How Can Commercial Work Boost Your Bottom Line?

Cash flow and job volume offset need for special tools and advanced training.
How Can Commercial Work Boost Your Bottom Line?
Kevin Grabill

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Kevin Grabill is the third-generation owner of Grabill Plumbing & Heating in Kansas City, Kansas. Licensed in plumbing and hydronic heating, the company’s commercial services include water treatment, fire suppression, medical gas, pressurized air systems, steam heating and underground sprinkler mains.

Q: What are the advantages of commercial plumbing over residential?

A: Interesting question. I would say the advantage would be cash flow and also the volume of work that takes place in one location. However, we like to have a good balance between the two. It doesn’t seem like they are both down at the same time. In a bad economy, one sector will come back earlier than the other. Having both, we find, keeps things stable during the ups and downs in the economy. The other interesting thing is that they both have different types of competition. Commercial calls for a higher range of expertise, but is generally less competitive than housing. We benefit because we get jobs in both venues.

Q: Are special tools required for commercial plumbing work?

A: We do use some specialty tools in our commercial plumbing business. For example, we use freeze machines on big projects where we don’t want to shut down an entire building. We freeze off a section to do our work. We use ProPress tools and MegaPress systems by RIDGID when working with gas.

Q: What kind of training do you offer your technicians for commercial work?

A: We offer product-specific training with the manufacturers. We’ve had our guys go through a process called Aquatherm and a class on pipe fusion. We’ve had training with ProPress tools and MegaPress.

Q: What brand of pumps, gauges and thermostats do you use and why?

A: We use Grundfos primarily, but we also use Paco Pumps (also by Grundfos). Generally we will use one or the other because there might be a gap in the product line. Usually it is between those two.

Q: Are you seeing an increase in “smart” fixtures? Any Wi-Fi water heaters?

A: Not so much the Wi-Fi. We are installing some heat pump water heaters. We are using more and more smart pumps, especially for re-circulating. Grundfos has a pump with a sensor that logs water usage in a building and can predict future usage.

Q: Is there a call for hydronic heating systems in your area?

A: Yes, commercially in snow and ice melt. We see it required on sidewalks, driveways and steep approaches to parking garages. But we are selling this technology to both markets.

Q: What systems do you use?

A: We use a lot of systems from Uponor. We use a lot of NTI boilers.

Q: Describe a couple of your more elaborate or challenging commercial projects.

A: Some years back we did a renovation on a boutique and historical hotel, the Raphael Hotel in Kansas City. It was challenging because they wanted to be operational throughout the project, and that is where we got started in freezing lines and using ProPress and isolating sections so the hotel could continue to function. They were doing full-room renovations and using custom plumbing fixtures throughout. This was a significant project for our company.

Q: What unique fixtures have you installed? Any lighted or musical shower heads?

A: We install a lot of Neorest toilets. It’s made by TOTO and has all kinds of bidet functions and air purification, heated seat — the whole bit. It is more of a European-type thing — without going to the separate bidet.

Q: What advice do you have for other plumbers considering commercial work?

A: You need to know what you are getting into. You need to go through the bids with a fine-tooth comb, and anticipate how you will react in a worst-case scenario. There are always discrepancies in the specs, some anomaly on a commercial job. If you aren’t really detailed or understand fully what you are getting into before you bid the project, you may have an issue. That is why there are such variances in the bids — usually somebody will have missed something.

Q: In your hiring practices, how do you find plumbers who can fit into your company?

A: It can be a challenge, but it has been interesting as well. Some plumbers we have hired tell us that our company is unique, and when they started with us they felt like they were in a new career. They fit comfortably in our company culture. We have high expectations with our employees. Often our plumbers will recommend someone they are aware of with the qualifications we like to see. So we actually find plumbers in that way.

Q: What brings you the most satisfaction?

A: I enjoy the new challenges, and the variety we see. I never get bored with my work. The money is an important component, but I frankly love what I do. 


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