by Kelly Johnson

The discussion topics were changing faster than Dan Holohan could announce them to the crowd of 125-plus contractors, manufacturer reps, suppliers and engineers in the Morrison Room of the Sheraton Denver West. Wetstock III, held Sept. 20, proved to be as informative - and entertaining - as Events I and II, to the surprise of … well, no one.

Holohan, hydronic heating “guru” and monthly columnist in Plumbing & Mechanical and its sister publications, PM Engineer and Supply House Times, played master of ceremonies once again for the all-day program of roundtable discussions covering hot hydronics-related issues. Holohan announced at the beginning of the session that the word of the day would be “Waugh!” This was an expression he learned about at a local Irish watering hole in the heart of Denver the evening before, and he encouraged the audience to randomly shout it out throughout the event whenever the urge would strike.

Meanwhile, groups gathered around tables with placecards announcing such topics as Boilers or Water Heaters, Marketing Hydronics, Steam Heat, Industry Associations, Zone Controls, Boiler Concerns and Snowmelting. Throughout the day, however, Holohan would overhear an interesting offshoot topic, or he would collect suggestions from attendees, and then open up a new table under the heading, including such topics as Ethics and Work Vehicle Concerns.

There certainly are benefits to attending such a gathering of plumbing and heating experts. Not only are valuable industry connections made and friendships renewed, but new solutions to old problems can be discovered along the way. Fresh design and installation techniques and brand new technologies can be discussed and explained, such as hydronics author John Siegenthaler's Hydronics Design Studio software program, on display at the event and demonstrated by Siegenthaler himself. At another table, Taco representatives made zone control wiring guides available for attendees. Another table was covered with “Widgets and Gadgets,” being explained by the man that brought them from all over Europe, Chris Rorke. At the very least, Wetstock promotes the exchange of new ideas.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussions that went on at the event:

  • Industry associations need to make the information more basic for the layman, said one representative. “Industry is governed by unions that censor what information gets released. The media needs to contact companies to get their different opinions and provide all sides to the public.”

  • One group discussed a number of boiler concerns, including how to dispose of boiler condensate, what to do with the radiators collected from boiler replacement projects, the lack of longevity of new condensing boilers vs. cast-iron boilers, and how to get engineers to look at new methods of designing and to try new brands of boilers. Several suggestions were offered for each of these issues.

  • At the snowmelting table, a sticky problem was brought up by a contractor working on a condominium project. The association wanted to validate the cost of putting in a snowmelt system to the individual owners, and the contractor was looking for advice on how to quantify the advantages of snowmelt. His peers suggested that a comparison be drawn between the cost of snowmelt vs. the cost of plowing and shoveling, the chemicals needed to melt ice and snow, the destruction of the surface material and landscaping from all these, as well as the lack of space needed to store the plowed snow. Other suggestions included tracking the previous year's weather and forecasting how much the system would be used in the current year, putting meters on the snowmelt boilers for each of the individual units to measure the cost, and to run the snowmelt system in reverse to reuse the water in the ground loop system.

  • A large group gathered once the talk turned to Ethics. One manufacturer rep mentioned the problem of a small company receiving pressure from a big wholesaler to not sell to smaller wholesalers: “He'll lose big if he doesn't listen to them.”

Another problem was mentioned concerning the frustration among the various links of the distribution chain. “How does a new manufacturer go about the sale of its products? Some will sell directly to the contractor, but that puts the pressure on the manufacturer to provide salespeople with adequate technical knowledge to support their clients. Usually the wholesaler takes that on.”

One supplier responded, saying, “Manufacturers should not be in the distribution chain because they don't know how to distribute.” Conversely, it was suggested that “the wholesalers could get quality engineers to handle the questions from contractors, but they don't want to pay them what they are worth.”

Another speaker commented that “a lot times, sales are generated at the level of the engineer, so we don't even need the wholesaler,” and furthermore, “reps want to cut out the wholesaler, and vice versa.” And of the contractors present during the discussion, it was interesting to note that only one was satisfied with his wholesaler.

The issue of the ethics of contractors buying products from other free trade countries and bypassing the wholesaler, or getting products from the Internet, was also brought up. “The Web also leads to cutting out the middle wholesaler. You can go to a manufacturer's Web site and order a boiler, and it will be sent directly to you. You don't need the wholesaler,” one contractor said. Another speaker noted that “the industry cannot support the concept of the distribution chain as is, and since the distributor is the weak link, it will eventually go away.” Along those same lines, it was posited that “ASHRAE says A/E will be folded into the general contractor, since it all has to be worked out beforehand between all levels of the industry.”

Looking at the problem from the homeowner's position, it was mentioned that a recent survey of homeowners regarding their heating systems yielded a high percentage that were unsatisfied. One attendee suggested that the industry as whole needs to change the business model to address this, and that manufacturers need to look at what is important to the consumer rather than what is important only to their bottom line. It was also noted that a new market to aggressively market towards is the aging population: “They have money and they want comfort.”

Kelly Johnson is managing editor of PM Engineer. She can be contacted at