
Drake believes that some members of the hydronics industry have some pretty heavy blinders on. “I can understand why — once you know what’s the best, you want to believe in that and make it happen. But I think the hydronic manufacturers should be looking at the forced air business, and figuring out how they can get a piece of it using hydronics. A forced air furnace is limited, but hydronics has the ability to do it all. As long as we ignore that we can address forced air with hydronics, it’s not going to happen. But we can bring all sorts of stuff to the table that forced air guys cannot.”