Auld lang syne

Thanks to Randy Woodland, a Franklin Field Service Engineer based in Colorado, for providing this post.

OldDrillingI participated in the installation of a new solar pumping system last month as part of Franklin Electric’s commitment to field test new products before they are commercially offered to customers. As with any trial installation, we had a few issues. The most annoying one involved the flow switch “talking” to the controller, but we were able to solve it without incident.

After everything was running well, the contractor commented, “I miss the old days, things were a lot simpler to install and troubleshoot when we didn’t have all of these new products to offer.” I immediately agreed with him; pump installations seemed a lot simpler twenty years ago. I’m not too proud to admit that at times I’ve even wished I didn’t need to constantly learn new things in order to do my job.

The more I thought it, however, I realized something. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or not. In order to stay in business, we have adapt to new products and new ways of doing things. It’s that simple.

Then I remembered a training seminar I attended at least ten years ago. The presenter said something that has stuck with me ever since. “The last buggy whip manufacturer in the United States probably made the best ones ever, at the lowest cost, with fast delivery and excellent customer service. So what? His market changed when automobiles replaced the horse and buggy. Being the best at something doesn’t matter if that something is no longer what the customer wants.”

We are no different in the water systems industry. VFDs take the place of large tanks and valves, electronic protection devices take the place of fuses and heaters, a web page takes the place of an ad in the Yellow Pages, and so it goes.

That guy was absolutely right. It really doesn’t matter whether we like it or not. If the customer asks for it, we have to provide it. In today’s age of readily available information about any product or process, the consumer will find out what is available. If your company or mine continues to sell and service buggy whips, our business will suffer for it.

What any industry wants to sell doesn’t matter if the customer wants to buy something else. If you don’t offer it, your competition will. Don’t forget that today will be someone else’s good old days.

Suddenly learning new things doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Once again, the right tool for the job

I witnessed an interesting debate this week within a small group of Franklin Electric’s Field Service Engineers. The topic was enclosure knockouts. Franklin Electric now offers some VFD accessories (reactors/filters) that are available in NEMA 4 enclosures that have no knockouts. That is, the conduit holes must be made by the installing contractor. Of course, a special hole saw or scoring tool is required to do this.

On one side of the table, the position was that the vast majority of water systems contractors don’t have these tools, and therefore we are not giving the customer what he wants. It’s up to us, the manufacturer, to supply enclosure knockouts across all water systems products.

CaptureHowever, on the other side of the table, a couple of others took the position that these products are going into higher end, sophisticated installations. As a result, many of these enclosures will be installed by the electrical contractor and this is their preferred method. They make conduit holes in enclosures as standard procedure and always have the tool kit to do it. This way, they can always cut only the exact hole sizes they need for the cable and Romex seals. And it leads to a better-sealed NEMA 4 installation since you don’t have to worry about water entry via the unused knockouts. Their position was that if a contractor is installing these enclosures, they simply need to invest in the right tool to do the job.

I was seeing both sides of the issue until I posed the question of, “So, how much is the tool and how long does it take?” The answer came back as, “Oh, probably less than $50 for a single and maybe $300 for an entire kit of several sizes; in terms of the actual process, just a few minutes”.  For me at least, that settled it, although it probably didn’t settle it with the entire group. Once again, as a professional contractor, you need to have the right tools to do the job. It’s especially true if that tool is a minimal investment that can lead to a higher quality installation.

Showing and telling

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Talk to any contractor who installs variable speed,  constant pressure systems and he will tell you what his homeowner customers tell him: “The difference between their conventional, cycling system and their new constant pressure system is amazing; they didn’t know what they were missing and they are never going back to a conventional system again.”

But, here’s the challenge. For the homeowner to say that, he has to experience it on his own, in his own home. That means that just telling a homeowner about it won’t always sell the system. The automotive industry has known this for a hundred years. Half the sale is getting the customer behind the wheel. No amount of glossy brochures, websites, or other media is going to close the deal until the customer drives and experiences the vehicle for himself.

Here’s the good news. Your customers can test drive Franklin Electric constant pressure systems with a minimum amount of effort on your part. For a couple of years now, we’ve had the MonoDrive Test Kit. It works with an existing 3-wire system. Just replace the lid of the existing QD control box with the test box, add the MonoDrive controller, and replace the existing standard pressure switch with the SubDrive pressure sensor. In the case of an existing 2-wire installation, it’s even easier. It either case, it literally takes just a few minutes and you’re done. The homeowner can now experience variable speed, constant water pressure for himself. You have effectively given a constant pressure test drive.

Of course, like any test drive, you’re doing this at no cost, no obligation. You simply tell the homeowner that you’ll be back in a week to see what he thinks. When the week is up, you can switch it back to the conventional system or make the constant pressure  installation permanent. I had a very successful contractor tell me that he’s only had a single case where the homeowner asked him switch it back. Continue reading

Constant pressure by the numbers

Over the last several posts, I’ve detailed several niche applications for variable speed, constant pressure systems that had nothing to do with constant pressure.

This week, I want to step back and talk about the overall financial opportunity presented by constant pressure systems. I’m going to make a few assumptions here, but I think my point will remain the same.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that determine how long a submersible system will last before some type of service is required. Tanks need replaced, pressure switches fail, and the generally accepted longevity of a submersible pump/motor is 10 – 20 years. Let’s assume that on average, a submersible installation needs some type of service every 15 years. Now let’s figure that into the 15 million homes in the United States that are on private water systems. If there are 15 million systems that need service every 15 years, that means there are about 1 million service calls made each year in our industry.

One million service calls mean 1 million opportunities to offer and sell your customer improvements to his existing system. With Franklin Electric and a couple of other manufacturers offering variable speed, constant pressure systems that can be retrofitted without pulling the existing pump and motor, that means you have more to offer than ever before. For just about every service call, there’s a potential for a constant pressure system. Just need a new tank? Offer a smaller tank that comes with a constant pressure system and put the savings towards constant pressure. Pump or motor need replacement? If you have to pull and replace, then the benefit versus the incremental cost of adding a constant pressure controller may be very compelling to the homeowner. As one contractor told me awhile back, “Even if it’s just the pressure switch that needs replacing, I’m explaining and offering constant pressure.”

Of course, you’re not going to sell a constant pressure system each time you make a service call. But, let’s say it’s 1 in 10. That 1 in 10 could have significant impact on your business. Even if you don’t sell the homeowner a constant pressure system right then and there, you’ve at least planted a seed that may bear fruit down the road.

Quibble with my numbers if you want, but the logic still applies. Think it about for the geographical area where you do business. How many service calls are you doing each year, and how many of those deserve to have a premium water system? There’s something in it for everyone. For the homeowner, it offers the benefits of constant pressure at every tap regardless of usage, faster fill rates for appliances, more utility space by replacing the large tank with a small one, water delivery that matches demand, and built-in system protection. For you, it means the chance to not only increase your incremental revenue per service call, but also to build a following of satisfied customers. But, you can’t sell what you don’t offer; why limit yourself?

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.

Geothermal and current loops… it all comes around

These days, quite a few of you are installing closed loop geothermal systems. These systems use long loops of flexible pipe installed underground or underwater to heat or cool a building or residence. Of course, a pump keeps the fluid moving around the loop.

Now jump to variable speed, constant pressure water systems. If you are involved with these systems, especially larger ones, you’ve probably seen or heard the term “4 to 20 milliamp pressure transducer” or “4 to 20 milliamp current loop”. These are loops as well, but loops of electrical current instead of water. And once again, it’s terminology that gets thrown out there without much explanation. So, let’s explain.

Many variable frequency drives (VFDs), especially larger units such as Franklin Electric’s HPX, utilize these 4-20 milliamp loops in conjunction with a pressure transducer. “Transducer” is just a general term for a device that converts a mechanical measurement into an electrical signal. In our case, that parameter is going to be pressure, And, keep in mind that you’ll hear the terms transducer and sensor used interchangeably in our industry.

A small power supply in the drive sends out a low DC voltage to the transducer. In the case of the HPX, its 24 volts DC. These are the “4-20 mA” terminals on the HPX. In our geothermal system, this would be the pump. Two wires connect the power supply to the transducer. This makes “the loop” or the flexible pipe. The transducer then limits the amount of current passing through it based on the amount of water pressure it is experiencing. For example, the 4-20 mA transducer used with the HPX will allow 4 milliamps to flow if the pressure is 0 psi. The upper limit of pressure can be programmed into the HPX, and at this pressure, say 80 psi, the pressure transducer will allow 20 milliamps to flow. Hence the name 4 to 20 milliamp current loop. The VFD controller then knows exactly how much pressure is out there by the amount of current “in the loop”. Continue reading