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Adding Radiant To Your Portfolio

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If you follow trends in the heating business, it comes as no surprise that radiant heating is one of the hottest trends in the HVAC business. Many mistakenly assume that if a system contains a boiler, pipes and pumps, it is best left to a plumber. Certainly many plumbing companies are competent radiant contractors. Remarkably, many HVAC contractors are walking away from profitable radiant jobs. Now is the perfect time to consider adding radiant to your product portfolio.

My background is in HVAC and sheetmetal. I worked for a midsize HVAC contractor for 15 years. We were strictly service and replacement. We did a few boiler change-outs but by no means were we considered a hydronics/radiant contractor. I became interested in radiant heat in the early 90’s through articles in the trade press and through a Dan Holohan seminar. I completed my first radiant project in 1992 and grew from there. While the radiant side of our business increased annually, our primary focus was still HVAC.

Ten years ago I left the company to start my own company specializing in radiant heat. Today, over 70% of my business is in radiant and snowmelt. I have found this niche to be profitable and not dependent on the weather. We install as much radiant in January as we do in July. I also find the radiant business fun and interesting. I have found that people are willing to pay more for something they want rather than something they need. As evidenced by the upward trend in radiant demand, homeowners want radiant heat and are willing to pay a premium for it.

My market is the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. With the strong local economy and the double digit annual growth in housing prices, many homeowners are staying put and renovating and adding additions to their existing homes. This is a perfect opportunity to up sell radiant systems. These homeowners are spending on granite counter tops, commercial kitchens, Jacuzzi tubs, finished basements, home theaters, and large master suites with upscale baths. These homeowners are the ones demanding the comfort of radiant heat. Why not be the one to offer it to them and cash in on a great opportunity.

How do you find the people to properly install radiant systems? Easy, open the back door to your shop. Most HVAC technicians already posses the skills and tools necessary to install radiant. In addition, after dealing with complicated control wiring in modern furnaces and heat pumps, the typical HVAC technician can easily adapt to hydronic control systems. With the proper training and a few select tools, your current techs can easily install radiant heating systems.

I receive many questions from my fellow contractors about radiant heat. Most center on how to price jobs, calculate labor hours, or how to lay out tubing or design control strategies. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. The correct answer is to get educated. ACCA offers radiant and hydronics training through the RHC (Radiant & Hydronics Council) and at the annual IE3 conference. The next annual conference is scheduled for March 17-20 in Nashville, TN. Technical and instructional seminars at our conference can give the contractor a solid foundation to properly design and install radiant systems. ACCA also offers several publications and texts that would be beneficial to the novice as well as experienced radiant contractor. The one text I highly recommend is Modern Hydronic Heating  3rd Edition by John Siegenthaler. I refer to this book on a regular basis. I would also recommend you attend your favorite manufacturer’s schools in order to learn the particular installation techniques and controls for their products. Many local wholesalers and rep agencies also offer first rate training.

Every good radiant installation begins with a sound design that includes an accurate heatloss calculation, manifold locations, tubing layout, piping or flow diagram, and control strategy. This does not have to be an elaborate CAD design. Most manufacturer’s offer design software to their customers and there are several commercially available radiant design software packages. However you do this, please make sure it gets done! I always make three copies of my radiant designs. One goes out with the installation crew, one goes into the job folder, and one gets put into a notebook that is left on the job once I receive final payment. You have to consider that you may not be the one who has to service the system. The design information is invaluable when troubleshooting a malfunctioning system years down the road.

Most software packages will do a heatloss calculation and system design. This design will tell the installer the tubing size, loop length, on center dimension, and installation technique. Some will also print out material lists and pull sheets. There are also loop drawing programs available that will draw your loop layouts in a plan view. While this is not necessary, it does make it easier on a novice installer. Most manufacturers also offer CAD design services. I have found these layouts make a good sales tool as well. The maze of tubing seems to impress the customer.

If you are wary or unsure of doing a radiant design, ask your wholesaler or rep to help you out. They may even have the manufacturer do the design. After you get a few jobs under your belt, you will feel more comfortable doing the design. There are several independent design consultants that will put together a packaged design including all necessary calculations and drawings. These packages will typically run from $300 -$1,000+ depending on the size and complexity of the system. For large elaborate projects, these design consultants are well worth the price. E-mail me if you are interested in my list of design consultants.

Every winter, I am called out to look at underperforming radiant system. Many times I find a system that was piped neatly and installed in a workmanlike fashion. But they don’t heat. Sometimes I find loop lengths that are too long. Other times it is undersized piping, poor or missing insulation, or floor R-values that are too high. Almost all have one thing in common – no design work was done. You won’t stay in business long by guessing instead of doing a proper design.

With the demand for radiant systems at an all time high, now is the time to get educated and get into the radiant game. Whether your background is plumbing or HVAC, you are equipped to offer your clients radiant heat. Just make sure you do your homework and do a proper design and you will stay out of trouble.

Dan Foley

Posted In: ACCA Now, Hydronics

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