Although numerous critics had hardly thought it possible anymore because of years-long delays, fuel cell heating systems have entered the market. Several manufacturers of heating appliances have added power and heat units running on natural gas to their portfolio. One of them is Thermondo, a young heating installation company operating across Germany, which has been offering condensing boilers since last year.
Nowadays, an increasing number of people get their information online – even about the heating industry. One of the first (German) hits in the most common search engines will be Thermondo: The startup founded in 2012 in Berlin employs over 100 master tradesmen and has had collaborations with Viessmann, SOLIDpower and elcore (see: Device list in H2-international issue from November 2016).
Thermondo’s employees will offer prospects systems based on their individual needs. For example, Galileo 1000 N by Viessmann has been designed for a comparatively high gas consumption, which makes it a more apt choice for two-family or multi-family properties. Conversely, Vitovalor 300-P is a better match for energy requirements between 9,000 and 25,000 kWh per year and is priced at EUR 19,500 (net; minus EUR 9,300 in subsidies) in online stores. It is relatively big and requires a room height of 2.25 meters or 7.38 feet. A much smaller and model better suited for single-family homes is elcore 2400 (see figure). The net price of EUR 25,000 includes a peak load boiler, buffer storage and the installation work. After subtracting various subsidy amounts, you get to a total cost of around EUR 14,000.
Compared to condensing boilers (around EUR 8,000), that is quite a lot of money to pay, but a Thermondo consultant said that the investment would amortize after around 15 years, as operating costs were lower. Customers would save more than EUR 2,000 annually starting with the sixteenth year, since the efficient on-site generation of cheap power trumped having to buy it from utilities.
However, it is not quite as simple as it sounds: Criticism about the new sales channel has been mounting in recent months, as communication with customers has increasingly shifted toward online stores. When Vaillant created its new heizungonline platform, the Central Association of Sanitation, Heating and Air Conditioning, ZVSHK, railed against the direct sale to consumers, which had been contrary to the way things were done in the industry. It accused Vaillant of a one-sided decision to terminate the market partnership with the tradesmen. During the member assembly in Berlin, it passed a resolution that was approved by (all) 17 state associations and called on Vaillant to return to its traditional ways.
Meanwhile, Vaillant is said to have devised the new strategy because tradesmen in the sanitary, heating and air conditioning business were no longer surviving as individual enterprises in an increasingly digitized world. This statement, however, only exacerbated the situation. Elmar Esser, formerly managing director of ZVSHK, told the German Handwerk Magazin: “The biggest danger is in the role of the trade being reduced to installation work only.” The tradesman would become a “human screwdriver for hire.”
Würzburg-based installation company DESD caused a further uproar on the market by accusing Thermondo of having installed fuel cell heating systems in an unprofessional or even chaotic manner; sometimes, the customer had even ended up with a flawed installation. In fall 2016, Si Magazine quoted from a DESD email: “We sold the power-generating heaters allegedly distributed by Thermondo and only contracted the company with their installation.” Furthermore, Thermondo confirmed that it “had already entered into a collaboration agreement with DESD about the sale of fuel cell heating systems in November of 2015.” But this collaboration had been terminated by the Berlin-based business in March 2016. Additionally, the services that were part of the agreement did not only consist of installation work, but also included the supply of systems and materials as well as part of project management. And whereas DESD said that Thermondo had made mistakes during installation, the accused responded by saying that DESD’s consultations were below standard.
Thermondo put out a statement to clarify that the consultancy contract was not with DESD GmbH & Co. KG but DESD Vertriebs GmbH. In turn, Karolina Balthasar from DESD said to H2-international: “I was also managing partner and managing director of DESD GmbH & Co. KG until the end of March [2016; editor’s note]. I sold the business at the end of this March [in 2016; editor’s note] and handed over management of the company to the new owner.” Balthasar, a designer, who states in her XING profile that she had studied art and art history at the University of Zielona Gorá, founded DESD Vertriebs GmbH in March 2016. She confirmed to H2-international that she had filed charges of willful misrepresentation, fraud and attempted large-scale subsidy fraud against two Thermondo managing directors on Nov. 25, 2016. She explained: “For one, Thermondo is touting a sale of around 160 fuel cell systems in the first half of 2016. This figure is false, because they were sold by us, DESD, and Hamburg-based Amnis Energie, in which I have stake too.”
Manfred Stefener, managing director of elcore, which manufactured some of the devices, told H2-international: “DESD sold devices for us until the end of 2015 – not a very larger number, maybe 15. The cooperation was then terminated.” He also confirmed that Thermondo and DESD had meanwhile gone their separate ways, probably because “the guy from DESD” felt he was treated unfairly. Stefener said about the collaboration with the Berlin-based business: “In our view, Thermondo is doing a good a job – far above average.” Their employees had gathered enough experiences after having done numerous installations, so that “you won’t have to worry.” Viessmann likewise told H2-international that there were no issues with Thermondo, which had installed more than a hundred fuel cell devices on behalf of the family business.
Some in the heating industry, however, harshly criticized DESD and Karolina and her husband, Wolfgang Balthasar. Philipp Pausder, one of the managing directors of Thermondo, made the following statement to Si: “The charges that Karolina Balthasar has filed include claims without any basis in fact. Considering the baselessness of her charges, we choose not to comment on the matter.”
Founded four years ago by Philipp Pausder, Florian Tetzlaff and Kristofer Fichtner and supported by venture capitalist Global Founders Capital as well as E.ON, Thermondo terms itself the “market leader in heating system replacements for single- and two-family homes with 300 staff” and has advertised the fact that it received the TÜV SÜD’s Customer Satisfaction Award for the best customer ratings.