There once was a time when contractors could afford to specialize. Plumbers, HVAC contractors, and electricians: Each was considered a distinct trade, with the plumber handling the water and the heating and air company handling the refrigerant.
That was before the recession.
During the housing downturn, it became more difficult for specialty contractors to survive on their own. That led to a wave of industry consolidation, with some companies merging with or absorbing competitors to form full-service, one-stop-shop companies that offer plumbing, heating and cooling, and perhaps even electrical work.
Sure, many companies across the country still operate under the specialty business model. But if you’re a dedicated heating and cooling professional, you might be surprised to find how well your skills carry over to installing the latest technology in water heating systems. In fact, today’s high-efficiency, condensing propane and natural gas tankless water heaters can be combined with hydronic air handlers to give heating contractors and remodelers a new way to provide both space heating and water heating in a single system.
HVAC contractors are particularly well-equipped to handle gas tankless water heater installation because they’ve been dealing with high-efficiency heating systems for nearly two decades, says Tommy Olsen, marketing manager for tankless and specialty products for Rheem, which manufactures heating, air conditioning, and water heating systems.
“They are really ahead of the plumbing side of the business in understanding condensing products,” he says. That knowledge about installation, gas piping, venting, water piping, and electrical connections gives them a head start when it comes to learning about condensing tankless water heaters, which operate using many of the same principles. If you’re a heating and air professional, here are a few ways your skill set will come in handy.
- Installation location. Both condensing furnaces and tankless water heaters are versatile. Indoor units can be installed in garages, attics, laundry rooms, basements — anywhere in the home with access to gas and water lines. Tankless gas water heaters can also be installed outdoors. As with any installation, you just need to locate the wall studs for the retaining screws or support structure to mount the heaters.
- Venting. Like condensing furnaces, condensing tankless water heaters such as Rheem’s Prestige line can be vented using PVC or polypropylene venting, materials that heating pros are well-versed with.
High-efficiency propane tankless water heater and air handler systems are excellent retrofits for homeowners who have an electric heating system and want to switch to propane.
- Servicing. High-efficiency tankless products are controlled with a computer control board. Your understanding of a high-efficiency furnace’s operations will help you recognize troubleshooting codes and instructions for tankless water heaters. Routine maintenance requires just a simple flush kit. If you’re working with a homeowner under a service contract, you can hook up the flush kit and let it run while you’re checking the home’s ductwork and heating coils.
- Retrofits. Hydronic heating systems have been around for more than 30 years. Many of these old systems are beginning to deteriorate and come up for replacement. Those systems are excellent candidates to be replaced with a high-efficiency propane tankless water heater and air handler system. These systems are also excellent retrofits for homeowners who have an electric heating system and want to switch to propane, since they require just one water line and one gas line. “There are a lot of sell-up, fuel-change opportunities in that market,” Olsen says. Being able to offer a tankless system that provides both space heating and water heating can give you a leg up over the competition.
- Gas lines. HVAC pros are familiar with gas fitting for use in furnaces. Propane is often even easier to work with than natural gas because your propane provider can help you properly size the system and control the incoming gas pressure with a regulator. In fact, about 35 percent of tankless gas water heaters are fueled by propane, Olsen estimates.
If you’re a seasoned pro when it comes to condensing gas furnaces but you’re still standing on the sidelines when it comes to tankless water heaters, consider using today’s rapidly reviving housing market as an excellent opportunity to add tankless units to your repertoire.