While real estate sales have improved across the country, growth has chiefly been seen in the mid-range market. Homes in the 1,200 to 2,500-square-foot range are spending less time with a realtor’s sign in the front yard.
But new home construction has lagged, especially in the custom home business. Few people know this better than trade pros who provide the more luxurious options. In New Jersey, Jim Hedden is among those feeling the crunch.
“Most of our new construction business is in homes between 9,000 and 13,000 square feet, with a few towards 25,000,” said Hedden, who own George’s Plumbing and Heating Inc. His father started the company in Clinton, New Jersey in 1959. “That market slid hard in 2008 and hasn’t picked up recently, even though things are improving with the construction of average homes.”
But the company is still healthy, due in part to their widely varying residential retrofit work. Hedden also attributes their success to changes he’s made to become more competitive when those rare high-end jobs arise. “Any way I can shave expenses without sacrificing quality is a must,” said Hedden.
Controls add value
“Price point is definitely an important part of making a sale, but the other part of it — especially with the big homes — is what I can offer that other guys may not,” said Hedden. “Zone responsiveness and efficiency don’t often go hand in hand with a low installation price. There is firing efficiency, system efficiency and seasonal efficiency, to mention a few of the ‘efficiencies’. The price of installation and the effect it has on the price of maintenance need always be considered.”
About two decades ago when radiant heat was re-emerging in the U.S., and long before broad use of condensing boilers was being discussed here, Hedden was among the many installers trying to find the best way to keep return temperatures above 140°F, thus eliminating the possibility of condensation within the traditional non-condensing boilers.
At the time, he used a tekmar-controlled variable speed injection pump (working like an automotive transmission) to both temper supply water going to the in-floor loops and change the water temperature in correlation to the outdoor air temperature (outdoor reset). Using a boiler’s thermistor to retain minimum water temperature, it made both high- and low-mass radiant systems work seamlessly with non-condensing boilers.
Hedden followed the evolution of the tekmar control system and is still using it today. In this post-mod-con, outdoor reset, indoor feedback world, he’s found almost limitless use for the controls – especially in the hi-end residential market he prefers to work in.
“Today’s ability to modulate a boiler down to supply a specific temperature changes the rules, as does variable speed injection pumping, but we still do some jobs that use proportional mixing valves for in-floor zones,” said Hedden. “But it’s not just about radiant anymore. We’ll use tekmar for virtually everything; commercial and residential.”
“Many control systems cater to — and do a great job — on specific space heating or DHW demands, but do not address the entire hydronic system,” said Hedden. “While managing multiple boilers [lead-lag and rotate], changing the boiler water temperature differential and synchronizing space heating zone ‘calls’ to reduce boiler firing cycles, as well as including outdoor air temperature reset tempered by indoor air temperature feedback — parallel shift of the reset curve — tekmar provides for a complete DHW and heating and cooling system package.”
“It can even vary the amount of priority time that DHW has over space heating zones depending on the outdoor ambient temperature,” Hedden continued. “If it’s especially cold outside, the DHW system might get only 10 minutes of priority.”
“If keeping the trucks out on the job is the goal, there’s no substitute for being able to complete a variety of work,” continued Hedden. “Do it competitively, with good pricing and offerings that the next guy doesn’t have, and you’ll stay busy.”
One strange job that George’s P+H completed recently included a 450-sq.-ft. addition with radiant in-slab heating. Oddly, the boiler was a steam unit. Instead of telling the homeowner that he couldn’t keep his steam boiler and have in-floor heat — as three other mechanical professionals did — Hedden improved on an old trick he’d learned years before.
“We drilled and tapped the existing steam boiler below the water line, and pumped the hot water through a coil on a 40-gallon indirect tank,” explained Hedden. “A second circulator moved pressurized from the tank, through the floor.”
To assure that floor temperatures were optimal, he used a tekmar temperature differential controller with an outdoor sensor, and a sensor in the tank. The outdoor sensor acted as a reset. The two pumps act independently to provide the correct supply temperature and flow rate for the floor.
“We get creative when we need to, but we’ll stay busy regardless of the market,” said Hedden. So far, he’s right on both accounts.