I made a big mistake the other day. No, that’s not a revelation. I’ve made a few in my lifetime, maybe more than I’d like to admit. I also went through that vain stage in my twenties when I thought the word infallible would have my picture next to it in the dictionary. I even wore a shirt with the imprint, “Once I thought I was wrong but I was mistaken.”

So here I am trying to arrange a “meeting of the minds” between technicians on the “wet” side of the industry and those on the “dry” side. As a new acquaintance eloquently told me, a meeting of “wet heads” and “tin knockers.” I didn’t realize that mechanics from both trades had so little in common, as someone pointed out.

But it got me thinking about the overall picture of our trades — those who make a living designing, installing, and servicing hydronic systems and those who do the same with gas forced-air systems (or oil burners). It seems to me that at some point, the two may be drawn closer together because of the current “crisis” involving natural gas and fuel oil prices. Will high prices to heat homes and businesses force consumers to seek alternative means of obtaining comfort?

I think the answer is a resounding maybe. How’s that for sitting on top of the fence? I’m only allowing myself to make one mistake a week now.

I asked a few people in the hydronics trade to respond to a query I made about the energy crisis and how wet guys may benefit from consumer backlash. I won’t use any verbatim quotes because some may offend the sensitive side of contractors who take a lot of pride in the work they do and the systems they install. And I do think I’m walking on eggshells by broaching the subject.

Hypothetical Models

I think the only true way of knowing the advantages of heating with hydronics vs. forced air would be to make a hypothetical study. I would welcome the contribution from any contractor who could come up with a case study, showing the typical costs of installing and operating each system. I know there are many variables which could skew the results, such as the availability of each energy source to a certain region, the cost of energy in that region, whether installing contractors use flat rate or time and materials, etc. But let’s assume that all things are equal and we are working in a vacuum. Let’s assume a residential and commercial scenario. First of all, I don’t profess to be a designer or engineer. I’ll needa lotof help with this. And I’ll accept all responses from all contributors. A new home is being designed. It is 2,000 square feet. It is a two-story structure with a full basement. The owner wants separate zone heating for the main living area (first floor), sleeping area (second floor), and home office (finished basement). Can we work up a cost for gas forced-air heating, fuel oil heating, radiant heating, or geothermal heating based on this information? If so, let’s calculate it based on a fixed cost for gas and water and then calculate costs to maintain the system based on current fluctuations in the cost of natural gas and fuel oil, say an average annual increase of 25% over the next 10 years. Assume the cost of water increases an average of 5% each year for the same time period. Neither assumption would be that far off the average. Let’s do the same thing for a new commercial retail store, 10,000 square feet, one story, with two-zone heating — one for the retail area and one for the employee lounge/stock room. Is this too hard to figure? Do I need more variables? Am I reaching for straws? Stay tuned. And tune us in at our bulletin board/chat area at our website (www.achrnews.comand click on hvacr forum). Share your opinion online or in print. Maybe we can break ground — wetheads installing forced air and tin-knockers installing radiant heat. Now I’mreallypushing the envelope.

Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 734-542-6214; 734-542-6215 (fax); halljr@bnp.com (e-mail).

Publiation date: 02/19/2001