2015 April – May

You can lead a blind man to the top of Mt. Everest, but you can’t keep a house comfortable with mangled hydronics. Mike O’Donnell aught’a know. Because, in fact, he has lead a blind man to the summit of Mt. Everest. And at home, his dilapidated hydronic system was about as unpleasant as a Himalayan snow Read more

You can lead a blind man to the top of Mt. Everest, but you can’t keep a house comfortable with mangled hydronics. Mike O’Donnell aught’a know. Because, in fact, he has lead a blind man to the summit of Mt. Everest. And at home, his dilapidated hydronic system was about as unpleasant as a Himalayan snow squall.

O’Donnell’s renowned climbing career would eventually lead him to guide Erik Weihenmayer to the 29,035-foot Everest summit in May of 2001 – the first blind man to accomplish the unthinkable task. The adventure has since been turned into a book and feature film, “Touch the Top of the World.”

While on a speaking tour to share the details of that expedition, he met Susan Epply. Before too long, they married and now reside in a 10,000 square foot home on the high plains of Southeast Colorado. It sits at the foot of the Rockies on a 500-acre ranch dotted with horses and miniature donkeys. “I designed the home to be functional for children and dogs and the occasional donkey passing through,” said Epply.

As all large undertakings have their challenges, so did the all-hydronic heating system at the ranch. When the home was built in 2001, the original mechanical system sent half of its BTUs to baseboard and half to in-floor radiant loops. Sadly, the 19-zone system wasn’t comfortable; not even close.

In short order, anaerobic bacteria from the property’s well (now abandoned) had ruined most of the original components. The microorganisms were present in water used for the system’s initial fill. To make matters worse, the boiler and piping strategy were ill-suited to meet the needs of a structure of that size.

Problematic piping

According to Epply, Wright Jones was the mechanical contractor of choice when the home was first constructed. At the time, the company was booked solid and couldn’t take on the job. For the second go-round, Epply called the office herself. It proved to be a good decision; by the end of the project, Wright Jones cut her heating bill by over 65 percent.

“When we got the call to renovate and improve the system, I was immediately drawn to the boiler,” said Kenny Gulley, owner of Wright Jones. “A ten-year-old, 180 MBH sectional boiler was struggling to heat the big house while also providing domestic hot water. My first thought was to replace it with a larger Burnham Alpine condensing boiler.”

“Although the undersized boiler was an obvious issue, the key challenge was harder to see. The entire system was contaminated with anaerobic bacteria,” continued Gulley. “They’re a nasty lot – able to survive without oxygen and can easily handle the temperatures inside a boiler.”

Over time, the bacteria thrived. Some components simply couldn’t hold up to the onslaught. Copper pipe and zone valves were literally eaten from the inside out. The boiler, two water heaters and radiant tubing were filled with thick, efficiency-smothering sludge – a byproduct of the single-celled organisms.

After pulling 200 feet of ruined copper out of the mechanical room, the Wright Jones crew installed the new boiler. Mechanically, there were other issues to attend to, as well. System circulators were too small and too few. The in-floor zones simply weren’t getting the flow they needed.

“It was piped old-school,” said Mike Merryman, with McCoy Sales in Littleton, CO, the manufacturer’s rep for the Taco and Burnham products. The supply temp was 180° and was tempered down with mixing valves for the radiant loops.”

Bedroom blizzard

The nine zones of radiant heat were spread across the ground level and upstairs. An additional 10 zones of high-temp fin-tube baseboard were used in the basement and in various rooms upstairs. The master suite, almost 2,000 square feet in size, presented some unique challenges. By order of Epply, the bedroom goes almost unheated while the adjacent bathroom remains at 90°F.

“I keep a snow shovel in the bedroom during the winter,” said Epply. “By leaving my three French doors and six windows wide open, it feels like I’m sleeping outside. If there’s a snow drift beside the bed when I wake up, I just shovel it back outside.”

“I open the room up before I go to bed each night, year around,” continued Epply. “It’s an energy loss I’m willing to tolerate.” The baseboard in the bedroom circulates just enough warmth to keep the pipes from freezing. Yet the master bath – with three exterior walls – continuously calls for heat.

Pumps and piping

Although the heating requirements remained high, limited BTUs and flow rates weren’t an obstacle this time around.

“All zones now tie to a primary-secondary pumping arrangement,” said Gulley. There’s a Taco 0013 for the new condensing Burnham Alpine boiler. A 0011 circulator is used for the domestic tanks and baseboard loops.” The 0011 is a variable speed pump capable of up to 31 GPM, with a head range up to 31 feet.

For the radiant portion of the system, another 0013 circulator provides system flow, installed before the bank of zone valves. The Delta-T circulator turns on when the difference between supply and return temperatures calls for it.

“With the IFC in the circulators, there’s no concern about the high and low temp systems mixing,” said Gulley. The 19 heating zones are controlled by Taco Zone Sentry zone valves and zone control panels.

“Several times – after learning how to drain down the entire system – O’Donnell took the time to swap original plate-style zone valves himself,” said Gulley. “Not anymore. I’m confident that the Zone Sentry’s ball-valve design won’t give out.”

Resilient radiant

“There wasn’t a thing wrong with the radiant tubing, aside from the fact that nothing was labeled when it was installed,” continued Gulley. Over 12,000 feet of ¾-inch Watts EPDM Onyx tubing makes up nine radiant zones. The loops are stapled into the joist bays; five radiant manifolds are scattered throughout the home.

Tearing out and re-installing an entire heating system in an occupied home requires patience from everyone involved – especially in the middle of a Colorado winter. As luck would have it, temperatures dropped below zero and two major snowstorms arrived just after system disassembly.

“It was a good thing that Michael and Susan left for the holidays, because we spent a lot of time turning on zones and waiting to see what got hot,” said Gulley. “Until the system was back together, it was no small task keeping everything sorted out.”

“To get rid of the bacteria, we flushed the system with chlorinated water for five hours. Sterile water was also used to fill the system,” said Gulley. “As soon as the system was turned back on, we had some air noise coming from the in-floor tubing. We purged the lines, and let the Taco 4900 air and dirt separator do its thing, and that was the last we heard of it.”

Because the contaminated well was abandoned, Epply and O’Donnell needed an alternative for the home’s water supply. When the home was built, two 1,500-gallon concrete cisterns were poured under the home. They’d gone unused until the well was abandoned, so all that was needed to fill them up was to call the nearest bulk water company. Today, the cisterns are chlorinated just enough to keep stagnation from becoming an issue.

More BTUs, fewer therms

“The elevation of the home – roughly 6,200 feet – wasn’t helping the poor heating conditions,” said Merryman. As an outside salesman for McCoy, he covers several Rocky Mountain States and routinely encounters situations where efficiency is limited by air density.

“The old boiler ran constantly,” said Gulley. “During the heating season, it drank about $2,000 worth of propane each month.” The solution to the problem came in a smaller package, albeit with larger capacity.

Kenny, Travis, and Master Plumber Drew Macaluso pulled out the old boiler and installed a 285 MBH, 95 percent efficient Burnham Alpine boiler. More than 100 MBH larger than its predecessor, the new boiler is sized properly for the home.

Gulley set up the boiler so that the baseboard and DHW are priority. Plumbed in series, the original 80-gallon indirect water heaters also pull heat from the boiler. After a good cleaning, the units were in good shape. Once the 180° baseboard loops and indirect tanks are satisfied, the boiler turns down to supply water for the Onyx in-floor loops.

“The Alpine was the ticket for this home,” said Gulley. “The entire house isn’t always in use, so it’s nice to have all the capacity if it’s needed, and to scale back if it’s not.”

“Before I called Wright Jones, my December propane bill was $1,560,” said Epply. “After the project, my January bill was $450, February was $510 despite a wicked cold snap, and March was $310.”

Upon completion, the family was able to return to cold bedrooms, hot bathrooms and a smaller heating bill. At night – with snow settling dreamily at the foot of their bed – Epply and O’Donnell can rest assured that the microscopic assault on the mechanical system has come to an end.

Mobile workplaces are becoming more and more prevalent for businesses, including plumbing companies. For example, plumbing techs are using their mobile devices to keep track of calls and emails on their smartphones. As a result, they don’t have to check in with dispatchers nearly as often. While there are plumbers who resist technological encroachment on Read more

Mobile workplaces are becoming more and more prevalent for businesses, including plumbing companies. For example, plumbing techs are using their mobile devices to keep track of calls and emails on their smartphones. As a result, they don’t have to check in with dispatchers nearly as often. While there are plumbers who resist technological encroachment on their operations, many others remain intrigued.

The Benefits of Mobility

Regardless of a plumbing company’s size, there is a very good chance it can benefit from mobile workplace technology. Owners can track the number of clients and document employee workloads on their smartphones, tablets and laptop computers — saving time and energy.

While mobile technology can make life easier for all employees, it can be especially beneficial for a company’s sales force. If room in the office is at a premium, for instance, sales professionals can use technology to conduct business at a variety of locations. This eliminates the need to reserve conference room space for the next big sales meeting and could substantially increase productivity.

Another benefit is reducing the need for cubicles and other dedicated workspaces. This, of course, can be a huge expenditure — according to an article by agilquest, it costs anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 to accommodate an office worker. Purchasing the tools needed to implement a mobile workplace program can be pricey, but that cost can be offset long term. In many instances, equipment expenses can be surprisingly minimal — since many techs and other employees already have tablets and smartphones.

Streamlining Operations

It’s not uncommon to find issues with managing and distributing resources in many smaller plumbing operations. One of the main reasons is the continued reliance on logbooks, spreadsheets and other paper-based systems. Mobile technology can help replace these outmoded approaches, improving efficiency and increasing cost savings in the process.

Savvy business owners are using mobile workplace technology to engage with customers through social media platforms and even mobile point of sale applications. A wide range of sophisticated applications are much more affordable than they were just a few years ago, when they were out of reach for most small companies.

Mobile technology also helps to improve and refine workflow, allowing remote employees to provide real-time input through applications such as Skype or WebEx, which are commonly used to arrange online meetings. It also helps salespeople while on the road when meeting with present and future customers.

Addressing Concerns

While the benefits of mobile workforce technology are plentiful, implementing a company-wide program isn’t without its challenges. There could be company culture issues, as some employees used to doing business a certain way may be resistant to change, at first. In addition, mobile phone plans often carry costly hidden charges.

And, of course, security of critical company and customer data will always be a concern. But no challenge is insurmountable as long as the business employs effective protocols regarding information management.

A recommended starting point to putting a strong security program in place is to make sure there is a clear understanding of what kind of data could be exposed, such as customer credit card numbers, trade secrets and possibly even patents. It is critical that a security framework is established that addresses all possible risks.

Plumbing companies should also look closely at how employees use mobile workforce technology, both on and off the job. Limit network access to a certain number of devices, and do not allow additional ones without approval. Establish not only where corporate-related data is allowed to reside, but also mechanisms to enforce standards and controls.

Partnering with a company that specializes in providing technology security solutions will help ensure that data remains as safe as possible.

It is extremely important to always keep in mind that the successful implementation of any security strategy will depend on total employee compliance. It will very likely take time to make sure employees know the best practices regarding mobile workforce technology. But while issues may arise, they can be overcome through the proper amount of training.

An Even Playing Field

Implementing mobile workforce technology may mean dragging some employees kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but it could also mean huge benefits in the long run. As the cost of technology continues to fall, many smaller plumbing companies are putting it to use — finding it helps them compete with larger businesses across select industries. There will be challenges, but by embracing mobility a company can improve processes as well as productivity, possibly increasing revenues as well.


Cheryl Bikowski is the Marketing Communications Supervisor at Gamber-Johnson. Located in Stevens Point, WI, Gamber-Johnson is one of the leading suppliers of rugged computer mounting systems and mobile workplace technology solutions, and is also a member of the Leggett & Platt Commercial Vehicle Products (CVP) Group.

I have the benefit of traveling all over North America, from the East coast to West coast, including Canada. So I have the 30,000-foot view of dealers and critical components of success. I see a few major traits that are common to successful dealers; by successful I mean they are growing their customer base and Read more

I have the benefit of traveling all over North America, from the East coast to West coast, including Canada. So I have the 30,000-foot view of dealers and critical components of success. I see a few major traits that are common to successful dealers; by successful I mean they are growing their customer base and have double digit profits. While these traits do not guarantee success, they are all found in the companies succeeding today. I have found that successful contractors in this industry belong to local “Networking Groups”.

There are numerous groups that may come to your mind. Some may consider the local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and Lions Club quality networking groups for instance. While each of those could be a good source of leads, the harsh reality is that they are not the type of groups that will help propel your business to success and increase your profits. In these groups, there may be several companies from your industry in those groups. With perhaps several plumbing contractors in each group, this makes it far less likely that you will receive all or any business leads to grow your business. I was involved with a networking group called The Optimist Club back in the day. However, it turned out there were no other heating/ac companies like mine in that group. I just got lucky on that one.

I am thinking of, however, groups like BNI, Business Network International. This and similar groups are the ones that can offer support for one another to help each individual grow their business and offer leads to one another. To get a better understanding, visit bni.com. There you can search for a chapter and find one that is close to your target market or office. It may be best to pick one that meets in the morning, perhaps somewhere around 7:30-9:00 am. There are groups that meet at noon, but they are usually lawyers, accountants, and similar types of businesses. The trades usually meet early in the day; since that is usually the only time we have control of our day. Each meeting starts with an introduction by each member stating the type of leads they are looking for, then a lead exchange occurs, then a 15 minute presentation by one member on the details of their business. So you may be on deck a couple of times per year.

In addition, look for a group that has 15-25 members and search what types of members they are. There can only be one member of plumbing, HVAC, electrician etc, so keep looking till you find a group that needs your type of company. If the group has less than 15 members, it will be hard to get the business that a larger group can provide. You may have to visit a couple of groups to get the right one that fits. They usually let you attend a couple of meetings before declaring so it’s something you can take advantage of. One of the primary elements is attendance. If you miss a few meetings in a row, you may be asked to leave the group. In some cases they allow you to have a manager (someone with decision making ability) to sub for you but this varies by group.

A second key element is participation. The system only works if you are trying to help the other members grow their business. If you show up and think “Here I am, ready for those leads”, it will be a long time before they help your business. Instead go in with the attitude that you want to help the electrician, HVAC guy, insurance agent, etc. to improve their business. They will reciprocate and help you.

For example, at Donley Service Center in Phoenix AZ, everyone in management had to be in a networking group of some kind. One salesmen had been in Rotary for over 30 years with perfect attendance. He even planned his vacations around Rotary meetings. When a chance came up for him to be involved with another member, it happened. Donley Service Center carries that same concept to this day; in fact, Mike Donley was just elected to the BBB board. I’m not saying the board is necessarily a networking group, but it is another chance to give back and connect with players in our industry and others as well.

In addition to your time, networking groups come with a financial cost. For example, the BNI group costs about $500 per year. A couple of service calls can easily put that money back in your pocket. I realize it is a time commitment; but every week can be an opportunity. Especially when it comes to growing your business, and this is the way business is done today, by reciprocity and referrals.

In addition to networking, other successful contracting businesses sell maintenance agreements and have a sales package that allows you and your employees to sell on the spot, rather than go back to the office and run some calculations. But we’ll talk about those in a future article in more detail. This is perhaps a little teaser!

Thanks for listening,

Jim Hinshaw