Artificial Intelligence (AI), VR & AR, digital twin, hydrogen fuel—all technologies pointing to the future of the plumbing industry. It’s really no wonder that the circulator industry is moving into the 21st century with the addition of Bluetooth-enabled technology and accompanying apps. Couple that with US DOE mandates for efficiency, and you have the perfect storm of advancement. According to Taco’s John Barba, Director, Sales, Training, North America, the U.S. Department of Energy is tentatively setting mid-2025 as the date that mandated minimum circulator efficiency standards will be implemented. What that means on the specified date, manufacturers like Taco, Grundfos, Xylem, and others will no longer be able to manufacture and sell circulators that don’t meet a minimum efficiency standard.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean ECM technology, but as of right now Electronically Commutated Motor (ECM) is the only technology we have available that meets those standards; ECM is undoubtedly the direction our industry is going,” says Barba.
According to Keefer Rader, owner, Outlaw Mechanical, Albuquerque, ECM will be the future as standard motor technology will no longer meet energy efficiency criteria. “I don’t know if Bluetooth technology will be the future, but it sure is nice to be able to monitor the equipment. I think Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology will be a must for building management system (BMS) in our state.”
But by moving pumps and circulators into the “digital age,” some would ask, “why bother?” and “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” “That’s an excellent question,” says Barba. “Part of me thinks back to something Henry Ford said a long, long time ago. ‘If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.’ That’s the flipside to ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The ‘if it ain’t broke’ idea is hard to argue with, but that doesn’t mean things can’t be made better, more efficient and more effective. After all, if good enough was truly good enough, we’d still be dealing with coal boilers and fireplaces. Those weren’t broke, either,” suggests Barba.
According to Barba, the fundamental truth is that building a hydronic system, putting pipe together so the water stays on the inside, connecting it to a boiler and having it make fire so people don’t freeze to death isn’t all that hard to do. A reasonably competent handyman could probably pull it off. But what makes a professional a professional is his or her ability to not only keep people from freezing to death, but to also create a system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; where the whole is designed to operate at peak efficiency and provide years of trouble-free operation. Variable-speed ECM circulators, when properly programmed and installed, are great tools to help achieve that goal.
“Of course, Henry Ford also said that he saw no advantage in new clocks” says Barba. “They run no faster than the ones made 100 years ago.” But again, it’s important to remember what we’re trying to accomplish. “Heck, cast iron boilers aren’t ‘broke,’ and they’re certainly less expensive, but modulating condensing boilers are more common now than ever before in residential hydronics. They’ve become ‘standard.’
“However, it makes zero sense to install a high-efficiency modulating condensing boiler and then not installing the outdoor sensor or enabling the outdoor reset. Even if the boiler has to run up to 180 degrees for fin-tube baseboard, it can still modulate and reset the water temperature as it gets warmer outside. Not doing so is basically wasting your customer’s money. “
By the same token, says Barba, all of the components you install with that modulating-condensing boiler—or even a cast-iron boiler, for that matter—should be purpose-chosen, meaning they are specifically selected in order to enhance the overall performance of the system—to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
“One thing variable speed technology has taught the industry is that the circulator plays a bigger role in overall system efficiency than we’ve ever given it credit for,” says Barba. “Sure, the boiler makes the heat, and sure, the heat emitters deliver the heat. But it’s the circulator that facilitates the journey. If we are overpumping, and even with ECM technology, we’re almost always overpumping, we’re limiting the overall performance and efficiency of the system, not enhancing it. A typical three-speed, standard efficiency circulator is almost always set to high speed or, as we like to call it, ‘contractor no-callback mode.’
“On the one hand, unless there’s velocity noise, there’s no immediate downside to doing so. However, pumping 5 gallons per minute through a zone that only needs 2 gallons per minute under design conditions means you’re pumping at a rate 2.5 times more than is required. In a perfect world, you’d have a 20-degree Delta-T under design conditions, but in this example, the best Delta-T you’ll ever see in that system is 8 degrees. That would mean with a mod-con boiler sending out 140-degree water on the coldest day of the year, the return water temperature would be about 132. We’re not condensing nearly as much as we could be, and we’re leaving an awful lot of efficiency on the table, but no one will complain about being cold.”
“Cavemen! I don’t understand why people are afraid of new things,” shouts Rader. “I’m a big proponent because I know Taco tests everything stringently so I know when it comes out of the box, I’m not likely to have an issue with it. I love having four circulators on my truck that I can typically adapt to any system and make it more efficient and work better. The double 0015e, 0018e, vt2218—this is my favorite, because people can see data in front of their face and understand the value—and 0026e.”
As for Bluetooth technology and its associated app, it’s simply a way for an installer to make sure the ECM circulator he or she is using is, in fact, doing what he or she wants it to do. The myths and misinformation about ECM and variable speed technology that are common in our industry are astounding, says Barba. No, they do not size themselves and no, they do not always give you the right flow. What ECM and variable speed technology allows us to do is properly program a circulator so that it performs as close to what a system requires as possible. These things aren’t magic and they don’t “do the thinking for you,” or “take the thinking out of it.”
“You can’t just slap one of these things in, push a button and let it do the rest,” says Barba. “This isn’t the Hogwarts School of Hydronic Magic. ECM circulators don’t think and they aren’t magic. But what they are is obedient. They will do what you tell them to do – and the benefit of Bluetooth technology is it allows the installer to make sure a circulator—in Taco’s case the 0018e Delta-P technology circulator—operates as close to the actual system requirements as possible.”
Additionally, residential hydronics has a chronic overpumping problem, continues Barba. Pick any residential hydronic system and chances are it’s WAY overpumped. Overpumping is one of those insidious problems—no one will ever complain about being cold, but over pumping means more GPM is being pumped through a zone or a system than it needs. When that happens, the system Delta-T is small and gets smaller as the outdoor temperature increases.
This isn’t supposed to happen and it’s not needed to make a system work, although you’ll hear people mistakenly make that claim. What a shrinking Delta-T does do is it sends warmer and warmer water back to the boiler. We don’t want that to happen at all with a modulating-condensing boiler, and we really don’t want it to happen with a cast iron boiler, either (as long as we’re above the condensing point). When that return water temperature is higher than necessary, boilers tend to short cycle and, in the case of a mod-con, it won’t “con” as much as it could. It’s almost impossible to quantify mathematically, but it’s reasonable and logical to presume that overall system efficiency (and fuel consumption) will suffer.
“And short-cycling doesn’t do any of the moving parts in a system any favors. It won’t take long for any key—and expensive—component in a mod-con boiler to fail prematurely. At that point, someone is left with some ’splaining to do,” says Barba.
Bluetooth technology has to be useful and hold value to the contractor, and that we’ll see about, says Barba. “What we’ve found in the five years we’ve had Bluetooth technology in the market is there are contractors who get the value right away, and others who question the value. That’s to be expected. When we show all of the capabilities of the circulator, show them how easy it is to set up the circulator to optimize system performance and—most importantly— what that optimization is important, we see more who see the value and fewer who question it,” says Barba.
“That said, we do see contractors who roll their eyes at the word ‘app’ and don’t want anything to do with it, and that’s fine. We have the VR 1816, which we’ve had since 2014, the 007e, which we’ve had since 2015, the 0015e3—which we’ve had since 2017 and the VT-2218, a Delta-T variable speed circulator that we’ve had since 2011. Different strokes, meet different folks.”
“I’ll tell you what I wish they put a small screen on the 0018. I really love this circulator because I can get real time data on my iPad and set a circulator to pretty much exactly what that zone needs,” says Rader. “I prefer to use them on zone pump systems. I also like to use them on the head scratcher systems so I can try to compile as much data as possible. A lot of times it becomes more of a tool than product.”
And beyond initial setup? “Initial setup isn’t just a throw-away item; it’s the most important element of using, and maximizing, variable speed circulators. And Bluetooth connectivity gives you stark visuals and really numbers of what it is you’re doing. As my co-trainer Dave Holdorf says, Bluetooth for the first time lets you see what’s actually happening inside the pipe. It’s real and it’s now knowable and quantifiable,” says Barba.
Let’s face it, with new technology inevitably there’s going to be added costs. “There are added costs, but I have found when selling a new circulator—when I explain to the customer, the benefits of a properly sized circulator—that their buyback should be within a year. For instance, if I have a circulator that speeding up and slowing down based upon how many zones are opened or closed at that time, we are not wasting fuel. We are directing the heat at the proper speed to hit maximum efficiency,” says Rader.
People do ask all the time, “How do it sell this to my customer?” says Barba. There are two answers to that. The short one is if it’s a simple swap out—a new circulator for a dead one—it can simply be a matter of explaining these new circulators are much more electrically efficient than the standard models, use about half the electric and can make the system work better and more efficiently for the long haul. Often, that’s enough of an explanation.
If someone wants particular, the Hydraulics Institute has created labeling for ECM circulators that all of the major manufacturers have adopted, indicating relative efficiency ratings (the higher the number, the more efficient the circulator—although once you reach a certain point, the practical differences are minimal). By using a formula provided by the Hydraulics Institute, one can show how quickly the more efficient circulator will offset the higher purchase price— it’s usually within two, maybe three heating seasons.
If it’s a full boiler change out, the difference in price between a standard circulator or circulators compared to ECM circulators—in the overall picture of the job—isn’t huge and gives the contractor talking points as to why he or she has chosen specific circulators, and why it’s best for the system to do the job right. “I’ve had customers tell me that their customers aren’t asking for ECM technology, so there’s no market for them and besides, they’re too expensive. I’ll go with another Henry Ford quote: ‘If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses,’” says Barba.
Depending on where you live and work, Barba says, ECM circulators may actually be less expensive than standard efficiency circulators. Many states offer instant, at-the-counter rebates from utility companies to incentivize ECM adoption. It makes sense—if wider adoption of lower-wattage circulators takes place, that’s less of a load on the power grid. The utilities are simply buying efficiency—it’s no different than with light bulbs or other low-consumption appliances.
In non-rebate states, the comparative purchase cost is higher—anywhere from a little bit to a lot, depending on what you want for a particular job. We’ve had great success with the 007e and 0015e3—both variable speed Delta-P ECM circulators—that only have the features and operating parameters that people might need for a particular job. If you like 007s and want similar performance in an ECM circulator, the 007e is virtually identical in performance. The 0015e3 is a seamless transition from your typical 3-speed circulator and works great with zone valves or as a zone pump. The multi-feature, multi-function circulators offer more features, but that comes at a higher purchase price.
Ultimately, ECM, variable speed and Bluetooth technology isn’t a matter of making the water go round-and-round the pipes better, says Barba. It’s simply a matter of using the latest technology to make sure a key part of the system is doing its job to ensure that system is working as efficiently and effectively as possible, ensuring the system itself remains as trouble-free as possible for as long as possible, and that the customer is getting the most out of what they’re paying for. “We’re all consumers in one way or another, and none of us want to pay top dollar and then get only 80 percent of what we’re paying for.”