Saving on copper

Last week I provided just one example of how variable speed, constant pressure systems aren’t always about constant pressure. Specifically, I showed how a variable speed controller can extend system life. My example was an older system that was getting heavy usage (and cycling) with an irrigation system.

Here’s a slightly different example. I’ve never given a seminar or presentation on constant pressure systems without someone asking, “How much do they cost?” Although I can usually provide a ballpark list price and refer them back to the distributor for their pricing, my answer is “it depends.” The reason is that although there is additional cost associated with a variable speed drive, there can also be some significant savings that offset this cost.

The example cited most often is being able to use a small tank. However, an overlooked, sometimes far more significant savings can be obtained because of the smaller cable required. Here’s why … Regardless if the input is single- or three- phase, most VFDs generate a three-phase output voltage (Franklin Electric’s MonoDrive and SubDrive2W are notable exceptions). So, we use a three-phase motor, and for the same horsepower, the current (amp) carrying requirements are smaller for a three-phase motor than for a single-phase. Therefore, in many installations, we can go with a smaller gauge of drop cable if it’s three-phase.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you’ve got a 3 horsepower system with a total cable run of 500 feet. From the single-phase cable charts on page 11 of the AIM Manual, #8 is only good for 470 feet. So, to ensure adequate voltage to a single-phase 3 horsepower motor, you’re going to need #6, which is good for 750 feet.

However, it we use a SubDrive 150 and a 3-phase motor, we use the three-phase charts on page 16 of the AIM Manual. In this case, #10 is good for 620’. So, by adding a VFD into the system, we’ve gone from 500 feet of #6 cable to 500 feet of #10 cable.

Now, with the price of copper, and therefore drop cable, these days, your savings on 500 feet of #10 versus #6 cable will be very significant, probably in the hundreds of dollars. In some cases, you may even save money with a VFD.

This is just one example. But, the point is that whenever you bidding a job, it’s a good idea to run the scenario above. You may be surprised at how little the difference is between the system cost of a conventional system and a variable speed system. And, once again, you’ll have all the benefits of constant pressure.

It’s not always about the pressure

Last week, I argued that the real competition for variable speed, constant pressure water systems isn’t similar products from competitors, but conventional systems. I also mentioned that some contractors are having remarkable success selling constant pressure systems against conventional systems.

In many cases, the key to this success has been finding niches for variable speed products. Interestingly, some of these niches have nothing to do with constant pressure.

A great example is using a variable speed controller to extend system life. Here’s the scenario: the homeowner has an older system, say ten to fifteen years old. There are a lot of those out there. The home has an irrigation system, and the water system gets heavy usage, cycling many times each day. Today, everything is still working fine, but given the age of what’s downhole, you’re going to have to pull and replace the pump sometime in the next few years. It could be tomorrow or in another ten years. Either way, in the scheme of things, this is one of the more expensive scenarios for the homeowner.

Here’s where variable speed comes in. Like most mechanical and electrical things, pumps and motors want to start and just run. They don’t like starting and stopping, and we properly size systems to minimize this. However, anytime we can reduce the cycling of a system, we can extend the life of that system. Franklin Electric, along with a few other manufacturers, now offers controllers that can be retrofitted into existing systems. So, without pulling the pump and in just a few minutes, this system can be retrofitted with a variable speed controller that will always match output to water demand. As a result, during the irrigation cycle, the pump will do exactly that … just come on and operate continuously at the right speed, thereby eliminating the cycling. Bottom line is that we’ve probably extended the life of that pump.

Now, it’s important to explain to the homeowner that given the age of the pump, it’s impossible to say how much its life will be extended. A fifteen-year-old pump could still fail tomorrow. However, we’ve likely achieved something very positive in terms of cost-versus-benefit. In the meantime, the homeowner has all the benefits of constant pressure as a bonus. And, when that pump does need to be replaced down the road, that variable speed controller you put in today will still be there–along with the homeowner’s new preference for the constant pressure it provides. Everyone wins.

The real competition

I believe that every major water systems manufacturer now has a variable speed, constant pressure system. I’m often asked, “So, how does Franklin’s variable speed product compare to so-and-so’s product?” After a quick run-down of why I think our variable speed products, service, and support are better, I always add, “But, they aren’t the actual competition.”  I generally get a quizzical look to this, and have to explain.

Here’s what I mean. Variable speed, constant pressure products have been around for years. Although it gets better every year, the market penetration still remains relatively low. Most of the pie still belongs to conventional systems that cycle the pressure with a large pressure tank. As a result, the real opportunity with constant pressure isn’t about trying to grab market share from someone else’s constant pressure product. It’s about competing against and articulating the superior benefits of variable speed systems over conventional systems. That’s where the opportunity lies.

Marketing textbooks refer to this as the “threat of substitutes“. That is, not only is your product competing against very similar products, but it’s also competing against alternatives to your product. For example, “It’s not which movie I’m going to, it’s a question of going to a movie or staying home and watching TV.” Constant pressure products are another classic case. The greater competitive threat is the substitute of conventional systems, not other variable speed products.

Having said this, lots of contractors are having remarkable success at selling constant pressure systems against conventional systems. In the coming weeks, I’m going to highlight the opportunity with constant pressure and what I’ve seen that works especially well and why it matters. In the meantime, play with this idea of substitutes and see where it leads.

Only as good as you are

2011 is far from over, but when it is, it looks as if Franklin Electric will have held about 132 training events for over 5,100 contractors. That’s about two and a half events per week on average. Those 132 events include training at our facilities in Oklahoma, Indiana, and Ontario, Canada, along with seminars at conventions, at our customers’ facilities, and “on the road” with our Mobile Training Facility.

All of these events consume time and money. There’s travel involved, preparation on the part of the presenter, handouts, and so forth. So, why the committment by Franklin Electric to so many seminars?

Here’s the answer: because we are only as good as you are. Assume for a moment that everyone in our industry made a perfect product every single time. Perfectly designed, and never a defect. Even if that were the case, it would be worthless without a professional contractor to install it. Especially in the water systems industry, perfect products can be mis-applied. Maybe it’s the wrong product for the installation, maybe a motor isn’t receiving proper cooling, maybe a pressure tank is undersized thereby creating short-cycling. The result is exactly the same as if the contractor had installed a defective product: FAILURE. And, when this happens, the homeowner or end-user doesn’t know, and most likely doesn’t care, why the product failed. His or her perception of the contractor, Franklin Electric, and our industry isn’t a good one, and it reflects on all of us.

So everything that we can do to make you, the contractor, as well-trained and professional as possible is a good investment for all of us. We’re only as good as you are.

Penny wise and hundreds of dollars foolish.

Here’s the epitome of the above in our industry: Like many of us, a homeowner lives in an area of the country where it rains. Sometimes, it rains a lot. Their home has a basement, and when it rains, they have a sump pump to collect and remove that water from the lowest part of the residence.

When their home was built, the basement was just a poured concrete room that held the mechanicals such as the pressure tank, water softener, the furnace, etc.

But today, it’s a different story. A couple of years ago, the homeowner decided to remodel the basement, and made it a so-called media room, den, whatever. They spent several thousand dollars on the upgrade, then added a high definition TV, carpeting, maybe even a nice pool table. In addition, in the intervening years, the unfinished part of the basement became easy storage for family heirlooms such as diplomas, Little League trophies, and Christmas decorations.

What didn’t the homeowner do? He didn’t invest a few hundred dollars in a battery-powered back-up sump pump. Maybe their contractor never mentioned it, maybe they didn’t know such a thing existed, or maybe it looked too complicated to install. My guess is that it most likely seemed like an unnecessary expense. Continue reading