The New Look Of Hydronics
RECENT IMPROVEMENTS HAVE REJUVENATED INTEREST IN A TIME-TESTED TECHNOLOGY
Not long after Brian Stack bought an older house, one built in the 1940s, he replaced the existing forced-air system with hot water heat. His customers often do the same, or they bring their old, clunky radiators and boilers into the 21st century.
“Given how slow the housing market has been for the last five years, people are staying in their homes longer and putting more money into them,” says Stack, president of Stack Heating & Cooling, in Avon, OH. “Just by putting new boilers in these older homes, we’re able to increase not only the efficiency of the system—up to 98 percent efficiency now—but also the comfort level.”
The new boilers, he notes, are much smaller than their predecessors; rather than taking up valuable space in a basement, they can be mounted on a wall and tucked into a closet. Hydronics controls have become more sophisticated as well; some have the ability to monitor the outdoor temperature and then raise and lower the system’s water temperature accordingly.
“The basics of doing hydronics haven’t changed, but the range of products has expanded and installation has gotten easier,” says Colin Wunder, vice president and director of technical support for Energy Dynamics, a geothermal distributor based in Carthage, SD. For example, he says, “The threaded joints and heavy steel pipe we used in the past have given way to plastics and PEX pipe, and different heat sources, including solar and biomass, are now available. Old applications have been repackaged and improved for the modern age.”
Ready to Grow
Wunder, who has also operated Howard Heating & Plumbing since 1983, believes the newer approaches are prompting a resurgence of interest in hydronics in the United States—and contractors should capitalize on that. “Hydronics has always been big in Europe, and we’re now seeing a lot of European influence on homes,” he observes. “The idea will start to grow as more people see things on TV and in magazines and like what they see. You’ll never have 100 percent of the market, but hydronics is definitely worth looking at.”
Stack estimates that hydronics represents only about 7 percent of the total heating market in the United States. His 37-year-old company once focused exclusively on hydronics, but couldn’t grow past $1.5 million annually without also offering forced air. “Hydronics is a niche market, and how big you can grow it probably depends on where you are in the country. It’s very popular on the East coast and out West,” he says.
In Stack’s area of Northeastern Ohio, for example, interest in radiant floor heating ran high 10 to 15 years ago, but leveled off when new residential construction dwindled. Now his company typically installs smaller zones of radiant as part of a remodeling project, such as a sunroom addition or bathroom renovation.
In Branchburg, NJ, Gregory Jannone tells a different story. He’s president of William Jannone & Sons, Inc., Plumbing & Heating, which has only seen its hydronics business grow since its founding in 1969. “Radiant floor heating became a mainstay of our business in the early 1990s and the interest hasn’t stalled, even during the recession,” says Jannone.
“The beauty of hydronics is that, from one boiler, you can put radiant floor heating in the bathrooms, European-style panel radiators in the bedrooms, and a coil in the ductwork to deliver forced-air heating to certain areas,” he continues. “You can also do a snow-melt system, where you put in piping outside to melt snow off the sidewalk or porch.”
While radiant heating has garnered the most attention, radiant cooling is catching on as well, even beyond the commercial market where chilled water systems are oft en used. The cooled water can be sent either through pipes in a floor or a ceiling. The design criteria for such systems, however, are more complicated, says Jannone. In areas that tend to have muggy weather, for example, radiant cooling requires a strict control of indoor humidity to avoid condensation on the floors.
Both Jannone and Wunder appreciate the versatility and adaptability of hydronics; it can do much on its own or work well in combination with other approaches. For instance, you might use a boiler or geothermal source to provide the initial power to a forced-air system. Solar could be incorporated into the mix as well.
What’s crucial for Jannone is designing a system that matches a customer’s wishes and budget, which might mean mixing hydronics with a ductwork system. “Today, if you want to provide the full comfort package, you need the air side and the hydronics side as well,” he believes.
“You can do more, store more, and extract more with fluid, and water truly is the universal fluid,” Wunder adds. “We’re in the comfort business, and hydronics is one more way to keep the customer very comfortable.”
READY TO GET YOUR FEET WET?
“‘Wet’ heating and cooling continue to get more interesting because of all the things you can do with a pump and pipes,” says Colin Wunder of Energy Dynamics, Inc. “With that flexibility, hydronics may prove to be a larger portion of the market as time goes on.”
If you have considered expanding your business to include hydronics as another revenue stream, here are several suggestions:
Assess the potential. Does your business operate in an area where higher comfort levels, lower operating costs, and new takes on technology resonate with consumers? If so, offering hydronics might open more doors. Brian Stack of Stack Heating & Cooling sees a move into hydronics as a means to diversify your company, offer more options to customers, and pick up referrals. “There aren’t a ton of people doing hydronics right now,” observes Stack, whose business is in Ohio, but who has worked with customers as far away as Texas.
Build your knowledge. You’ll find plenty of seminars, webinars, conferences, books, and trainings offered by various manufacturers and associations, including ACCA. “Although installation continues to get easier, a hydronics system still won’t install itself. So take the time to learn and do it right,” Wunder advises.
Don’t shy away from asking other contractors or industry experts for assistance. “In every market area, someone is the go-to person for hydronics and probably more than willing to explain things to you,” says Wunder. “The advice may not always be free, but there are always people ready to share their opinions!”
Keep it in perspective. Stack Heating & Cooling often gets referrals from contractors who might be intimidated by mastering the ins and outs of a hydronics system. “It’s a learning curve, yes, but many of the principles in the hydronics market are similar to forced-air,” says Stack. “If you think about the blower moving air through the house, for example, the pump is doing the same thing, moving the water through the house.”
Start small. “Don’t take on a huge project for your first hydronics job. Ease yourself into it,” suggests Gregory Jannone, William Jannone & Sons, Inc. “We fix a lot of stuff done by people who just weren’t ready yet.”
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