ONCE, THE ONLY WAY a homeowner could buy a water heater was to call a plumber. Today, retailers sell more water heaters than plumbers do.

It's no wonder. Big-box retailers buy better than plumbers, subcontract labor to cheap plumbers who are ignorant of costs, charge less than most plumbers' breakeven and, to add insult to injury, make more money than plumbers.

So how can plumbers compete? By changing the rules.

Don't play in the same sandbox with the 800- lb. retail gorillas. They might step on you. Instead, build a different sandbox.

Don't sell the same water heaters the home centers sell. Instead, offer quick recovery water heaters.

A quick recovery water heater effectively offers homeowners more capacity for the same size tank. Because standby losses are greater with a larger tank, a quick recovery water heater is more energy efficient-than a standard recovery model with the same first-hour rating.

The added capacity can be especially attractive to homeowners with teenagers, who seem constitutionally incapable of using less than 40 gal. per shower. Often space limitations preclude a larger storage tank, making quick recovery the best option for homeowners who want hot water for purposes beyond teen showers.

Healthier and safer
Quick recovery is also consistent with sound water heater health and safety practices. If you set the storage temperature above 131° F to kill Legionella and install a thermostatic mixing valve to reduce the delivery temperature to 120° F to prevent accidental burns, a quick recovery water heater may be the only way homeowners can fill a large spa tub.

Quick recovery is also more profitable.

Quick recovery also is more profitable. Manufacturers charge a slight premium for quick recovery based on their manufacturing costs, not the consumer's perceived value. That gives your the opportunity to price and sell the water heaters based on perceived value, boosting your gross margins.

The higher Btuh input for a quick recovery gas water heater may necessitate a larger vent pipe. Though this increases costs for the homeowner, it also increases profit for you.

Eliminate big-box competition
Quick recovery water heaters effectively provide more capacity for the same space, which is good. They're consistent with sound health and safety practices, which is better. You make more money, which is great. And the big boxes don't sell quick recovery, which may be the best news of all.

Ironically, the big boxes push the higher recovery feature of their best model, even though the higher recovery rate is only higher than the other water heaters they sell. It's still a standard recovery water heater.

Once a homeowner learns about the benefits of quick recovery and learns what constitutes real quick recovery performance, the game's over. Only your sandbox will do.

Of course, if you're going to offer quick recovery, your plumbers must understand and accept the benefits. They must believe in the product.

Next, your supplier must stock quick recovery. If the supplier balks, find one who will stock the products you need. After all, the reason they're in business is to carry the products you need.

Matt Michel is the CEO and president of the Service Roundtable, the country's largest private contractor group. Learn more at www.ServiceRoundtable.com. For a free copy of his e-book, "50 Comanche Marketing Tips For Building Your Service Business," contact Liz Patrick at 877/262-3341 or by e-mail at Liz@ServiceRoundtable.com. He can be reached at Matt.Michel@ServiceRoundtable.com.