An Hydronics Wave?

Aug. 1, 2011
Fueled by new advances in hydronics technology and a growing awareness among homeowners about its comfort and flexibility, HVACR wholesaler distributors

Fueled by new advances in hydronics technology and a growing awareness among homeowners about its comfort and flexibility, HVACR wholesaler distributors and dealers are finding new applications, new markets and new ways to sell hydronics.

To find the latest and the greatest in hydronics synergies, we went to Bob Kun, chair of HARDI's Hydronics Heating & Cooling Council and general manager of Pittsburgh, PA-based Comfort Supply Inc. Kun specializes in emerging technologies such as hydronic heating and radiant floor heating, and he's a Radiant Panel Association Certified Designer and Installer. So we asked him about some of the latest trends in hydronics.

“The hydronic side of the business addresses some of the concerns that homeowners have,” Kun says. “Especially if they've lived in a house where there were issues with noise and dust from their forced air system, and they want to build a new home; then they're strongly looking at hydronics, because it will solve a lot of the problems they've been putting up with.”

In a word, it's about comfort. Whether it's new construction or a renovation, homeowners will press their contractors on their heating and cooling options. They don't want to have hotspots or cold spots in their rooms. Hydronic systems address these issues, particularly with advances in high-efficiency boilers and zoned heating, and they provide the heat quietly and cleanly.

A growing solar thermal market

Solar thermal energy harnesses the sun's energy and collects it, turning it into hot water. It is much more efficient and cost effective than solar photovoltaics, which converts solar energy into electricity. Kun hopes that federal tax credits will help to boost solar thermal's standing among contractors and homeowners. “Using solar thermal for hot water is a reasonable payback,” he says. “Hot water is something that is used day in and day out.”

Solar thermal will work on cloudy days because it's picking up the UV rays on the solar collectors. “The upfront costs are in the hardware. The fuel is never a bill that you'll see coming in the mail,” he says.

In Europe, solar thermal has become well-established for producing hot water. Kun says you can find a couple of solar thermal panels on almost every residence. “They know it's the best way to make hot water.” As this market grows in the United States, Comfort Supply will be ready with the products and expertise for its customers and their customers. “We're dabbling in solar thermal,” Kun says. “Our company has always picked niche products that aren't run of the mill.”

New uses for radiant heat

Hate to shovel snow off your stairs in the winter? Then it's radiant heat to the rescue. Radiant heat is being installed on front steps and front walks for snow melting — for both new construction and renovations. Kun notes that radiant heating for small areas, like a stoop or a front walk, may be able to run off of a high-efficiency boiler plant. But if a homeowner wants to heat an entire driveway, that may require a separate boiler plan. Towel warmers also are gaining in popularity among consumers, with coils embedded in towel racks. Kun says these expanded uses for radiant heat are usually in larger homes where consumers are looking to stay through their retirement years.

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Mixing and matching applications

One of the advantages of a hydronic system is the ability to run a variety of applications from that one system, Kun says. A contractor may install radiant heat in the basement underneath a concrete floor, use it underneath ceramic tile in the kitchen and bathroom, but then run a string of baseboard along the wall in the childrens' bedrooms and guest rooms. “You have one system that can address a whole lot of consumers' concerns, whether it's in new construction or renovation,” Kun says.

Kun also points to additional flexibilities that he often sees when it comes to hydronic systems. There may be a conventional ducted air-conditioning system in an attic for the upper floors. By adding a heat coil to the system, a contractor can provide heat to that floor rather than have to install baseboards.

Savings from high-efficiency boilers

With modulating boilers set with outdoor air resets, these high-efficiency boilers are more attractive to homeowners who are looking to save as much as they can on their heating bills. While they've been around for the past eight or nine years, the high-efficiency boilers have become more widely available in the past six years. “That's really helped to give hydronics a shot in the arm,” Kun says.

High-efficiency boilers are usually part of zoned systems, allowing the homeowner to have greater control over what gets heated when, which saves on heating costs compared to whole-house systems. Consumers also are recognizing that hydronic systems are quieter and don't kick up as much dust when compared to forced hot-air systems, Kun notes.

The high-efficiency systems also allow for greater flexibility. Because they are PVC-vented, many can be wall-mounted and located in areas of a home where a contractor would be unable to install a standard, 80-percent efficient boiler.

Geothermal is a viable option

The 30 percent federal tax credits for geothermal heating systems is motivating more homeowners to consider this as an option for both new construction and renovations. This interest is attracting a greater number of HVACR contractors, dealers and distributors to become educated and trained in geothermal. “People understand the efficiency of being able to use the Earth as a heat exchanger,” Kun says. In the northern United States, the temperature in the ground remains at a stable 53 degrees. While the upfront costs can be substantial, the overall savings are very significant, Kun notes, and geothermal is an excellent match with radiant flooring.

Keeping employees and customers on top of hydronics — and it will pay off

Training and education is critical so that distributors can provide their customers with solutions and options about what's new in hydronics. Contractors want their distributors to be advisers, not just salespeople. Comfort Supply has two training rooms with operating equipment where contractors and installers can get hands-on training. “I think we're a little unique as a wholesaler for the amount of training that we do, but we feel that it pays off for us in the end,” Kun says.

It's also important to train employees on an ongoing basis — even if it means just introducing them to new products that a company stocks. While there are specialists at CSI who are called in to work on larger, specialized jobs, cross-training is encouraged. “When a manufacturer comes to CSI, we try to get the whole group together for at least a couple of hours to hear about new trends and what's happening with our competitors,” Kun says. “It's a combination of knowledge training and sales training.”

Michael Maynard is a business writer in Providence, RI who writes on issues related to HVACR, construction and architecture. Contact him at[email protected].