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Strengthening The Chain

May 1, 2008
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How one heating rep solidifies its place in the solar supply chain.

Craig Ouimette (Cardinal Heating, Air Conditioning & Solar, Sun Prairie, Wis.) installs a solar thermal panel during the summer of 2007. Photo courtesy of Hot Water Products.


Among the renewable energies, solar is easily the fastest-growing segment in the United States. The Energy Information Administration announced in its Annual Solar Thermal Collector Manufacturers Survey that shipments surged 29 percent in 2006 to 20.7 million square feet.

But when a PHC contractor commits to hanging out his solar shingle and installs that first solar thermal system, he encounters a deluge of information from all types: the media, Internet, advocacy groups, government agencies, product manufacturers and more.

For this contractor - who is used to traditional supply chains - confusion sets in and the questions begin:
  • Where do I get proper training and certification?
  • How do I deal with energy rebate programs?
  • What about system design and efficiency?
  • Which products do I need and who should I trust?
One wholesale distributor is happy to show contractors the way. Hot Water Products Inc. (www.hotwaterproducts.com) in Milwaukee has positioned itself to be the go-to rep for Midwest professionals interested in solar hot water equipment.

“In the 1970s, fly-by-night contractors came in and left with bad products and faulty systems in their wake; it left a bad taste in people’s mouths,” says Kurt Koepp, manager, solar market development and expansion for Hot Water Products. “Now that the solar market has repositioned and is ramping back up, contractors are looking for a supplier that will weather the storm.”

 Instructor Bob Ramlow (in hat) supervises trainees as they install a working solar thermal system on the roof of Hot Water Products' classroom.

Young Company, Poised To Grow

Founded in 1998 by current President Howard Endres, the company began as a wholesaler that supplied commercial water heaters to the Milwaukee area, and instituted a leasing program for water heaters and boilers.

Even then, Hot Water Products was concerned about energy efficiency and boiler room delivery. It soon became a manufacturers rep for Heat Transfer Products’ Munchkin product line. But because many of its customers were not familiar with modulating boilers, Hot Water Products began educating contractors and distributors on the benefits.

Education remained a major part of the company’s valuable services offered to its clients. Growing to serve more than 100 wholesale houses in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Hot Water Products added more education and sales programs. It increased its offerings of high-efficient systems and became a wholesale distributor for the Bradford White Corp. 

Needless to say, it was poised for the green revolution and the rebirth of the U.S. solar market.

In 2006, Hot Water Products entered the thermal solar segment by offering high-efficient solar panels for residential and commercial applications. And, seeing the need for highly trained installers, teamed up with the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) and Artha Sustainable Living Center to offer a comprehensive Solar Water Heating Installation Lab for PHC professionals.

“In order for consumers to be eligible for incentives through the state, the installing contractors need to provide proof of certification,” Koepp says. “The training is worthwhile, and the response has been amazing.” Its first training session in August 2006 had about 20 plumbing and heating contractors. It has since trained hundreds.

The course is a comprehensive 18-hour session with both classroom and hands-on segments, where students build a functioning drain-back solar water heating system, as well as a pressurized hot water system that incorporates a PV-powered pump.

The class is taught by MREA trainer Bob Ramlow, a noted renewable energy pioneer and founder of Artha.

Upon completion of the Hot Water Products course, newly qualified installers are able to satisfy the educational requirements for inclusion on Focus On Energy’s “Full Service Installer List.”

Focus On Energy (www.focusonenergy.com) works with eligible Wisconsin residents and businesses to install cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

“Focus On Energy is the state’s latest efforts to help residents and businesses manage rising energy costs, promote in-state economic development, protect our environment and control the state’s growing demand for electricity and natural gas,” its Web site reports.

The mechanical room of the Wigwam Mills solar project. Photo courtesy of Energy Concepts Inc.

Contractor's Perspective

“There are many environmental benefits to solar thermal. In addition, the Focus on Energy and federal incentives make it financially attractive as well,” says Peter Laskowski, president of Chet’s Plumbing and Heating Inc. (Stevens Point, Wis.). The PHC contractor has worked with Hot Water Products nearly 10 years, and has partnered with the rep on its solar projects for about one year.

Utilizing Hot Water Products’ strong background in working with state and local utilities to file paperwork and permits, solar contractors and their customers have an advantage.

To help keep the company on-track with proposals and rebates, Hot Water Products recently hired Sharon Stuertze, who has more than seven years’ experience in the solar industry. “She’s a tremendous asset and will personally work with contractors and customers on getting grants from Focus On Energy,” says Koepp. “The paperwork is very important. Now Hot Water Products can turnkey a solar project for a contractor. Design, paperwork, permits - dealing with all that can cause a bottleneck in the industry, and leave the door open for potential fraud.”

Laskowski has been happy with the working relationship. “It’s great to have a local company like Hot Water Products, who will stock the products I need so I don’t have to comb the Internet looking for parts, who will offer the tech support and answer my questions. It makes it easier for a company like ours to do solar.”

Craig Tarr, president of Energy Concepts Inc. (River Falls, Wis.) is also glad Hot Water Products is bringing solar goods through the traditional supply chain.

“They’re a one-stop shop for me. They provide the leads, products, support and follow-through I’m looking for,” Tarr says, and adds that its close location is a “big deal” and saves him money on shipping.

Energy Concepts, a full-service design/build renewable energy installation company, recently completed a large commercial solar project in Sheboygan, Wis., for Wigwam Mills, a manufacturer of high-end knit athletic socks. The project included 27 collectors, a 120-gallon drain-back tank, flat plate heat exchangers, two 650-gallon ASME-rated tanks, and all the necessary pumps and equipment.

It was a unique project that started with a lead from Hot Water Products to Tarr’s engineering firm, which provided the system design. Wigwam’s own onsite contractor did the main piping, and Steiner Plumbing and Engineering, a commissioned contractor with Energy Concepts, made the final hook ups. “It’s been up and running for two months now, and its performance has gone beyond the owners’ expectations,” Tarr boasts.

It’s these turnkey projects that are generating word of mouth and more business for solar thermal installers. And while Hot Water Products is not even close to the cheapest supplier in his market, Tarr is far more interested in the value-added services the company provides its customers.

This functioning mobile solar display unit is loaned for tradeshows to customers free of charge.

'Service Beyond The Sale'

Besides its tech support, training lab, incentive insight, and warehouse stocked with solar and heating equipment, Hot Water Products also has invested $25,000 in a mobile display unit: a replica house with an operating solar system, panels on the “roof” and a Munchkin boiler.

The display is delivered to contractors by request and at no cost. It has been showcased at more than 60 trade and product shows, where more than a quarter of a million consumers have had the opportunity to become better educated.

“What we sell is not only provisions,” says Koepp. “We have service techs and troubleshooters available. We offer these value-added services, such as system design and now a working display.”

The company is known for going above and beyond with its customer service, from delivering parts after-hours and on holidays to forwarding leads it receives from tradeshows to its list of contractors.

Koepp attributes much of Hot Water Products’ reputation to founder Howard Endres and his partner Gregory “Jack” Daniels. “They’ll answer the phone 24/7. You’ll see them every day dolling out the work and coming in for training sessions.”  They are dedicated to the firm’s motto, “Service Beyond the Sale,” Koepp says, and it’s contagious. Each of Hot Water Products’ 17 employees treats its customers the same - “like their next $100,000 sale.”

Hot Water Products is happy to call itself an “old fashioned” company that still likes to horse trade. And while the rest of the country plays catch-up to the solar market, this wholesaler - though small - is a hard worker that’s poised to grow even more.

It is also confident in the future of solar heating. “If we can get the structure back in to the supply chain, contractors will see the value, and building owners will ultimately benefit,” Koepp concludes.

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