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Should I Hire a Plumber or a Hydronics Specialist?


A visitor to The Wall asked this question:

I have a hydronic and radiant system that needs to be evaluated. I am finding that every plumbing-and-heating company will provide a quote. However, after a bad experience with my initial installation, I'm wary of who can do the job. There are a few contractors who talk specifically about hydronic and radiant. However, the ones I have spoken to are very high-end when it comes to price, and most seem to do only commercial or luxury homes. There are also reputable plumbing and heating companies that say they can do the work at a lower cost. Most are in business for more than 20 years. I don't know how much of this is advertising. Is setting up a boiler and hot water heating system something that is specialized work within the plumbing and heating industry? Or is it in the domain of normal plumbing-and-heating contractors? Most companies do all kinds of heating - HVAC, hot water, ductless etc, so I'm not sure if one of these licensed, and more-affordable, plumbing companies can do the job.

Stephen Minnich offers this:

This is strictly my opinion, based on my experience in the Chicago area. I have not seen many (okay, zero) plumbers anywhere in my area who have the background or skills to properly design a radiant system. On the east coast, it appears to be different by far, based on what I see on the Internet, specifically this website. There seems to be many, many plumbers who are more than capable the closer you get to the Atlantic.

When meeting with these companies, ask them what method they use to do load calculations and design. If you get a blank stare, that will tell you all you need to know.

Ask to see pictures of their work. I let job pictures and references do much of the selling for me. The ability to execute the design inside and outside the boiler room is just as important as the design itself.

References: Get them.

And John Cataneo offers this:  

I'm a licensed plumber in New York City. My company, Gateway Plumbing and Heating, which I own with my brother, is pretty evenly split between plumbing and heating work. My brother loves the plumbing end of the business but defers to me when we talk about heating. Even though my license says I'm a 'Master' at it, I have no interest in the installation or repair of water-, waste- and vent piping. I find the kitchen-and-bathroom work we do to be mind-numbingly boring, while my brother loves it and quotes Codes and best-installation practices at the onset of the jobs and as they progress.

I'll be 46 this month and I've been taking heating courses since 1986, when my father, the former owner of our business, convinced me that I should be one of those guys with the suit, who would come to his boiler jobs when he was having trouble. He used to think those guys were brilliant, and many are. 

Well, I don't aspire to be a manufacturer's rep in a suit, but I, a NYC-licensed Master Plumber, became an accomplished hydronic-heating guy years ago. I'm not special.There are many people like me out there. A plumber who prides himself on his heating knowledge is as good as it gets in most cases. That's my opinion. 

Many of us are heating specialists with a minor in basic fluid-conveyance technology, and when I've been pitted against other heating experts and engineers, all trying to solve the same problem, invariably, it's been my plumbing skills that have set me apart from the others. That said, and with all due respect to anyone touched by this statement, the worst 'professional' boiler/hydronic installations I've seen have been done by HVAC or warm-air companies. A close second are those done by plumbers who just don't know what they're doing. And there's a lot of that. Plumbers and HVAC techs are not inherently boiler guys. It's a professional's personal choice to excel in that area.

Somehow, the installation and service of hot-water and steam-heating systems was annexed long ago by two industries that require two COMPLETELY different skill sets: plumbing and air-conditioning. Plumbing and Heating, and Heating and Air Conditioning

Hydronics never should have been mixed up in those fields, and the evidence of why this is true is out there in droves.

Joe Starosielec has this to say:

First, though, if you want the job done right, you'll need to evaluate your bias on 'high-end' price. Heating specialists that will service and install the system correctly are not going to offer their work at a cheap price. Find somebody that you trust, and consider the cost an investment for relieving future problems. Any good heating contractor should be able to guarantee in writing what he proposes to do and what will be solved. Look for somebody who is willing to put his reputation on the line to help you.

We all sell ourselves short and take the blame for being more expensive for quality work that is never seen. Much of our best work is covered up by a wall or ceiling. Just because a soldered copper joint is going to be covered up doesn't mean we won't wipe off the goobers. And that's not just because it looks better, it's so we can tell if the joint was soldered properly.

Recently, a homeowner posted something they were worried about. The installer had used white plastic 'mouse' clips on every hole that was drilled through wood I-Joists to stop noise from the pipe expansion rubbing on the wood as it expands and contracts. It takes time to do that. That's a quality installer. No one will ever know the care and pride he put in to that job, but someone will blame him for being too expensive.

Bob Bona offers:

It's about the passion of a job done right. I suggest you contact customer service at an equipment manufacturer such as Uponor or Viega, or perhaps one of the boiler manufacturers and ask for recommendations. I get a lot of referrals from various radiant-heat equipment manufacturers, reps, boiler manufacturers, control and pump companies, as well as air-conditioning manufacturers. The vendors that get my business are the ones I have seen stand the test of time in reliability and good service. That gets passed down to my clients. They bleed resources to keep my skills sharp. In turn, my name is in their database. 

I have found that generally, guys that take the time and effort to immerse themselves in continuing education and training are the guys you want. They don't usually do things on the job just because 'that's the way it was always done.' It could be a plumber, a heating guy, an HVAC guy. They all may have a crossover into intelligent hydronic work. So I would start with sources for referrals in that genre, with possible names from vendors IN that game.

Hot Rod has this to offer:

It's really about the actual GUY, or gal that shows up. I've seen amazing hydronic work done by electricians and mechanics. In larger mechanical shops i've found they usually have a few employees that specialize in hydronics. attend classes, read the books, have the willingness and technical skills to get it.

Reading this site should help you build a check list of questions to quiz potential contractors. You should be able to screen with a handful of questions.


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