Hickory Construction isn’t the type of builder that competes for work.
The Alcoa, Tennessee–based firm, which does a mix of upscale custom homes, remodels, and commercial projects in the greater Knoxville area, has built its business on reputation, says John McMillan, the company’s vice president of marketing. Hickory’s homes greatly exceed minimum code, and the builder offers an unusual lifetime warranty on its work. “Over 80 percent, maybe more, of our work is either word of mouth or repeat customers,” McMillan says.
Hickory’s reputation relies on customer satisfaction, and that’s one reason the company specs propane or natural gas on almost every one of its projects. “A lot of our homes here in our area that we build are rural and don’t have access to natural gas,” McMillan says. “When we’re putting an estimate together on a home and we do know that they do not have access to natural gas, we automatically include propane in our estimate, whether the client has asked for it or not. Therefore, we will automatically include the tankless water heater.”
Tankless efficiency, and other benefits
It’s not that every client knows to ask for a gas tankless water heater. But Hickory explains to them the benefits of propane tankless over electric water heating, knowing clients are usually happy to trust the builder’s judgment.
For Hickory Construction’s clients, who are often building a second home and like to entertain family, having multiple tankless units allows them to have large amounts of hot water for baths and showers.
“Even with high-end clients, people don’t want to throw their money away,” McMillan says. “They want to spend it wisely. Energy efficiency is very important.” Homeowners also like that tankless water heaters take up less space and never run out of hot water, he adds.
Many of Hickory’s clients like to entertain in their homes, which is why the builder frequently includes multiple tankless units in a home. On Thanksgiving, for example, a retired couple could have their entire family come to visit.
“So they gather for Thanksgiving in their second or third home, and all of a sudden, you have introduced eight or 10 people in the home at the same time, and everybody rushes to take a bath or a shower,” McMillan says. “That tends to be why we will put more hot water available than what you would typically see in a home where it’s just the husband and wife, or maybe the husband and wife and their two children. There’s never a good time to run out of hot water, that’s for sure.”
Propane cooking and heating
While tankless water heating is one of the primary reasons Hickory includes propane in its homes, the availability of gas also allows them to include other desirable amenities, such as gas ranges.
“One area of the home folks really want to put money into is the kitchen,” McMillan says. “The kitchen has transformed from a utility space to an entertaining and show space. And so lots of money is stocked into kitchens. As such, folks really want to show off their French-made gas range or German-made gas range.”
“Even with high-end clients, people don’t want to throw their money away.”
Hickory also works on a lot of outdoor kitchens, most of which run on propane or natural gas. “If there’s an opportunity to do so, we’ll definitely hard-plumb that in [to the home’s propane storage] so that they will not have to get replacement tanks.”
East Tennessee’s climate and utility price combination make dual-fuel hybrid heating a popular option as well. Electricity is inexpensive there, so many customers will use an electric heat pump until the heating demand gets too high. But because temperatures can reach frigid levels in the mountainous region, propane heating is needed to provide warmer air and avoid using expensive electric resistance heat in freezing weather. “Comfort plays into that for sure,” McMillan says. “It is a better heat.”
Even on remodeling projects and renovations, Hickory will ask clients if they want to upgrade their heating or replace their storage tank water heater with a tankless unit. In a company culture where making homeowners happy is the core of the business, helping homeowners make smart energy decisions is just part of the job.