The best time to install a hydronic heating system is when a home is being built. After all, systems require placing pipes underneath the floors, and the most convenient way to do that is when there are no floors as of yet. It can be much more disruptive to a household to rip up the floors while people are living in the home.
John Barba, contractor training manager for Taco Comfort Solutions, said installing radiant in a new home opens up a range of installation options as well as heat source options. A main advantage is adding hydronic to the second floor. That’s because of the need to double-plate walls to accommodate an additional inch-and-a-half for the floor slab. Then there are radiant ceiling options, where contractors can use fabricated panels that include insulation, tubing, and sheetrock all in one package — or even a field-fabricated ceiling assembly.
Now should be a time when HVAC contractors who work with hydronics are seeing increased demand for this type of solution. After all, there are plenty of homes being built right now. Does this mean that the hydronics market is thriving?
New Home Demand Remains Strong
Strong demand, low interest rates, and fewer existing homes for sale helped contribute to an uptick in new home sales in August, the latest month for which data is available. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reported this happened even as home prices continue to rise. Sales of newly built, single-family homes in August rose 1.5% to a 740,000 seasonally adjusted annual rate from an upwardly revised reading in July, according to newly released data by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Census Bureau. Sales are up 2.4% on a year-to-date basis.
INSTALL: A technician installs part of a hydronics system in a new house.
“New home sales stabilized in late summer following a cooling trend that took hold last winter,” said NAHB Chairman Chuck Fowke. “Builder sentiment remains strong, and housing demand is being supported by ongoing low mortgage interest rates and a shortage of existing home inventory.”
Privately‐owned housing units authorized by building permits declined slightly in September from August, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So did privately-owned housing starts, however both were higher than in September 2020.
Managing Member, High Efficiency Solutions
Hydronics to Address Specific Concerns
How many of those new homes are getting hydronic systems installed in them? Barba said his company has seen an increase in demand for plumbing-related products such as domestic hot water recirculation and leak detection, but not as big of a demand for traditional hydronics components like hydroseparators, zone controls, and high-efficiency ECM circulators. Barba said that’s due in part to the regions seeing the most new-home construction, such as the Southeast.
“Much of the new construction is in areas where forced air systems are preferable,” he said.
Dustin Ebersole, managing member of High Efficiency Solutions in Landisville, Pennsylvania, installs both hydronic and traditional systems. Ebersole said the vast majority of his work is still traditional ducted.
What there is a demand for, he said, is radiant floor heat. This is being installed in addition to the ducted systems. Part of this is because home offices are becoming more popular as more people do their job from their residences. Some are even taking unfinished basements and turning them into a usable space. Ebersole states that’s a hard spot for radiant.
“I don’t know if there’s increased demand, but there are definitely people who are interested in that and spend the extra money for that,” he said.
The biggest challenge is getting supply to meet this demand. Ebersole said he used to be able to call the supply house and get what he needed in days. Now it’s weeks or even months. He has had to use more suppliers, including some they rarely use.
Ebersole expects the demand for radiant heat to increase when the weather gets colder. That’s the usual pattern.
Energy Efficiency, Working from Home Help Market
Overall, the outlook for radiant looks like it will follow Ebersole’s experience. Full-home systems might remain a niche market, but there are more consumers looking for warm floors. Underfloor heating is shaping up to be one of the fastest-growing verticals in the HVAC and construction space, according to Global Market Insights Inc.
A pair of factors are driving this higher demand. Part of this is increased use of homes as multipurpose buildings. People are using space in their homes now for a range of activities, from working to working out. That means they want extra comfort in parts of their homes beyond what they were satisfied with in the past.
“The renovation market is hot right now — particularly because home sales are constrained and new construction hasn’t caught up to demand,” said Kolyn Marshall, systems engineering manager for Watts.
People are becoming more aware of hydronics and more concerned about comfort, Marshall said. This is driving a change in priorities away from the aesthetic demands of the past.
“Stone or tile floors used to look great, but were awfully uncomfortable during the winter months,” Marshall said.
Hydronic solutions require more planning, but Marshall said contractors can offer an electric floor option at most points in a new home construction. These systems are easy to install, with very little impact in the overall timing or jobsite complexity.
“We’ve seen many jobs in mid-stride where the homeowner decided to add floor warming at the last hour,” Marshall said.
Energy Efficiency Increases Interest
The other driving force, according to Global Market Insights, is an increased demand for energy efficiency. Consumers are looking for ways to lower costs without sacrificing comfort. Global Market Insights reports that building codes in Europe that call for increased energy efficiency are already driving a shift to radiant heat there.
Barba said hydronics manufacturers have started placing energy efficiency labeling on ECM circulators. The Hydraulics Institute initiated a program to add these labels. This is important, Barba said, because it will give both the installer and the homeowner a clear idea of just how energy efficient their circulators are.
Barba also sees increase demand for air-to-water heat pumps. These units can make both warm and chilled water for heating and cooling, as well as domestic hot water.
“They're silly-efficient and can work with either low-temperature hydronics such as radiant heat or an air handler for forced air heat,” he said. “With growing electrification in the country, air-to-water heat pumps are going to become very popular.”