Each fall, Plumbing & Mechanical columnists await Editor Steve Smith's theme for the coming January issue. If you've ever met Steve, you're sure to remember him as an astute observer of the plumbing and mechanical industry. You'll also likely to recall his fondness of Top 10 Lists. This year he's asked the columnists to elaborate on - surprise! - the 10 most important things a contractor can do.
Now there's a topic the PM columnists can really chew on. Like every month, this issue is sure to give you solid advice on pricing your services, marketing your company, managing your employees and dealing with human nature in general.
I've decided to focus on traits that I've observed in the many hydronic heating professionals whom I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with over the years. Truth be told, it was hard to limit the list to 10. It had to be pruned several times. It was even harder to rank these traits in order of importance, so I didn't.
Some observations relate to the technical execution of hydronics technology, others are based on attitude. Put them all together and you have a person we'd all enjoy working along side. Here we go.
1. They've learned the strengths and limitations of various hydronic heating strategies. Nothing rivals hydronics when it comes to heating versatility. A true hydronics pro learns how to wield this versatility to accommodate both routine and specialized customer needs.
A hydronics pro is ready to address questions such as: Can I run the towel warmer in the bathroom without heating the other rooms? Can I melt the snow off the patio even when it's not snowing outside? Can I have baseboard in the bedrooms and floor heating in the bathrooms? The list of potential requests is virtually endless.
The pro looks at the overall picture and pulls together the necessary subsystems into a coordinated approach. Moreover, when the master switch is flipped on, the pro is not amazed that the system actually works as intended. His approach is not "hit or miss."
2. They never allow customers to design their own systems, nor select among technical hardware options. Being a professional implies that you are up-to-date with the materials and methods used in your industry. It also means that you have acquired the necessary knowledge to assess the situation at hand, and select an approach that best serves your customers needs for efficiency, reliability, serviceability and budget.
Most homeowners have little or no knowledge of the finer points of modern hydronic heating. When presented with technical hardware options for components such as boilers, mixing devices or tubing, they understand little beyond price differences. They may even get the feeling that the person offering them an opportunity to select such hardware is uncertain about what is best.
A pro pulls together the materials and methods he feels are necessary, develops a price that's fair and profitable, and makes no apologies or concessions when the prospective customer informs him that his competitor - Hacksaw Hydronics - is 20 percent cheaper. Instead, the pro explains why the proposal is what it is, avoids trashing the competition in the process and politely stands his ground. As any pro will tell you, this doesn't land every job, but it does keep you a professional.
3. They understand primary/secondary piping inside and out. P/S is the "backbone" of modern multiload/multitemperature hydronic systems. When properly executed, it is a simple yet elegant strategy. When compromised, or improperly hybridized, it can take you into uncharted waters.
Unfortunately, P/S piping is not fully understood by all those who design sophisticated hydronic systems. What starts out as an attempt at true P/S piping often gets morphed with a more traditional "across-the-header" approach. The result can be a system with a mind of its own when it comes to water flow and heat output. Folks: If you don't have closely spaced tees, you don't have primary/secondary piping! Learn it right, install it right and watch as the water really does follow the arrows on your schematic.
4. They prefabricate piping and wiring assemblies in their shops whenever possible. Those who've gone past the "design-as-you-solder" mentality realize that many portions of the systems they install are similar if not identical from one job to the next. They also understand that building such subsystems in the controlled conditions of their shop is faster, cheaper and conducive to higher quality.
It sure beats dragging a dozen pails full of piping and electrical fittings throughout a cold jobsite, especially when the customer and GC are keeping the "heat on" to get the heat on. Hydronic pros also recognize the distinct company image that comes with installing customized component panels.
5. They've learned to use a computer drawing program to document their systems. Let's be honest; some custom residential heating systems are far more complex than the cookie-cutter layouts used in many commercial buildings. The HVAC industry is accustomed to the use of drawings and specifications to document the latter, but hangs onto the notion that residential systems don't deserve the same attention. This has resulted in expansive and expensive systems that are understood and serviceable by one person.
I've heard this justified as a means of achieving job security, but it's sure not a way to ensure that hydronic heating will continue to gain acceptance by the masses.
A hydronics professional looks beyond the systems he or she installs to what is best for the industry as a whole. Providing good documentation helps ensure that those customized systems can live out a full life under the care of any reasonably competent service technician.
Generating neat and accurate documentation - such as tubing layout plans, piping schematics, wiring diagrams and descriptions of operation - has never been easier. There are several low-cost, easy-to-learn drawing programs available for PCs and Macs that are ideal for this purpose. Not only does such documentation help with proper design and installation, it provides hard evidence of professionalism to prospective customers.
6. They understand that comfort and reliability trumps "ultimate efficiency." As an engineer reared in the height of the solar era, it took me quite a while to accept this concept. My goal was to squeeze every last Btu from the system, even if it meant sacrificing the tested reliability of other slightly less-efficient approaches. I've since learned that the vast majority of customers want comfort and reliability even if that means sacrificing a few concepts that theoretically improve efficiency.
Many of the hydronic heating pros I've met over the years started from the same base and learned the same lesson. They now confidently design and install systems that are solid performers, even when it removes them from contention for the "who's got the most boxes, wires and pipes" award.
7. They look out for their customer's best interest, even when that customer has no idea of what's at stake. From a technical standpoint, this means proper sizing of boilers, pipes and pumps. It means restraint in selling hardware options that aren't necessary for what needs to be accomplished (a thermostat in every single room of a large house comes to mind). It means adjusting that mixing device for optimal performance even when it performs below the callback threshold.
You expect your mechanic to look beyond the obvious, as well as beyond your own understanding of a modern vehicle. Likewise, a true professional takes it upon himself to verify proper operation of the entire system. They are proactive rather than reactive.
8. They voluntarily help build and support their industry. Every hydronic professional I know participates in at least one trade association. Many belong to several, and willingly donate several hours a month to further the collective goals of the industry. They recognize that growth of the industry means growth for their company. They have seen that shared knowledge results in better installations, improved consumer awareness and increased business.
9. They understand and apply the concept of a single "heating plant" serving all heating loads. In past columns we've talked about the disadvantages of installing multiple hydronic heat sources, each dedicated to a separate heating load. One boiler heats the house, another heats the DHW and still another heats the pool. Sure it will work, but it is far from optimal.
Instead, chain those Btu engines together! Make the full horsepower of your heat sources available when those six-bathroom castles generate a huge demand for domestic hot water. You'll have redundancy when one goes down, you'll have higher overall efficiency when everything is running and you'll have "full afterburner" during peak demand periods. True hydronic pros see the logic in this approach and apply it to build optimal systems.
10. They accept responsibility when something goes wrong, and they fix it. Everyone reading this magazine knows that things go wrong with mechanical systems. It may be a design error, such as an underestimated heat loss. It may be an installation error, such as not tightening the packing nut on a valve. It may well be a product that fails prematurely. It may even be a problem caused by misuse on the part of the owner.
Instead of polishing up their pointing finger, a true professional takes immediate action to correct the problem. In some situations, warranty or insurance coverage will eventually become involved, but a true pro doesn't leave their customer hanging while the red tape is sorted out.
The pro realizes that this kind of service doesn't go unnoticed. It stands out to build customer loyalty and future referrals.
Professionalism EnduresPondering the points of professionalism is therapeutic. It gives you a renewed sense of purpose and pride in what you do. It keeps you focused and energetic. It helps you sleep good at night and get up the next morning ready to do it all again.
As for me, it helps me appreciate the many fine folks I've had the privilege of working with in this industry over many years. The "schmucks" will come and go as they always have, but the pros will carry on. In the end, they are what make this industry such a great place to work.