Radiant Heating Contractors Speak Out

October 16, 2006
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Loops for radiant floor heat are assembled and secured in place before the concrete is poured in the floor of the service area at Frontier Chevrolet.

Designing and installing stand-alone radiant heating systems as well as hybrid systems - combining radiant with gas or geothermal - is becoming a popular option for homeowners and HVAC contractors. Taking their cue from hydronic heating-plumbing contractors, the HVAC contracting trade is continuing to add radiant to its product mix.

"Every year for the past five years our company has seen steady growth in the radiant market," said Erik Erekson of Thermal Floors, LLC., Midvale, Utah. "It seems that housing prices in our area have escalated to a point that the percentage cost of the radiant system in the total cost of the home is smaller than in years past thus more people are installing systems in their homes."

Ninety percent of Erekson's company installation and replacement business is in the radiant heat market.

The news is similar for the Washington D.C. area, where Dan Foley of Foley Mechanical Inc., Alexandria, Va., is enjoying a success that reflects the growth of his company. "The radiant market in the Washington, D.C. metro area is growing steadily, which mirrors the 50 percent annual growth rate of Foley Mechanical since 2002," he said. Seventy percent of Foley's revenues come from radiant heating.

The success of radiant heating also extends into America's heartland where businesses such as the Frontier Auto Group of El Reno, Okla., have enjoyed the benefits and comfort of radiant (see sidebar).

HOMEOWNER BENEFITS

Some contractors feel that the overall radiant experience is what sells radiant heating to homeowners. "Only radiant can offer an enhanced living environment," said John Trickel of VGI Design, Des Moines, Iowa.

Though Trickel may have a seemingly exuberant bias toward radiant heat, Erekson agreed. "Nothing compares to the comfort level, but there are also side benefits, such as warm floors, no drafts in the home, a healthier living environment, etc.," he said.

Additional benefits that contractors list include: architectural freedom (no registers, grilles, radiators), IAQ, lack of noise, longevity of the system.

Not only do radiant systems provide a comfortable and long-lasting benefit, but Foley said that radiant has some advantages over another very popular system - gas forced air.

"One boiler or heat source can supply multiple loads: radiant, fan coils, domestic hot water, towel warmers, radiators, snowmelt. Combustion is contained in one location - usually a concrete mechanical room. There is minimal gas piping and optimal control," said Foley.

Foley also talked about reasons why homeowners may balk at installing radiant systems - the initial installation costs. But he gave reasons why that objection can be overcome.

"Cost and budgets are always a factor but are easily overcome when compared to the overall cost of the home," he said, especially when people figure in the cost of other systems and features of a new home such as master bath suites, whirlpool tubs, gourmet kitchens with commercial appliances, marble floors, interior finishes, etc.

"One factor that is often overlooked is the amount of coordination between the mechanical contractor and the homeowner, architect, and GC required for a successful project. I am a firm believer in providing a complete set of construction documents that contain design assumptions (R-values, design temperatures, glazing specs, etc.), tubing layouts, construction methods (slab, staple up, plates, etc.), manifold locations, thermostat locations, and mechanical room layout. This is agreed to by all parties before work commences and avoids conflicts down the road."

Trickel sees the costs as the only real drawback for radiant heating. "It's just first cost," he said. "That's about it - otherwise all homes in the Northern areas would have it. It costs more because it is a duplication of the heating system in many cases. Most structures already have the ductwork for a/c so a homeowner must really want the enhanced comfort to pay more for it."

But rather than competing with other systems, radiant can also work in tandem with them. Erekson said that climate conditions usually necessitate the need for two different systems. "In our climate, cooling is a must and is pretty much always installed along with the radiant," he said. "Also, radiant requires fairly low water temperatures that geothermal and solar heating can provide for a good portion of a heating season."

The floor below the main shop at Frontier Chevrolet, Reno, Okla., awaits the cement pour after the radiant tubing was laid.

DESIGNERS LIKE RADIANT, TOO

HVAC contractors who like to design custom systems for home-owners, as well as for businesses, can have a lot of design flexibility when selecting the system and components. Integrating a well-designed system, which factors in existing equipment or enhanced hybrid equipment, keeps design work fresh - and profitable.

"I got into radiant for two main reasons," said Foley. "First, I was challenged by a technically complicated system and second, Economics 101. There were very few competent radiant contractors in my market at the time (early '90s), which allowed for decent margins on the jobs.

"HVAC skills translate well to the radiant industry. In my market, there are as many HVAC guys installing radiant as plumbers. Anyone who has wired up heat pump and furnace controls would have no problem learning how to apply that knowledge base to complicated boiler/reset controls."

Maybe that's why guys like Foley, Erekson, and Trickel like to design radiant systems as often as possible.

"I try to offer the design every chance I can," said Trickel.

"Customers are demanding healthier living environments and desire the comfort," said Erekson. "This is a growing market."

The completed shop floor of Frontier Chevrolet where radiant heating adds warmth and comfort for the auto technicians at work.

Sidebar: Loving Its Radiant

Keeping customers happy is the key to success for all businesses, especially in automobile sales. Being able to offer the best customer service year-round is important to dealers like the Frontier Auto Group of El Reno, Okla.

But in order to keep customers happy and their vehicles properly serviced, it is also important to keep employees happy. That's why the owners of Frontier contracted with Air-O Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. in Stillwater, Okla. to install radiant heating in the shop area of the dealership.

Boyd Stuckey, spokesperson for Frontier, said there are no employees who dislike the radiant floor - and for good reason. "The technicians like the radiant heat because it heats vehicles and equipment instead of just heating air," he said. "In the winter time, when the floor is on and it is wet outside, the floor will dry quicker, too.

"Radiant makes a large shop very comfortable to work in. And if you raise the temperature enough it will run you out of the shop. That's how well it heats. Our doors are opened and closed a lot in the winter, and our main doors face north and south, so you can see how we would get a good north wind that comes in when the door is opened."

The radiant system uses geothermal as its heat source - which suits Stuckey just fine. "The geothermal system has always kept up with all of our heating demands," he said.

Publication date: 10/16/2006

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