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If you happened to read my first column “Journey to becoming a Journeyman ‘WetHead’ (bit.ly/45JyAVl) I explained how I started on my own in 1996 and decided to learn all I could about in-floor radiant heat and boilers. I wanted to be able to design my own systems and be confident I was giving my customer the best results.
A few years into my vision quest of learning, I heard references to Europe being the place where many of the new hydronic technologies were coming from to the U.S.
If I remember correctly, I think the first time I heard of a “very large trade show in Germany,” was at a John Siegenthaler seminar.
When he talked about the grand scale and the spectacle that it was, I knew this was something I wanted to experience some day. I was a member of the RPA (then known as the Radiant Panel Association), and at a meeting I asked others if they had heard of this trade show called ISH, which stands for International Heating and Sanitation, held in Germany. While some had heard of it, they’d not ever attended.
According to press material, the idea for this exhibition began in 1959, when the German Association of Plumbing and Heating Specialists, together with the Messe-und Ausstellungs-GmbH exhibition company, as well as business owners in these fields, created a new exhibition in Frankfurt for sanitary installations, operations and energy supplies, heating, air-conditioning equipment, and renewable energy. ISH opened in Frankfurt for the first time in May 1960, with 520 exhibitors participating, 63 of which were foreign companies.
Several more years into building my business I heard more and more about ISH and was hoping to make it someday. Of course, traveling to Germany would be expensive and at the time my wife and I still had two small kids and a small amount of extra cash.
By 2002, I has decided to get into the manufacturers rep side of the hydronic business. This is when I found out manufacturers and some wholesalers send groups to ISH as a reward for their business. A boiler manufacturer we represented was a German company, and they were one of the companies that would send a large group to the ISH fair as well as a visit to its manufacturing operations.
The next ISH would be held in March of 2003, and I did not think I would be invited then, considering I was so new to being a rep. By surprise I was invited! Unfortunately, it was early in 2003 when I learned the news. Up to then, I’d never needed a passport, so it was too late to get one in time. I was very bummed out, and I hoped that it wouldn’t be my only opportunity.
Luckily, I was invited again to go again in 2005. This time I was not going to let this invite go unused! I had been proactive in getting my passport in anticipation of being invited. In some respects, my bags were already packed. On this group trip with the manufacturer, they had us scheduled for two days at the five-day event.
Going into this first experience I figured two full days would be plenty of time. Here in the U.S., the largest industry trade show is the ASHRE Conference or AHR Expo. There, in two days I can easily see every booth. To use this as a comparison, ISH now has a total of 12 halls and is at least six times larger. So once I finally got to ISH, I realized two days was not nearly enough.
The greatest hall is where all the boiler manufacturers have booths. The largest names in Germany had taken every square inch of floor space in that hall, plus many went up vertically with a second floor. There are several large boiler manufacturers that had booths nearly the size of an NFL football field, including some with a second floor where they had a restaurant and bar for their customers. Even without a second floor, many booths also offered food and beer. So, this made it even more imperative to spend more days walking the floor. As a result, I saw an incredible number of hydronic technologies I had no idea existed.
I stopped at the HG Baunach booth because a unique product caught my eye. After I was back home, I contacted them and started a partnership to sell their product in the U.S. This was the main reason I went back to ISH in 2007 and 2009. Unfortunately, the bad economy starting in 2008 I was not successful with this partnership to make it past 2010.
This year ISH was held from March 13-17, and I had the urge to go again. As I started to look at lodging in Frankfurt, I realized I was starting too late and hotel prices were very high with limited choices near the exhibit halls. If you want to go sometime, plan on booking the lodging a year in advance. Finding a more reasonable place to stay means staying 20-30 miles away. However, there are plenty of train options to get there every day. A large train station is just 1 mile (or 1.6 kilometers) from the main entrance to hall number one.
Because of the steep cost of the hotels, I decided to not go.
I contacted my friends at HG Baunach to let them know my reasons for not attending in 2023. They then offered to add a room to where its employees wereing stay while they manned the company’s booth at ISH. Plus, if I helped out with booth duties – since I could help with English-speaking visitors – they would cover the cost of the room. Although, if we are thinking of going, don’t worry about not speaking German. We also spent time talking during dinner and beer about re-establishing Baunauch sales in the U.S. market again.
If you go, make sure you wear your comfortable walking shoes when attending ISH. With 12 halls to explore you will be walking a lot. From the main entrance of Hall 1 to the far corner of Hall 11, it’s about three-quarters of a mile. That might not seem very far, but that’s a straight line from one end to the other. Meandering all the halls and the multiple floors per hall, your walking distance will be at least 5 miles.
One thing you don’t have to worry about is the weather. When you’re walking between halls, they are all interconnected with skywalks. The newest of the halls is 12 and this has the large boiler manufacturers booths. This hall is just two stories, but a total of 363,000 square feet. Meanwhile, Halls 8, 9 and 11 are the same size. The tradeshow’s website says total exhibit floor space adds up to around 4,305,565 square feet.
2023 seemed to me to a rebound year after missing 2021 because of the pandemic. Just like it seems to be everywhere, the expo was not quite back to its pre-pandemic glory. I noticed several floors in some of the halls were not occupied and some floors not using all the space. In prior years there was a waiting list to get a booth space.
Something new this year was in hall 11, on one of the levels they had an indoor go kart track using electric karts. This area back in the day would have been full of booths.
I noticed in Hall 12 it seemed like some of the boiler company booths were smaller. I stopped in to the Viessmann booth and when talking to Armin Fleck (export manager) he said their booth was 25 percent smaller this time.
Don’t get me wrong, it is still a huge show and a site to see. By the time I wrote this, the official numbers for the show were announced: 153,734 visitors from 154 countries.
I visited Hall 8 to see a large area occupied by World Plumbing Council. They were promoting more plumbing standards worldwide and getting more youth excited about the plumbing trade.
They had a young group of apprentices from around Europe working on piping toilets using carriers provided by Geberit. This small group was comprised of several young women, that was great to see! They had several sponsors listed, UA (United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, Connect Trade Union Ireland, Innung SHK Frankfurt Germany, and Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre Australia. I had not seen this in prior shows, and it was awesome to see the collaboration in promoting the plumbing trades.
There was one common theme I saw everywhere I walked. In all the booths having to do with heating, that had signs talking about air-to-water heat pumps. All the different boiler brands were showing their latest HP models. When talking to Armin at the Viessmann booth, he said the air-to-water heat pump segment had the largest growth.
Talking with many German citizens, they expressed major concerns with so many all-electric heating systems coming online. They all don’t know how the electrical grid is going to handle this new load.
Since I have been back from this visit, Germany announced not allowing any new gas boiler installed moving forward. Even if an air-to-water heat pump can’t carry the load 100% of the time, the back up source is an electric boiler.
Also, another new major change coming from Germany since I started writing this column, Carrier Co. announced its acquisition of Viessmann Climate Solutions. To me this is in direct response to the change from gas to electricity.
After running his own business for many years, Ted Schmelling made the switch to becoming a manufacturers rep. He’s currently territory sales specialist at Hot Water Products Inc., Milwaukee, Wis.