In a tight economy, you will see insulation contractors put a number of different survival strategies in place to keep work on the table. Some try branching out into additional areas of the market, while others work on honing their best skills and selling their specialties.

In a tight economy, you will see insulation contractors put a number of different survival strategies in place to keep work on the table. Some try branching out into additional areas of the market, while others work on honing their best skills and selling their specialties.

Out in rural Oakford, Ind., Merrill Wolff of Wolff’s Insulation Service chooses to dabble in several areas of the insulation market to keep his company busy. “We try to do a various number of things. Our market is a little bit smaller than some of the major metropolitan markets, so we have to diversify a little bit more,” Wolff explains. So, exactly what does his company delve into? “We use cellulose, rock wool, fiberglass, sprayed-in insulation, polyurethane foam …” and the list just keeps on going.

Of the products he currently installs, Wolff says his company recently has seen an increase in the use of polyurethane foam. “We’ve sprayed foam for many years, but it seems like we’re selling more urethane skin or seal coats, or we’ll spray approximately 0.5 inches and then we’ll either couple it with fiberglass batts or the cellulose wall spray. Occasionally we actually spray just plain urethane and put 2.5 to 3 inches in the wall and that’s all there is,” he explains. “It’s a premium product and it’s accordingly priced. We have seen increased usage because I think people realize that they only get one shot at doing this urethane in the wall, and that’s when the building is being built.”

Even with a list of products already so long, Wolff nevertheless is considering branching out some more. “We may go into fireplaces. We’ve talked about that for several years,” he says.

Like Wolff’s, there are a number of insulation companies that are considering a dip into allied fields — such as fireplaces — to garner more business. Tom Hayes, president of Hayes Insulation, Kansas City, Mo., is diversifying his company with such side projects. “I think there are a lot of companies trying to offer more services to the customer,” Hayes says. “In other words, I’m an insulation contractor, but I also do closet shelving and fireplaces. For an example, I’ve got four insulation competitors that, in the last year, have decided to take on a line of fireplaces. It seems that everyone is trying to expand their product lines.”

As far as expanding his insulation product line, Hayes notes that he is entertaining the idea of blowing in foam, but has not gone forward with the notion. “Considering the investment involved, I’m not sure it warrants me getting involved with it yet,” he says.

However, not all companies want to be as versatile in their offerings as Wolff’s and Hayes’. Specialization is a keyword for Carlisle Insulation Inc., Omaha, Neb. “I think the big thing is that you need to target your customers and target your projects,” Carlisle president Dave Eckley observes. “I know that especially in the past, we’ve gotten to a point where we would do 20 different things. I think most guys now will concentrate on fewer items and try to get better at those areas.”

Sound Off

One thing many contractors — especially residential contractors — seem to be doing more of these days is promoting sound control and other upgrades to their builder customers.

“We recommend sound control, and part of them do it, and part of them do not,” says Wolff, whose company does approximately 85 percent residential work. “We find that most of our builders are doing at least the bathrooms and maybe the master bedroom, but very rarely do we sound control the whole house. Ideally, we think that’s the wise thing to do because it makes it not only better sound-wise, but it makes it better in regard to climate control, also.”

Even commercial contractors are getting more involved with sound control endorsement. Mel Tabor of Tabor Insulation Inc., Salt Lake City, says, “We always have (promoted sound control). Our business primarily is commercial, so it’s a different type of promotion than it might be if we were doing residential work. A lot of times just including the sound insulation, acoustical insulation in our bid is a very good approach — it gives them an option.”

However, not all contractors are 100 percent in favor of promoting sound insulation. Hayes elaborates on his reservations: “I’ve always told everyone in the manufacturing end of insulation that sound control is a two-edged sword — I recommend it, and therefore the customer thinks that he shouldn’t hear anything. So when he does hear something, it’s my fault. I don’t know if I want to go there. There’s only so much we can do with the way they build the houses. There are some design problems, and I don’t want to be held accountable for them.”

Quality First

Regardless of what type of insulation work they are doing, most of the contractors with whom we spoke said that they have been witnessing a movement toward improved quality installation in the industry. What’s causing this change? Eckley thanks the product manufacturers for making it simpler to do a quality installation. “I think there are new products that are helping the installers. And manufacturers are trying to make the products easier to use, which is helpful,” he says.

Ray Usher, vice president at Superl Inc., Fridley, Minn., gives some of the credit to independent certification. “One trend that’s occurring in the firestopping end of the business is third-party accreditation,” Usher points out. “There’s a program out there right now that’s actually an FM program called Standard 4991. It’s a rigorous set of criteria that you must qualify for to actually achieve that status, and when you do, you can put the FM logo on your business cards and letterhead. More contractors are striving for that.”

Usher, who has worked extensively on the Insulation Contractors Association of America’s Commercial Building Insulation Committee, also has some advice to keep this quality installation trend on the upswing. “Ultimately, with accreditations and certifications, we’d like to see the architects start specifying contractors who have these credentials so they know they’re having an absolute minimum in regard to contractor capability and expertise,” he explains. “We try to rely on the manufacturers to promote these credentials to the architects. We feel that’s a more neutral approach, and we’re trying to promote the credentials that are not manufacturer-specific. The independent ones are more beneficial in an architect’s eyes.”

Ultimately, though, it is up to the contractors to make sure high standards are upheld in the industry. Like Hayes says, “We’re a certified contractor, so we demand quality installation. If anyone’s going to compete with us, they realize that they’re going to have to put the product in well.” Let’s hope that’s one trend that keeps up with the times.