|Rising popularity in the use of geothermal heat pumps has also played a role in radiant selection, as these pumps have been found to work very effectively with radiant heating systems.|
While the roots of radiant (or hydronic) heating technology run deep into centuries past, it has only been within the past few decades that this highly efficient, comfort-enhancing technique has taken hold in modern-day building practices.
In recent years, hydronic radiant heating has gained marked traction in North America as a growing alternative to forced air heat in both residential and commercial building.
Comfort is often identified as the main reason why people choose to install radiant over forced air systems, however, steadily escalating energy costs have brought efficiency to the top of the list of reasons why more and more contractors, homeowners and architects are selecting radiant heating systems.
A number of current market trends are contributing to a rising demand for radiant heating systems – and the contractors capable of installing them. Energy efficiency is the key benefit, as radiant heating systems typically allow thermostats to be lowered as much as four degrees compared to a forced air system, without sacrificing comfort – thus reducing fuel consumption and often yielding significant utility bill savings for the homeowner. In addition, a rising popularity in the use of geothermal heat pumps has also played a role, as these pumps have been found to work very effectively with radiant heating systems.
Ground-source heat pumps typically extract water at ideal temperatures for a radiant heating system: 110 to 120F. While the efficiency return of geothermal systems can be somewhat hindered when traditionally paired with forced air systems (which require additional water heat boosters), they are now seen as a very efficient means of heating a home when integrated with low-temperature radiant heat.
The efficiency advantage of radiant heating is even more significant in commercial applications, in which building designs typically feature high ceilings, high air infiltration and generally large amounts of space. In commercial applications, the reduced maintenance requirements of radiant heating, which uses continuous circuits of polymer pipe within the floor is also attractive.
In addition, growth in both the custom and retirement home building markets has spurred increased demand for radiant heating systems. “Radiant heat is becoming more mainstream because of the popularity of vaulted ceilings and hard floor surfaces such as stone, tile and hardwoods in custom builds,” according to Rich Coppola at Western Nevada Supply.
As for retirement or “patio” homes — typically one-level slab-on-grade structures that, by design, require a concrete pour — radiant becomes an obvious choice that can in fact streamline construction. As the baby boomers reach retirement age, a considerable number of retirement communities are expanding across the U.S. The structural nature of these “patio communities,” as they are sometimes called, lends itself to efficient installation of a radiant system at the very initial stages of laying the foundation. This saves time in subsequent phases of construction as venting and other forced air system components no longer need to be run throughout the house. The radiant system is also highly desirable to retiree residents from the perspective of the efficiency and comfort it provides.
Finally, the move towards “green building” is supported by radiant heating, which enhances not only energy efficiency, but also the quality of the indoor environment by providing comfortable temperatures, quieter operation and improved air quality.
Getting Started Whether you’re a plumbing and mechanical contractor, or someone on the traditional forced air side of the fence, getting the radiant heating component of a business going can be as simple as following these three steps:
1. Learn the System.
As current market demands underscore the likelihood that, “if you build it, they will come,” it’s highly imperative that a contractor participate in formal training on radiant systems prior to specifying and installing them. You definitely want to get involved right away with a program in which instruction is provided on everything from the components of the system, to how to develop the design and calculations for different types of jobs, to actually installing it in a manner that ensures long-term reliability and overall customer satisfaction. In this respect, training opportunities should be sought either through a reliable supplier of the full range of radiant heating system components (to garner a comprehensive understanding of how each works), or via a professional trade school.
2. Use Good Product.
When starting the radiant heating system portion of a business, the quickest way to establish credibility is by using quality system components. High-grade pipe, reliable fittings and an easy-to-balance manifold are all very important, and beyond credibility will lend peace of mind about long-term system performance. The last thing you want to be concerned with when you’ve put the reputation of your business out there is whether you’ve gone with the right product. Revisiting a job for repairs – or worse yet, complete reworks – is not something a contractor should risk because he or she didn’t do his homework or simply went with the lowest-price option.
3. Partner with a Supportive Supplier.
A contractor interested in entering the radiant heat business should make sure the chosen manufacturer not only offers a quality product, but also end-to-end product and system support. This includes comprehensive technical sales materials, a substantial distribution network, homeowner/customer education materials, design support, system design software, and even onsite installation support. You to be certain the supplier doesn’t disappear after the sale is made.
The choice of supplier applies also to the wholesaler/distributor, who can provide region-specific knowledge and likely has radiant experts on staff who can offer additional help. It’s of vital importance that you select a supplier who can scale to your needs, (especially when starting out with radiant projects), and one that supports a network of manufacturers’ representatives who can even provide on-the-job installation training and support.
Building trends are already enhancing market demands, and in taking the right steps your radiant business can be up, running and capitalizing on them in a fairly short period of time. For more information on getting started, visit a related trade organization like the Radiant Panel Association (RPA) — www.radiantpanelassociation.org, or contact a system supplier directly.
Lance MacNevin, Unit Manager of REHAU Academy, is a nearly 20-year veteran of the radiant industry, and has trainedcontractors across North America. As an engineer by trade, Lance was involved with the development of a number of radiant heating products in use today. He also works closely with a number of North American piping standards committees and trade associations. He can be reached at 703/777-5255. REHAU Academy provides comprehensive training in radiant heat for HVAC contractors. Visit www.na.rehau.com for additional information.
Getting in the Loop
The Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium, Washington, D.C., is a clearinghouse of information on geothermal (“geoexchange”) technology. John Kelly, executive director, says the Consortium welcomes inquiries by conventional HVAC contractors who are interested in providing geothermal comfort systems. The Consortium website — www. GeoExchange.org — provides basic, helpful information about geothermal technology, and includes descriptions of residential and commercial project case studies, and links to related websites.
Training is the essential first step toward incorporating geothermal services into a conventional HVAC business, as the heat pump equipment and ground loop installation is vastly different from that used with gasfired heating and a conventional air conditioner. Kelly suggests interested contractors get in touch with major geothermal heat pump manufacturers, to talk to them about their products, distribution, and training.
Andrew Tyson, PE, with the Geo- Heat Center of the Oregon Institute of Technology, Klamath Falls, OR, adds that contractors usually obtain certification through the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association (IGSHPA). According to Tyson, IGSHPA certification is required for many commercial building projects.
IGSHPA writes standards and specifications for the installation of geothermal heat pump systems, focusing on the ground loop, and fills the information gap for people who need to know how to install the ground loop piping.
Visit www.igshpa.okstate.edu for additional information.
Opinions differ on whether or not the HVAC contractor should attempt to install the geothermal ground loop.
“If they’re certified through IGSHPA, and have a couple jobs under their belt, they’d certainly be capable of doing a horizontal geothermal loop excavation themselves,” Tyson says. “Subcontracting the excavation is an option for contractors who don’t have the volume of work to support an excavating crew.” However, learning how to install horizontal geothermal pipe requires some time in the classroom. “Contractors need to become proficient in pipe fusion, and working with highdensity polyethylene pipe,” Tyson says.
“The joints are made with a thermal weld, which many HVAC contractors aren’t necessarily familiar with.”
Drilling for vertical loop installations requires a different skill set, and Tyson definitely recommends subcontracting out those projects.
The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) also provides training in geothermal drilling.
Dusty Burchfield, communications manager for ClimateMaster, Oklahoma City, OK, advises HVAC contractors to subcontract the loop installation out to what he calls “turnkey loopers.” These excavation professionals evaluate the geothermal site, verify that there’s sufficient ground area to accommodate a loop, perform the dig, install the piping, and flush the loops.
"All the contractor has to do is attach the fittings, and they’re ready to go,” Burchfield says, and adds that a contractor who attempts to “do it all” might run into problems.
“Loopers usually have a background in water well drilling or oil drilling, and understand conditions, frost lines, and things of that nature,” Burchfield says.
The ClimateMaster website — www. climatemaster.com — provides names of local distributors who can help contractors find qualified loopers in their area.
Phil Albertson, vice president of sales and marketing for WaterFurnace International, Fort Wayne, IN, says WaterFurnace will train contractors in the art of loop installation, with training that is approved by IGSHPA. However, he adds that contractors can install more equipment if they subcontract the loop installation.
“If the HVAC contractor brings a subcontractor in to perform the drilling, instead of having two or three technicians install the loop, and making the investment in the digging equipment, all the contractor has to do is set the unit, wire it up, and activate it,” Albertson says.
“I tend to think it’s more profitable for the dealer to do what he does best, and that’s heating and cooling. There are no linesets, no outdoor electrical components, and no flues.
”WaterFurnace offers free or reduced cost service and installation training through its Geo Pro program for dealers who are willing to make a commitment to a certain amount of business in a 12- month period.
Albertson will present two 45-minute seminars on geothermal technology — “A Convenient Truth”— during HVAC Comfortech, Sept. 26-29, St. Louis, MO (www.hvaccomfortech.com).
Contact Albertson at phil.albertson@ waterfurnace.com for additional information on the seminars.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) also provide information on the design, installation, and maintenance of geothermal systems.
Visit www.ashrae.org and www.ari.org to learn more.
Kelly says geothermal heat pump technology is well-suited to the load profiles of electric utilities, which has motivated some of those providers to provide technical, financial, and business development assistance to contractors who perform geothermal heat pump installations.
“Some utilities also have rebate programs, and they’ll certify HVAC contractors to perform the installations, to qualify their homeowner customers for energy rebates,” Kelly says. — Sidebar by Terry McIver