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Comfort is not a commodity

Don’t treat it as such…

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Aside from the fact that they are all used in hydronic heating systems, what do the following items have in common?

  • PEX tubing;
  • 3/4-inch copper elbows;
  • Boilers; and
  • Ball valves.

The answer is they are all commodities in the North American hydronics market. There are dozens of choices for all of these items from a wide variety of manufacturers. You can buy all of them at traditional wholesalers, “big box” stores or online. Price is often the major determinant of which brands sell the most. The majority of your clients don’t know enough to specify which brands of these commodities they want in their system. Most don’t care. Instead, they trust you to make the right selection. After all — you’re the professional.

Which of the following would you also label as “commodities?”

  • Ford Focus;
  • BMW M850i Coupe;
  • Plymouth Voyager minivan; or
  • Ford F-350 6.7L PowerStroke.

I suspect many of you probably consider the Ford Focus and the Plymouth Voyager as the “commodity” vehicles in this list. But wait: Aren’t all four of the vehicles listed above available from hundreds of dealerships? Can’t they all get you from point A to point B? Aren’t they all capable of easily exceeding speed limits? Don’t they all have heating, cooling, power windows, anti-lock brakes and radios? So, in some sense, aren’t they all commodities?

But why would someone pay upwards of $100,000 for the BMW, and not much less for a fully loaded F-350, when, for about 1/4 of the price, they could get the Ford Focus, and still drive to and from where they need to be? Why would anyone pay so much more when all the basic functions can be had for far less?

The potential answers span quite a range: Luxury interiors, superior performance (the BMW does 0-60 mph in 3.5 seconds), heated seats, huge touchscreen panels, Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth… and perhaps even superior ride comfort.

Surely it’s no surprise that there’s a huge spectrum of features and associated prices when it comes to purchasing automobiles.

Acceptable vs awesome

If only more people could translate this discernment when it comes to home comfort systems.

A basic 20-year-old furnace connected to an adequate ducting system can keep the thermostat in a typical house satisfied. In most cases, it can do this even when the air temperature at the ceiling is 20° F higher than at the floor. Even when the sound of air whistling through registers requires the volume on the 75-inch flat screen TV to being cranked up. And even when a photo of what has accumulated inside the ducting would quickly spoil most peoples’ appetite.

Most Americans apathetically accept what their heating and cooling system does or doesn’t do. During winter, they cope by wearing “hoody footies,” or buying room humidifiers, electric space heaters and Wi-Fi thermostats that promise to reduce their fuel consumption (which they do by reducing indoor temperatures and further degrading already marginal comfort).

Superior comfort has been — and continues to be — the principle reason that informed and discerning owners choose hydronic systems.

In recent years, I’ve watched the market for those “little white boxes on the wall” (A.K.A. ductless mini-splits) increase exponentially. Walk the floor at the AHR Expo and you’ll see dozens of offerings for these systems. Surf the web and you’ll find many government-funded incentive programs for installing these systems. Listen to the radio in the morning and you’ll hear advertisements touting the “free” money offered by these government incentive programs, and that most of your neighbors qualify for that free money. Ask a contractor if they would rather attempt to unravel an existing heating system that’s been buggered up by various contractors over several decades, or just abandon that system and drill a few 3-inch holes through the exterior wall for refrigerant tubes to connect the little white boxes to the mothership outside.

Several market forces have aligned to boost the market for these systems. Most of them involve concepts such as easy, fast, plug and play, remote control and photos of happy people with bare feet sitting on couches as one of those little white boxes on the wall lovingly watches over them.

There are choices

Imagine an experiment in which a typical family is first situated in a home, in Duluth, conditioned by several little white boxes on the wall. They live in that house for a couple of years and get to experience all the nuances of air-side heating and cooling. Then, they move to another nearly identical house next door in which a heat pump supplies properly installed radiant floor panels or panel radiators during winter, and a central chilled water air handler supplies summer cooling. After a couple years of the latter, they’re asked which system provided better comfort, including evaluation of thermal comfort, acoustical comfort and respiratory comfort. What’s your bet on which system gets the better evaluation?

Suppose you then told them that the hydronic system cost about 20% more than the little white boxes on the wall, and had about the same operating cost. In effect, you’re offering them the BMW or the F-350 for about 20% more than the Ford Focus. Which option do you think most of them would choose?

Stay on message

As a professional in the hydronics industry, you should never lose sight of what you’re selling (e.g., comfort). Never take the attitude of “all’s well” when a thermodynamic balance of Btu in = Btu out is achieved. Doing so is like the BMW dealer concluding that it’s pointless to compete against those dealers selling Ford Focuses.

Do you see that capitulation happening in the auto industry? Of course not!

Superior comfort has been — and continues to be — the principle reason that informed and discerning owners choose hydronic systems. Most of that demographic has taken some time to understand the differences in what’s available, and most are willing to pay a reasonable premium to have years of unsurpassed comfort.

Unfortunately, that demographic remains a relatively small percentage of North American households. Most of the lesser informed majority don’t know what’s possible or what they’ve been missing. Instead, they put on a sweater and move to a different chair to avoid the drafts.

Hydronic pros have access to a technology that can — allow me some sarcasm here — “blow” the doors off the heating comfort delivered by most air-based systems.

Don’t squander the possibilities or “apologize” for a reasonable premium to achieve those possibilities. Don’t capitulate to a one-size-fits-all plug-and-play approach. Use your knowledge to create simple, repeatable, serviceable systems that are compatible with future energy trends and capable of delivering superior comfort.

We live in a world full of commodities. Those little white boxes on the wall are but one example. With a myriad of choices when it comes the heating (and cooling), many homeowners believe that any HVAC system available to them could do the job. Perhaps from the standpoint of a simple thermodynamic balance between Btu in versus Btu out, they’re right. But comfort — true comfort — in a North American home, is a luxury, not a commodity. Professionally crafted hydronic systems are pathways to that luxury. Understand it, believe it and sell it.

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John Siegenthaler, P.E., is a consulting engineer and principal of Appropriate Designs in Holland Patent, New York. In partnership with HeatSpring, he has developed several online courses that provide in-depth, design-level training in modern hydronics systems, air-to-water heat pumps and biomass boiler systems. Additional information and resources for hydronic system design are available on Siegenthaler’s website,