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I’ve heard it from manufacturers, reps and contractors: Residential boilers are strictly a replacement item. Though I agree that the majority of boiler sales are replacements, I think we’ve worked ourselves into a corner with that kind of thinking.
Hydronic systems are a premium product, usually with a premium price tag, so it stands to reason that not every home in America will have one. However, with the right thinking, the right sales approach and asking the right questions, the percentage of U.S. homes with hydronic heat has the potential to increase.
Tract-home builders will always install furnaces or heat pumps due to the lower upfront cost. Large, custom homes frequently employ hydronic systems because there’s room in the budget. Existing homes with hydronic systems most frequently go the way of an in-kind replacement. This is the boiler installer’s bread and butter. Now let’s talk about hydronic sales growth.
The only residences we haven’t covered are existing homes with furnaces or heat pumps. Most of these homeowners will opt for an in-kind replacement. However, this is where Wetheads like me (and maybe like you) can increase the number of hydronic systems we install. Hydronics offer us the highest profit while providing the homeowner the greatest comfort, ROI and system longevity.
It’s a win for everyone, but it’s up to us to sell the system against an in-kind replacement.
Ask, Then Listen
The opportunity to replace a furnace or heat pump with a hydronic system often comes when an existing home is sold for the second or third time. The original system is at or near the end of its lifecycle, and the buyers want to renovate or make additions. Or it might not include a move at all; due to the current housing market, owners may want to expand without relocating.
Asking the right questions is critical when we receive a call to replace a heating system or to accommodate an addition. Asking those questions and listening pay dividends — for us and the owner.
How’s the comfort level? Would you prefer to include more zones? Are you putting in an addition? Would you rather install a pool, heat the garage or add snowmelt? Do you favor radiant heat in the kitchen or master bath? Do you have enough domestic hot water? How long do you plan to stay in the home?
Hydronics can do everything I’ve asked about, but installing a boiler system may only be financially wise if the owners plan to stay in the home for a while.
Our company has built a reputation for providing a premium solution, so we don’t often find ourselves on projects with a shoestring budget. However, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to provide value or present options. It’s up to us to sell the upgrade.
In-kind vs. Custom Solutions
Here’s one common example: A couple moves into an existing home; they love the location, but the house isn’t quite big enough. The furnace is older, and the water heater isn’t big enough for the master bath renovation they envisioned. Within five years, they plan to add an in-law suite. They’d also prefer the master bedroom to be on a separate zone, and the husband wants to heat the two-car garage. They ask us to present two options for a heating system retrofit:
• Option No. 1: We could replace the furnace and water heater with new units and add a gas-fired unit heater in the garage. This means zoning options are limited, and the homeowners will need to add a second furnace and water heater when they build the addition.
• Option No. 2: We could install a condensing boiler and large indirect water heater, modifying the existing ductwork to accept hot water coils while breaking the master bedroom off as its own zone. A separate zone could be created for a hydronic unit heater in the garage, and we could stub out a zone or two for the in-law suite, which could later be heated via hot water coils, radiant or fin-tube. The same accommodations could be made for domestic hot water recirculation in the addition.
Keep in mind, sizing a condensing boiler for the load of the existing home and the addition doesn’t leave the owner at a disadvantage as would a conventional boiler. Until the addition is complete, the “oversized” boiler simply wouldn’t run at high input.
Dollars and Sense
Yes, Option No. 1 is less costly in the short term, but once the second mechanical room is considered, the difference is almost negligible.
Option No. 2 reduces the number of stand-alone appliances and eliminates the need for two new gas lines: one for the garage unit heater and one for the furnace in the addition. The same goes for venting. A hydronic system also provides the benefit of outdoor reset control and unlimited domestic hot water without a massive amount of storage.
With the right boiler, indirect water heater and controls, Option No. 2 provides higher levels of comfort, greater efficiency and a longer system lifecycle. Often, we’ve found that homeowners choose the premium hydronic option. After all, the increase in upfront cost is marginal when everything else is considered.
Another advantage for the installer is that a large portion of the boiler system can be prefabricated. This limits time on the jobsite and creates less hassle for the homeowner.
That’s the difference between asking the right questions and simply conducting an in-kind replacement. With Option No. 2, we’ve not only improved the heating system, but we’ve also increased the home’s value.
The flexibility of a hydronic system is also the beauty of a hydronic system; while explaining the advantages of Option No. 2, we make sure to explain this. Each component in the system is forward-backward compatible. Pumps, boilers and controls are interchangeable and can be upgraded down the road. With condensing boiler technology, systems can be expanded, albeit to a point, in case a small addition is installed that the homeowners hadn’t considered at the time.
Within the past few years, at least half a dozen manufacturers have introduced air-to-water heat pumps to the U.S. market. The push toward electrification and the (nearsighted, in my opinion) moratorium on natural gas use in some areas leaves many of us (contractors and homeowners alike) wondering about the future of our heating systems.
Luckily for those specializing in waterside systems, hydronics are compatible with heat pumps and the electrification movement. Beyond that, integrating solar (whether photovoltaic or solar thermal) with a hydronic system is all but turnkey.
A Moving Market
It’s really for the contractor to consider the customer’s system, property and wants, then determine what kind of package he can offer. Explaining the features and benefits of the options we propose is critical.
We qualify customers a lot differently than some companies do. We consider the home value and look at demographics in the area. This gives us a rough idea — but certainly not a concrete picture — of the owner’s budget before we walk through the door. Then it’s a matter of asking the right questions and thinking outside the box.
Keep in mind, many Americans view investment in their homes differently than they may have 20 years ago. Energy prices are climbing without any indication of a reversal. Children are living at home longer and often returning home as adults. Aging in-laws are moving in with grown children. The housing market is sky-high, whether it’s a bubble or a symptom of inflation.
Hydronic systems have changed, too. Condensing boiler prices are more competitive, and quality units last longer than ever. Controls have progressed by lightyears. New venting systems provide myriad installation options, and we’ve learned much about prefabrication.
As you consider all this, remember that it’s up to you to sell the upgrade — an upgrade good for your bottom line and customers’ experience living in their homes.
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