Plumbing And Renewables Ltd
When Mark Galbraith first set up his own company it was with the aim of building a conventional plumbing business. The domestic RHI, though, means the focus has shifted significantly
It was, says Mark Galbraith, his “obsession” with water that prompted him to retrain as a plumber when he came out of the Royal Air Force in 2006. After a short break, during which he sailed across the Atlantic in a yacht as part of a two-man crew, he started trading at the start of 2007, operating between Aberdeen and Inverness and south as far as Stirling.
Originally the idea was to combine plumbing with property renovations, but the timing could hardly have been worse. The UK was just months away from a full-blown recession, and the property market was the first to feel the slump.
So the focus switched more towards conventional heating and plumbing, with Mark – assisted by another plumber, an apprentice and a team of sub-contractors – taking on new installations of bathrooms or heating systems on newbuild or retrofit properties. “It was a good way to get going and find my feet,” he says.
He felt, though, that something was missing. “I hadn’t found my niche and I felt that the business was flatlining,” he admits. He wanted “something to get my teeth into”, and it gradually became clear that renewable installations could be the answer.
Mark decided to rebrand the company from Plumbing-Property Ltd to Plumbing and Renewables Ltd, and it became Microgeneration Certification Scheme accredited in 2011. Initially the focus was on solar thermal installations, but he could also see the potential for biomass boilers, particularly with the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) on the horizon.
“It comes into its own here,” he says. “We have a lot of houses which are over 100 years old and way off the mains gas, running on either LPG or oil. Most of them are made with lathe and plaster so they’re not suitable for cavity wall insulation, and a lot of them can’t have insulation on the outside either. So the best way to make them more efficient is to change the heating.”
With the RHI finally in force, the business has seen a surge in demand from domestic customers, as well as newbuilds, says Mark. “A lot of these houses have got very high kWh demands, and some are looking at payments over seven years in excess of £30,000,” he says. “The cheapest installation generally is about £16-18,000 so even if your return on the RHI was only £25,000 over seven years it would still cover the installation and all the fuel. Plus it’s cheaper to run – significantly less than oil.”
The Home Energy Scotland Renewables Loan Scheme can provide up to £10,000 interest-free to help people fund renewable installations. “It means it’s not just wealthy landlords or homeowners who can benefit but people on more modest incomes,” says Mark, adding that he has financed his own biomass boiler installation in this way.
The business is now so focused on biomass that it is moving away from more conventional plumbing and heating, says Mark, although its expertise in this space is also giving it an advantage. “The difference with us is that although we do biomass we will also happily take on the rest of the plumbing and heating,” he explains. “A lot of the bigger firms will happily stick in a biomass boiler, commission it and walk away but customers then have to find someone else to make the alterations to the existing heating and plumbing.”
Along with a few solar thermal installations, the company is already fully booked until October, adds Mark, who is currently looking to take on another couple of people to help keep up with the pace. “At the moment there are just two of us, as well as an office manager, a book-keeper and another assistant,” he says. “But I’d like to go up to four installers, and we’ll all be on the renewables.”
In the longer term, Mark can see a time when he has to take on more of a managerial role but for now he’s reluctant. “My fear with expanding would be a loss of quality,” he says. “I’d like to be associated with high-end and fortunately that’s where we are currently. That’s why I envisaged two teams of two, so we can carry out multiple installs a week and yet I will always be doing the installations. I wouldn’t step back unless I was absolutely certain people were working to the same quality as I was.”
He’s convinced, too, that once consumer awareness improves, the market for biomass boilers will continue to grow. “A lot of people still think it’s too good to be true,” he says. “But even if you take the RHI away or reduce it significantly then just the fact that you can make those savings over time would be enough to attract customers.”
Mark is supported by new office manager Moira Matheson and his partner Jill, who help to run the administrative side of the business. “Biomass is such a hot topic that almost nothing is discussed in our house unless it’s biomass-related,” he jokes. “It’s just manic. It’s incredibly hard work but it’s very exciting.”
As for the future, he intends to take advantage of his new direction. “I’m just going to stay infinitely flexible and see what it brings,” he says. “I’ve not got any great plan or forecast; I’m just going to carry on filling the diary with biomass boiler installations. I’m going to make hay while the sun shines.
Plumb Center is playing an important role in helping Plumbing and Renewables Ltd cope with growing demand for renewable installations, says owner Mark Galbraith.
As well as suggesting renewables as a possible business opportunity in the first place, an important aspect has been helping with the administrative side through its in-house design team, says Mark.
“It means I can survey a customer, speak to the boiler manufacturer Windhager, raise a quotation, and send that to Plumb Center along with my survey notes or plans for the design of a house,” he says. “That could be underfloor heating, radiators, hot and cold water, waste, solar thermal or biomass.
“Plumb Center will then deliver us a full design service including heat loss calculations to MCS standards,” he adds.
“We can then place an order and have it all delivered to site.”
Plumb Center has also helped by putting Mark in touch with its core manufacturers, he adds, allowing him to build important relationships direct with suppliers.
“They’re helping us more and more as demand increases,” he says.
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