Do Wholesalers Still Design Systems?

I know that some wholesalers still size equipment and design systems for their contractor customers, but I wondered to what degree this still goes on nowadays. So I asked on The Wall at, where there is a very large (and never shy) contractor base. Here’s some of what I learned:

“When I started in the business back in the 1980s,” the first contractor said, “the local supplier had a very knowledgeable guy named Jack. Jack likely designed the heating systems for about half the houses in my area that were built in the 1960s and 1970s. Jack never undersized a boiler or a heat emitter (cast-iron radiators in the ‘60s and hot-water baseboard in the ‘70s). As Jack aged he taught a few other people on the staff his methods, which he likely learned in college in the late 1950s.

“I went to I=B=R residential sizing school around 1988. When I compared what Jack suggested for a new house we were about to start to what I had just learned in school I was amazed. The baseboard radiators and the boiler were twice the size of what I came up with using the I=B=R method. Fast forward to today and I secretly wish I had used Jack's method at my own house as all my baseboards are too small to fully take advantage of my condensing boiler.”

That made me smile because I have often referred to the Long Island Heat Loss Calculation, which states that you must install baseboard on every available linear foot of wall space, and if you can find a manufacturer that makes hinged baseboard, you install it at the bottom of the doors as well. Mod/con boilers love it.

“Thankfully,” he continued, “I learned a lot about circulator pumps from the reps, books, John Sigenthaler, and of course you, Dan. Since Bell & Gossett practically owned the pump business in my area, I made sure I paid extra attention at your seminars when you spoke about pumps (and Ferris wheels, milk jugs, and other of your visual analogies). As a result, we can and have sized all our pumps for years. As a matter of fact, that same supply house that Jack retired from back in the ‘90s occasionally calls us for help with pump sizing these days.”

Big change, right?

Sorry Dan, another contractor said. “This sounds like an April Fool's joke. Maybe I am shopping at the wrong places. Once upon a time, the guy behind the counter had extensive field experience and knowledge. Certainly not anymore. At least where I am shopping. Supply houses can't even come up with a part number anymore, much less dispense advice about how to specify, install, or repair something. I mostly go to the manufacturers’ reps.”

That’s not new news. My dad worked for a NYC wholesaler and they had two great heating guys who did everything for the contractors back in the ‘50s. By the time I entered the rep business in 1970, we were doing all the pump sizing for the contractors.

But this is not true everywhere these days. Listen:

“I work for a wholesaler. Almost all I do every day is system design, Manual J, and technical assistance. Job-quoting basically just rolls itself into one of our primary functions. Our market is a bit strange in that we do not have any local manufacturers’ reps. I do see that, in larger markets, the Buy-Sell reps are dominant and seem to fill the role that wholesalers of the past used to fill. Many wholesalers in those areas are just retail outlets and not much more than that.”

Another contractor, this one from Seattle, said, “Most local supply houses will assist in design and have staff trained to do so, of course, they expect the sale if they’re providing design. However, very few are trained to use proprietary radiant software, and I notice disparity in manifold temperatures and ports specified. Only a few contractors use the software, and unfortunately, systems are compromised because of that. I had the fortunate experience of being associated with a supply house staffed with hydronic and steam experts: Lin Patterson and Ed Collins. You serviced that account, Dan.”

Yes I did. The fella writing is one of the sharpest contractors I know. His father owned a supply house in Upstate-NY, and Lin and Ed were so good at what they did. They brought in a lot of business by being so helpful to the contractors, and they taught me a lot of heating, and about life.

He continued: “The best system design includes a loop layout and cad drawings of the system. Most contractors can't provide this data because of cost, time, or lack of skill set. I wonder why there is such a lack of competency, but the answer is clear: It’s a shortage of skilled labor and cost-driven systems. I consult with the manufacturer for technical questions when required. The local Viessmann wholesaler is very competent with all info needed.”

And then there was this man: “Speaking as a wholesaler here. I am relied upon daily to help size pumps, boilers, water heaters, heat exchangers, etc. I average four takeoffs per week for small commercial- and large-residential work, all with multiple boilers, water heaters, and pumps. These are trophy homes in Aspen and Vail. But I look around me at the Gen-whatevers and their lack of wanting to learn anything, and that is disturbing. It's so much easier to tell a customer to go see Scott or Kar, and then get back to surfing the web between customers. When I started, thirty-plus years ago, product knowledge training was mandatory. Do you remember The College of Product Knowledge? It took up a few pages and was always near Dan's column in Supply House Times. I truly enjoy troubleshooting and helping others. I have always said that if I didn't learn something new today, it wasn't worth coming to work.”

And then it shifted the other way:

“In my relatively short career of 15 years,” another contractor said, “I have dealt with maybe 15 different suppliers. Only one which has ever provided any sort of design for us, and it was atrocious even to my newbie eyes. I do know there is one supplier in the area that most of the local guys use simply because they do the design work, which the contractors are incapable of doing themselves. It's disturbing to me that someone without the ability to design their own system can call themselves a contractor, but such is life.

This followed: “NO! If a young person is just entering the business, a supplier will get them flying straight, but beyond that point, for most of us who are installing, specifying, and supervising installs and doing repairs every day, the knowledge they are giving you is often lacking. It’s cookie-cutter info. Almost all of these people are nice, caring individuals. A handful go way beyond being just that. But for me, the best and latest information is gleaned in a gathering place like Here, I can talk to people who are in the field, actually installing (not theorizing) designing, supervising the hands-on installation of these products. The best testing lab and most-accurate results emanate from here. There is also less product boasting than you often get from a wholesaler or a manufacturers’ rep”

Let’s end with this one. It speaks loudly:

“I still use system design services by wholesalers. I'm able to tweak their equipment specs to suit my taste for particular bits and pieces; their work reduces mine. And if I'm awarded a job, I purchase most of the materials from the design team.”


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