Boiling point: Water boiler market heats up

It might be said that market conditions are dicey right now, but if commercial water boiler manufacturers are to be believed then product is flying off the shelves, or rather out the warehouse doors.

Some, such as Lincat, insist they have experienced tremendous growth in boiler sales. The Lincoln-based manufacturer says the size of its business has doubled over the past decade, while it even claims it is selling record numbers of water boilers to the Far East, quite a feat given the volume of products from that part of the world imported to the UK.

Due to the growth of the market, the leading brands are constantly reviewing the design of their machines and exploring features aimed at further improving the consistency and operation of the boilers. Several are gearing up for major new launches later this year. Given that some systems can produce upwards of 280 cups per hour, a robust water boiler can be a life saver for a busy outlet serving hot beverages by the bucket load.

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Gains are constantly being made to drive energy efficiency through the use of innovative eco functions, while the development of boilers complete with in-line filtration systems is not only guaranteed to provide a cleaner, better tasting beverage for the customer, but will also result in a reduction in poor housekeeping and issues caused by internal scaling of the working mechanisms, according to experts.

On the face of it, a water boiler seems like quite a straightforward piece of kit, and in many respects it is. But there are a host of things that manufacturers can, and are, doing to give customers even more functionality than they have been used to up to now. And for resellers and dealers looking to make an easy sale that can only be positive news.

Glen Dimplex Professional Appliances (GDPA), which produces the Burco brand, says a mixture of aesthetic and practical touches are helping to make its latest generation of systems more attractive than in the past.

Handy neon lights are fitted to its autofill range to help the operator identify when the water has reached the correct temperature, while an innovative safety cut-out prevents the water from boiling over. It also utilises a unique, patented tap design on all its models, which allows the user to change between a constant or on-demand flow of freshly boiled water.

“In terms of aesthetic adjustments, Burco Commercial has just launched a range of personalised manual fill water boilers,” says Diane Ho, commercial brand manager at GDPA. “Chains, outlets and beverage brands are able to utilise their own designs to fit around the current range of manual fill boilers, ensuring maximum brand presence and providing a significant opportunity to increase sales of a particular product.”

Popular profit-makers

Every manufacturer has a product that is either a consistent performer or registers solid sales during certain periods, and the commercial water boiler market is no different.

Ho at GDPA says that the past 12 months have been somewhat unique compared to most years in terms of the expected demand for commercial water boilers. Last year’s national celebrations were a big factor, she says.

“A number of high profile events around the country including the London Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee and the associated street parties and regional events around the country has resulted in a significant demand for the Burco commercial 20-litre gas water boilers,” comments Ho.

That particular line is fitted with a safety flame supervision device and a Piezo ignition system, an ideal option for caterers looking to provide an outdoor event catering option.  “It has proved to be the most popular-selling boiler within the range in the past year,” says Ho.

For Instanta, the 1501F machine with built-in water filtration as standard has been the star performer for its business. Nick Neal, sales and marketing director, says that the filter reduces limescale and water odour, both of which improve the taste of the water.

“The innovative thing about the filter is that it offers a choice according to the hardness of the incoming water supply,” he says. “So, for example, in a hard water area it might be set to require changing at 5,000 litres whereas in a soft water environment this figure might be as much as 13,500 litres.”

This, says Neal, means that users in hard water areas can be sure that their boiler is not going to scale up prematurely and those in soft water areas have the advantage of knowing that their filter is not going to be changed before it is necessary.

Elsewhere, Marco Beverage Systems highlights its Ecoboiler T10 as a winner for its output, reliability and lifetime ownership costs, while Lincat hails its FilterFlow EB3F as its “best seller by far”. It can produce up to 31 litres of filtered water per hour, building on the reputation of its predecessor, the EB3.

“It’s a great quality automatic fill water boiler with built-in filtration and a single tap,” insists marketing director Nick McDonald. “When we launched the EB3F, we were able to offer built-in filtration at no increase in price, which gave it a valuable competitive advantage. The current list price of £508 compares very favourably to the 2008 list price of £567 for its predecessor including the optional filter.”

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Fellow British catering equipment manufacturer Parry cites the AWB3 as its most popular model. The 3Kw automatic fill boiler incorporates a sophisticated self-diagnostic system which enables the user to understand exactly what the boiler is doing at any time and also advise if the boiler requires any routine maintenance.

“This, coupled with the small footprint and rapid draw off, means that it is simple to use, easy to live with, cheap to run and built to last,” insists sales director Colin Haworth. “At present, our product development in water boilers is focused on particular applications in the health service and transport sectors, which enables us to work with the client to develop a bespoke product solution in response to a particular brief or specification.”

Technological change

Commercial water boiler manufacturers have advanced the sector with their R&D investments over the years and while they are all looking to nurture their product ranges it is debatable how much more room there is left for true innovation to take place.

Instanta’s sales director Nick Neal says that in-built filtration has probably been the biggest forward step of late, also noting that there is a sustained movement towards push button machines as opposed to taps.

Lincat puts a firm emphasis on in-built filtration, too, although the fact that it first introduced the feature on its machines five years ago illustrates why some believe the market has already done most of its innovating.

Parry has clocked the move towards in-built filtration as well, although so far it has preferred to observe from afar. “A couple of manufacturers have developed products with built-in filtration. At Parry we have taken the approach to give the customer the flexibility of purchasing a standalone water softener should the installation require it,” says Colin Haworth.

Beyond that, there is ongoing scope for aesthetic changes to systems, especially as water boilers are often used in front-of-house locations.

Recent developments at Marco Beverage Systems, for instance, have included a larger and more sophisticated range of under-counter units with slim countertop mounted fonts.

Lincat has also recognised that appearances count. “We have introduced a slim line, wall-mounted model with an innovative, toughened white or black glass fascia,” explains Nick McDonald. “As well as for front of house, this has proved to extremely popular in non-catering settings, such as offices and commercial premises.”

Uropa Distribution has emerged as a growing supplier in the market during recent years, with the group’s affordable Buffalo range grabbing a share of the spoils. Sales chief Tony Mercer reckons the demand for change within the water boiler market is being driven by increasing sales of auto-fill boilers.

“With the benefit of a constant supply of fresh boiling water, and enhanced efficiency levels from superior insulation and the latest manufacturing techniques, establishments are seeing operating costs reduced in comparison to older models,” he says.

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Buffalo now offers manual-fill water boilers in multiple sizes from 4.25 litres to 40 litres, all featuring twist lock lids for enhanced safety, sturdy double handles and, in certain models, twin-walled containers to ensure they are safe to use front-of-house.

“The Buffalo auto-fill range automatically tops up from the mains when required, providing caterers with a continuous supply of hot water and making them ideal for busy locations with a high demand for hot beverages,” says Mercer.

Obstacles to growth

Water boiler sales might be steady in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t mean producers don’t have to contend with some serious obstacles as they bid to maintain and improve their market share.

The number one factor cited by most manufacturers is the emergence of low-cost competition pushing down average prices. Branded players are keen to distance themselves from these alternatives, which typically target the budget end of the market.

Daniel Versey, sales manager of Marco Beverage Systems, says: “We are pleased to report that the market for water boilers is on the increase, but it is dogged in part by low cost imports with a poor reliability record.” The flip side to this, says Versey, is that it is these traits which “give it the edge” over inferior brands.

Another major obstacle stems from the explosion of the high street coffee shop market, which has seen operators striving to provide varied and great-tasting hot beverage menus. The issue that usually arises with water boilers comes when they attempt to use espresso machines to produce speciality drinks and teas which require water at a hotter temperature than that produced by coffee machines.

“With commercial hot beverage equipment available in all shapes and sizes, it can often be a difficult task to know which one is most suitable for the job,” says GDPA’s Diane Ho.

“However, when it comes to making the perfect all-round hot beverage menu, a dedicated hot water boiler is essential. Operators will be surprised at just how much of a difference it can make to sales,” she adds.

Nick Neal at Instanta makes a similar observation. “In terms of machine type, the advent of bigger and faster bean-to-cup coffee machines and semi-automatic units for making coffee has seen some users switch to this type of machine in order to service the UK’s growing coffee culture,” he says.

“Water boilers tend to be used primarily for making tea and there are no machines out there specifically designed to make tea from leaves. What’s more, vended tea tends to be much inferior to a fresh brew.”

Pricing pressure

As with any piece of catering or beverage equipment, price, reliability and value for money play their part in the specification or sale of water boilers, and manufacturers have certainly made sure that there is a wide choice of models and price points available.

However, it still irks many that Far East imports, in particular, continue to have a huge bearing on customers’ perceptions of price. “The biggest pressure in terms of pricing is from cheaper Far East imports attempting to make an impact in the UK market,” says GDPA’s Diane Ho. “Although they provide a lower purchasing price, they are often less effective, have a shorter life-span and produce a lower ROI than their branded, quality counterparts.”

It is an issue that Instanta highlights too. Nick Neal says it isn’t helped by the general pricing disparity that is evident across the supply chain. “The influx of cheap foreign imports, from places like China, and a price war among internet ‘box shifters’ continues to put pressure on prices. Furthermore, until there is a consensus among manufacturers and dealers in regard to RRPs and list prices, pressure is likely to remain,” he says.

It is difficult to envisage the pricing pressure subsiding while customers continue to scrutinise their capital investments. Parry’s Haworth says that the industry has to adjust to the changing landscape around it, whether suppliers like it or not.

“As ever there is always pricing pressure and the need to provide competitively-priced product solutions,” he comments. “Everyone in the supply chain needs to be aware of the end-users’ requirements and ensure that we are supplying the correct solution for the application as the wrong unit can be a false economy.”

Whatever happens with prices, suppliers can rest assured that there are no signs of demand cooling down.

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