Once upon a time, air and water didn’t mix. But now, according to manufacturers in the hydronic and radiant heat market, there is an increasing move toward integrating hydronic and HVAC systems. This is a key driver behind innovation in the hydronic market, along with a move toward low-temperature water sources and greater energy efficiency.

And while an improving construction market will benefit the hydronic market, experts say they are still catering to customer attitudes that have resulted from the lingering effects of the recent recession.

Increasing Integration

“Each year, we see more signs of the integration of hydronics and HVAC,” said Bill Root, general manager, Laars Heating Systems. “A decade ago, the two disciplines or technologies kept their distance. Then, hydro air — using boiler-supplied hot water in fan coils within HVAC ducts for space heat — helped to bridge the two disciplines in garages, shops, warehouses, and storage areas heated with hydronic space heaters, and in toe-kick hydronic heaters in kitchens and hydronic convection heaters used to supplement heat in great rooms with a lot of glass on exterior walls.”

He continued: “More recently, chilled beams and variable air volume (VAV) technology have brought them together. In fact, another bridging technology — radiant cooling — can be used in ceilings, walls, and floors.”

John Sweaney, senior product and customer support manager, Watts Radiant/Suntouch, agreed this is a current trend driving innovation. “Today, we rarely see stand-alone radiant heat systems; they’re often integrated with forced air.”

Low-Temp Trend

Another trend observed by many in the industry is a greater use of low-temperature heat sources.

According to John Barba, residential training/trade program manager, Taco Inc., the use of low water temperature heat emitters is not new. However, he said, “Some of the emitters are very interesting.”

According to Barba, “There’s now low-temperature fin-tube baseboard available that can deliver 400-500 Btuh per linear foot with 120˚-130˚F water. They are assembled, ready-to-install panels for radiant ceilings. These assemblies are remarkable, capable of delivering up to 27 Btuh per square foot of radiator space at only 100˚ water.”

Dietrich noted that this trend is related to the new, highly efficient boilers on the market.

“The growing popularity of condensing boilers makes low-temperature radiant distribution highly complementary and a perfect match for modern boilers,” he said.

Sweaney added, “We’re seeing a lot of water-to-water and even air-to-water heat pumps as the source for hydronic warmth, ideally matched to the low-temp needs of radiant heat systems.”

Jim Fino, marketing manager, Harsco Industrial Patterson-Kelley, said condensing hot water is driving the market, noting that a new product roll-out from his company is focused on offering a low boiler water approach temperature compared to the domestic hot water set point.

Energy Efficiency

Along with these trends, it’s impossible to discuss the hydronics market without mentioning how it is being affected by the drive for ever-improving energy efficiency.

“We are seeing great interest in the market for energy-efficient solutions,” said Andrew Januszewski, marketing manager, Armstrong Fluid Technology.

“As efficiency standards become more stringent, the trend to manufacture more efficient equipment increases as well,” added Tracy Young, product manager at Rinnai America Corp.

Brian Fenske, specialty channel sales manager, Navien America Inc., also commented on the move toward efficiency. “Energy efficiency and equipment size continues to draw interest from the designer and installer, but the consumer also,” he said. Fenske added that this is leading to the development of “new burners, heat exchanger designs, and parameter settings that will allow fine tuning in the field to reduce cycling of low-mass condensing boilers that otherwise are perfect in reducing standby losses that lowers the AFUE.”

According to Kevin Graebel, senior product manager, water, Honeywell, “The convenience and ease of installation of the control panels will drive adoption of higher-efficiency systems.”

But it’s not just residential consumers seeking energy efficiency — the same desire exists for commercial consumers. “Our customers demand the most energy-efficient, intelligently designed cooling and heating systems available for their commercial applications,” said Mike Smith, senior marketing manager, commercial products, Mitsubishi Electric US Cooling & Heating Division. “We use our hydronic products to maximize energy efficiency, providing additional energy-saving components to variable refrigerant flow (VRF) zoning systems.”

Considering all of the advances in efficiency, Nate Warren, hydronic sales manager, Bradford White Corp., added a note of caution for contractors. “As heating systems, controls, and equipment become more advanced, it’s important for contractors to understand how they work as a whole,” he said. “As a manufacturer, we see a lot of great examples of our reps and wholesalers spending more time educating contractors. Being familiar and comfortable with the product helps the installer do the job right the first time, which is good for everyone.”

Economic Effects

Energy efficiency also ties well into the post-recession mindset of consumers seeking to save money on energy bills. Whether you call this being “cost-competitive” or “affordable” (but never “cheap”), it’s clear that customers are still looking for ways to get the most bang for their buck.

“Not surprisingly, the primary trend for the past few years is a greater focus on value. The push toward sustainability has survived the recession, but you have to deliver value, especially in initial investment and operating costs,” said Mike Dietrich, director of REHAU North America’s Building Technology Business Unit.

Mark Hudoba, director, heating and cooling, Uponor, added, “With the recent economic recession, the simple, smaller, and more affordable radiant systems are becoming more popular.” Hudoba explained: “While radiant floor heating systems initially grew in the luxury home segment, the simple, affordable systems are allowing the entry-luxury and move-up home segments to also enjoy the comfort and energy efficiency that radiant floor heating provides. Essentially, the radiant heating segment continues to remain strong in the luxury residential market while expanding into the standard home and also the residential remodeling markets — strong in the ‘classes’ while expanding into the ‘masses.’”

On a positive note, Dietrich pointed out, “Housing construction is on the rise again, which helps to further innovation toward optimizing system components.”

Future of Hydronics

Many of today’s current trends will continue to influence the hydronics market in the near future, while experts say that consumers will become more demanding further down the road.

“As mentioned earlier, the economic climate has and will continue to drive radiant heating and cooling product and system improvements,” Hudoba said. “Continued consumer desire and legislation for more energy-efficient and sustainable systems will also drive improvements to radiant heating systems. The effects of legislation can be seen in many European and Nordic countries where the majority of the home-heating systems are hydronic.”

According to Januszewski, “Future trends will likely include market demand for even better energy efficiency, more space efficiency, and longer equipment life.”

“Technology will continue to advance, especially in controls. Homeowners will be demanding a connected solution once they understand the value that it can bring to their home,” Graebel said.

Young also noted that consumers will become more demanding. “Additional features and benefits consumers will demand from product manufacturers include longer product life and less frequent maintenance,” he said.

According to Warren, educated consumers will benefit the hydronics market. “Consumers are paying more attention to energy consumption and better comfort,” he said. “It helps make hydronic heat a much stronger value proposition.”

“Also, there’s the trend toward home and building automation and wireless access,” Sweaney added. “Consider the consumer push for phone apps and online access to so many products today. Our industry, at last, is moving in the very same direction.”

On the commercial side, Smith noted: “Hydronic systems will continue to be used as a means to increase the energy efficiency of commercial cooling and heating systems and to provide specifiers with an additional option for energy savings. As architects, engineers, and HVAC contractors become increasingly concerned with the sustainable characteristics of the products they specify, hydronic systems will be incorporated into even more cooling and heating solutions.”

Fino added, “Co-generation will become more important as the costs to make this type of equipment drop.”

Publication date: 10/28/2013 

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