Radiant maintenance and repairs are straightforward until it’s time to rip out the finished flooring because of a leak; then, it can be a catastrophe. When done correctly, radiant installations provide not only a source of heat but a source of customer happiness. When done incorrectly, the consequences can be devastating. The following suggestions, from three experienced radiant contractors, can help contractors avoid major radiant issues and diffuse customer anguish if things go wrong.
INVEST IN PROPER INSTALLATION
One of the best ways to avoid radiant installation problems down the road is to ensure that the system is installed properly the first time. To do that, Steve Moon, owner of Moon Services Inc., Elkton, Maryland, suggests that contractors start with a good radiant base system to help avoid any complications. Some radiant companies, like Warm Board, will engineer the whole project and design everything, said Moon.
According to Moon, another installation factor to consider is the selection of the circulator pump.
“Circulator pump failure is one of the most common problems with radiant systems,” he said. “This is usually because of poor installation or improper selection of the pumps. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation.”
If working through the installation without a company to design it, Dan Foley, president of Foley Mechanical Inc., Lorton, Virginia, encourages contractors to follow the manufacturers’ specifications and installation procedures as written in their manuals.
“It is also very helpful to attend manufacturer training classes, both locally and at the manufacturer’s facility,” he said.
Once the installation is ready to begin, Aaron Rice, president of A & A Precision Heating, Cooling & Refrigeration in Evansville, Indiana, said his company verifies the BTUs/hr/ft2, panel surface temperature, supply water temperature, and flow rate before installation.
When contractors start with a solid base, follow manufacturer specifications, and invest in proper training, they are more likely to find success with the variables that present themselves during radiant installations.
MANAGE MAINTENANCE REGULARLY
Like other HVAC systems, radiant installations require proper maintenance and management to function smoothly. Rice has his technicians bleed a running radiant system’s lines every year, along with checking all safeties as well as pressure relief valves.
“Air locks and leaks can occur and are common failures,” he said. “Keep the boiler clean, check the flame and safety options, and check the efficiency level of burning fuel and water pressures.”
Moon said that the circulator pumps should also be checked every year and that worn impellors should be replaced.
“Annual service of the radiant system includes cleaning the heat source, ensuring no loops are air-locked, flushing/purging the system, and making sure that a good air separator is installed and functioning,” said Foley. “We recommend annual service on our radiant system installs.”
DETERMINE THE PROBLEM
Despite a proper installation and proper maintenance, there are times that radiant heat systems need to be repaired. If it is a circulator or boiler, those components can be easily accessed. Leaks in the floor tubing, however, are a different story.
“Most leaks are at the manifolds and connection points,” said Foley. “It is very rare for the installed tubing to develop a leak. Far more likely is that the tubing damage was caused by drilling or nailing. It is imperative for the homeowner to inform anyone working in their home that there is radiant tubing in the floors.”
Even with the rarity of leak development for radiant systems, there are times that something goes wrong and repairs have to be made to not only the system, but also to the floor.
Moon often prefers to install radiant flooring solutions in homes with basements.
“In most cases here, the leak issue is repaired from under the floor in the basement, so the finished floor doesn’t have to be removed,” he said. “They are hard to find, but it beats ripping up the whole room.”
Rice has seen radiant installations where the pipes have leaked into the floor, which he said creates a potential mold hazard for homeowners. It also increases the floor’s potential to rot.
Leaking tubing is not the only reason a radiant contractor may have to pull out the floor to fix the system. According to Moon, when it comes to a failure with electrical radiant systems, the whole floor has to come out.
APPROACH WITH CAUTION
Once it has been determined that there is no way to fix a radiant system without pulling out the finished floor, a contractor needs to proceed with caution and consideration of the customer’s shock at the coming repair news.
“We spend a lot of time talking with the customer about all the possibilities and try the simplest solutions first,” said Moon. “This is a very emotional time for the homeowner. Tread lightly.”
Although it’s a tough conversation to have, the fact is that radiant technicians will end up having the conversation one day. After explaining to the customer what repairs are necessary, Foley suggests going further for the customer to ensure the new floor installation and the radiant repair both go according to plan.
“I try to be proactive and meet with the flooring installers before they start their work,” he said. “A few minutes spent here will save hours of headaches and repair later.”
His company also has signs printed with a warning of the radiant tubing installed under the floor for customers.
When faced with this situation, Rice approaches his customers in a matter-of-fact manner.
“Our technicians would explain to the customer what repair needs to be completed and how it needs to be completed to fix their issue,” he said. “At that point, we would leave it up to the customers if they would want to proceed with the repair.”
If, during the repair of a radiant system, the floor ends up needing to be replaced, there is an opportunity to discuss with customers what flooring is an optimal choice. Although radiant works under all types of different flooring, surfaces such as tile and hardwood are often the best conductors of heat, keeping their energy requirements on the lower end as compared to other flooring materials.
“Carpet is an insulator, so it takes more heat to get that toasty feeling the client is after,” said Moon. “More heat means higher operating cost.”
Foley agreed that radiant systems can be installed under just about any floor, but cautioned that proper design and calculations must be performed in advance to ensure system performance.
“Hard surfaces such as tile and stone perform best, but radiant can work under most flooring finishes if designed properly,” he said. “In some cases, supplement heat may be required at design conditions.”
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