Connecticut wholesaler test-drives new energy-saving circulator in his own home before promoting it to his contractor-customers

After reducing pumping power consumption from 640 to 112 Watts, or 83%, this past winter, T.J. Hunt now confidently recommends Grundfos ALPHA to hydronic installers.

Danbury, Connecticut — When it comes to bringing new products to their contractor-customers for the first time, plumbing and heating wholesalers tend to tread very carefully.

New products with breakthrough technologies can carry the promise of increased sales and profits, as well as perhaps greater job-site productivity or application efficiency. But breakthrough technologies are also, by definition, uncharted waters for contractors. Most tradespeople understandably fear that any departure from the tried-and-true will lead to installation mistakes, callbacks and returns from angry customers, and a consequent loss of time and money. Better to leave the risk-taking to more adventurous souls with deeper pockets, cautions conventional wisdom: If a new product ultimately lives up to its marketing claims, there will be plenty of time to capitalize.

As a former contractor-turned-successful-wholesaler, the 56-year-old T.J. Hunt of Danbury Plumbing & HVAC Supply (Danbury, Conn.) is well versed in the “hazards of the trade” with regard to new products. But when he recently had an opportunity to champion a new circulating pump from one of his company’s better, long-time suppliers, he opted for a third way — somewhere in between “jump-right-in” and “wait-and-see.”

As a result, he found himself standing on much firmer ground when it came time to promote the energy-saving benefits of this breakthrough product to his customers.

Grundfos ALPHA: Over the past couple of years, Hunt and his team had been following positive reports about a new generation of energy-saving, variable-speed circulators for hydronic applications. Developed and successfully used for the better part of a decade in Europe, these new pumps automatically adapt their outputs to current demand — no matter how often conditions change — while incorporating a permanent magnet motor design that sharply reduces electric power consumption.

“Grundfos Pumps was the first to bring this successful technology to the United States,” Hunt remarks. “They are a good vendor of ours and we have always worked well with the folks at Urell, their independent rep in our territory. The product seemed to be an excellent fit.”

But while Hunt saw the new ALPHA circulator from Grundfos as a prime opportunity to help his customers perform more energy-efficient hydronic installs, he also thought he needed something more than a brochure and a counter day to launch the product credibly. To persuade a contractor to make the jump to the new-generation technology, Hunt believed that he first needed to take that leap himself. That is why, in November 2009, he chose to install eight ALPHA units in the radiant floor heating system in his own home, replacing an equal number of conventional circulators, made by a rival manufacturer, that were part of the home’s original equipment.

“When contractors hear this new circulator will cut power consumption by half or more, most are bound to have their doubts,” reasons Hunt, explaining his strategy. “And when they hear about the higher price point of the new technology versus a conventional circulator, our selling job turns even tougher.

“I just wanted to be able to say to my customer: ‘Hey, this pump really will do X, Y and Z, just as the manufacturer claims. That performance will fully justify the larger price tag. How do I know? Because I’ve used it myself and saved money. I even have the lower utility bills to prove it.’”

The Application: Hunt himself served as the installer on this home project, which is no surprise, given his lifelong industry background. His grandfather, Thomas Hunt, and his father, Vincent J. Hunt, both worked as independent plumbing and heating contractors for decades, each ushering the next generation into the family trade (as opposed to “family business,” since each man preferred to start his own, eponymous company).

Following a youthful apprenticeship under his dad, the third generation launched T.J. Hunt Plumbing at the tender age of 22 in the mid-1970s. Several years later, T.J. came in from the field to teach plumbing in a local vocational technical school before his professional life took yet another interesting turn.

As a boy accompanying his father on the job, Hunt got to know Danbury Plumbing Supply and its long-time owner Phil Edelstein. Some years after their first handshake in the 1960s, the latter offered the 25-year-old T.J. a part-time position managing his radical-for-the-times, retail-parts counter operation. That initial experience ultimately led to a full-time position one year later in 1982. The employer-employee relationship with Edelstein evolved into mutually beneficial professional partnership that spanned the better part of two decades, with Hunt acquiring controlling interest in the firm from the retiring Edelstein in 1994. The new owner subsequently added “& HVAC” to its name “to reflect his own skills and interests.”

In short, an industry veteran of more than 40 years, Hunt knows his way around a circulator: Changing out the old pumps for the eight new ALPHA circulators took only a half-day, he says. “The electrician who did the boiler wiring when the house was built put in pigtails and used plug-in circulators, so I did not have to create any new wiring,” adds Hunt. “That saved me a considerable amount of time.”

Built in 1997 with radiant floor heating throughout, Hunt’s Danbury residence was “not the ultimate challenge” for ALPHA, he acknowledges. For one, the low water temperatures of his radiant system would be less demanding on the pumps than a conventional hydronic baseboard setup. In addition, the home’s eight heating zones are each controlled by a dedicated circulator that maintains a constant pressure. As a result, Hunt didn’t necessarily need the ALPHA’s AutoAdapt feature, which automatically adjusts pump speed and pressure to meet changing demand.

“The eight separate, dedicated pumps in my system are not constantly ramping up and down, opening and closing zone valves, as would be found in a system with a single circulator that was accommodating multiple zones,” Hunt explains.

To set the system properly, Grundfos senior product manager Bob Reinmund traveled from company headquarters in Olathe, Kan., to spend a day on the installation site. He subsequently put two of the pumps in the AutoAdapt mode, while the other six were given one of two different fixed-pressure settings.

System operations subsequently went just as smoothly as the installation. “Even before Bob’s visit, I knew the system was performing well from a comfort standpoint,” says Hunt. “My floors were warm, my house comfortable, and my family perfectly content.

“We especially like the quiet,” he continues. “Our main living area sits directly above the boiler room. With the old pumps, you always knew when the system was kicking on, because of the motor hum. But with the ALPHA, we hear nothing. Any cut in the decibel level of your home’s mechanical systems is a very big deal.”

The Payoff…to date: With the comfort side of the equation in order, Hunt now awaited the verdict of his monthly utility charges for a more quantifiable assessment of the pumps’ performance. Since the first electric bill arrived in December, he has not been disappointed.

“Over this past winter, the wattage of the ALPHA circulators ranged from a low of 7 to a maximum of 23 in the coldest weather,” for a total of 112. That represents a substantial improvement over 80 watts for each of the eight previous circulators, or 640 watts total, according to Hunt, who describes the recent cold season as “a typical New England winter,” albeit with considerably less snow.

Thanks to an ongoing savings in power consumption of between 70 and 84 percent, the Hunt family’s monthly electrical bill has been consistently down 12 to 14 percent versus the same month of the previous year. That translates into an annual savings in the neighborhood of $575, according to Hunt’s calculations. While he prefers to wait a full year before arriving at a final payback on the extra investment for the ALPHA circulators, he expects to recoup his money “within three years, give or take a month or two.

“Because of our home’s tight construction and especially with its gypcrete floors for the radiant system, it takes relatively little thermal energy to maintain warmth. But with the old pumps, the heat load didn’t matter: they still consumed the max in energy 24/7. The ALPHA gives me the ability to lower the wattage without any sacrifice in comfort.”

True to his plan, Hunt has been sharing his successful personal experiences with contractor-attendees at several workshops that Danbury Plumbing & HVAC Supply has recently hosted with the help of Urell’s Kevin Crean. The company also displays the ALPHA in its Degrees of Comfort showroom, which presets a variety of energy-saving heating products — boilers, pumps, air handlers, a heat recovery system — for contractors to use to educate their customers on the virtues and benefits of conservation. Once again, the response to these marketing efforts has been much more enthusiastic than skeptical.

“Any new product that lowers energy consumption and puts money into people’s pockets is going to draw serious attention and interest,” Hunt remarks. “But with the ALPHA, we have an even stronger, more believable story to tell, because we can point my own real-life experiences with the product and the hard dollars that I’ve been saving and will continue to save.”