Ride the Radiant Heat Wave

An increasing interest in energy-efficient products and ways to minimize a home’s carbon footprint are on the minds of many Americans. Even the U.S. government is getting involved by offering tax breaks to homeowners who envelop themselves in energy-efficient products and practices. With this growing trend, radiant heating continues to emerge from Europe and into the U.S. housing market.

Why choose radiant technology? Some believe radiant heat can efficiently heat a house or specific zone more effectively than forced air. “In conventional [forced-air] heating, the air pushes to the center of the room and goes up while losing heat to the ceiling; whereas radiant heat starts at the bottom of the floor and is evenly distributed, losing less heat,” says Sharon Mangino, general manager of U.S. operations, Warmup Inc.

Radiant heat can also eliminate cold and hot spots in a building. Homeowners can feel much more comfortable at lower room temperatures because heat is distributed so evenly, says Larry Drake, executive director, Radiant Panel Association, Loveland, Colo.

Builders have two radiant heat options: hydronic or electric systems. Hydronic systems (those using water) are more prominently used in new construction, whereas electric radiant is used more in remodeling projects. “The electric systems are limited to electricity, and hydronic systems can use any [power source]. Hydronic systems offer more [power-supply] flexibility; electric is simpler,” Drake says.

Hydronic systems integrate well with many green technologies including solar and geothermal systems. “Radiant heating is the best way to distribute thermal solar heat into a space. It makes solar collectors more efficient as well as creates a more comfortable environment in which to live. It’s the same with geothermal systems,” Drake says.

Both hydronic and electric systems allow for the option to zone rooms. The zoning of rooms offers homeowners much more targeted temperature control, and therefore reduces the load on the heating system which saves energy and ultimately money. Each room would have its own thermostat and it makes [the system] efficient. Conventional heating doesn’t offer the practicality of thermostats in each room like radiant systems do — there isn’t that much control, Mangino says.

Besides being energy-efficient, radiant heat can provide homeowners comfort and health benefits. “It’s the right temperature all the time, and homeowners can’t hear it or feel hot air blowing on them. It’s a mild heat — not too hot and not too cold but just right,” says Terry Alsberg, CEO, Warmboard Inc.

Radiant systems are healthier to live with than conventional forced-air heating systems because there is no air blowing around the house, Alsberg says. “When you use forced air, you are constantly pushing particulates around the house. Once I installed Warmboard in my house, my kids lowered their use of inhalers.”

Little maintenance is involved with most radiant heating systems because there are few moving parts involved. “Components that are part of the system and provided by suppliers such as the boiler, pump or circulator may require maintenance but the Uponor system is hassle-free,” says Jon Orton, public relations and e-commerce manager, Uponor North America.

Because piping, wires or insulation is installed in floors with radiant systems, builders should pay attention to the floor height when making measurements. “Wires don’t change the floor level, but if a builder is going to include floor insulation, that needs to be taken into consideration,” Mangino says. Builders also need to keep in mind the location of thermostats and if the rooms are wired appropriately for those thermostats.

“Contractors are hesitant to grasp this technology, but after they put down five or six panels, they see how easy it is. It’s compatible with their current skills,” Alsberg says. As a benefit and for proper operation, Warmboard designs all its system layouts for builders.

Marketing Prospects

With the home building market in a slowdown, radiant heat can offer a way for builders to set themselves apart from competitors who are hesitant to embrace it. “There are few areas in the building market where builders can differentiate themselves that others haven’t already tapped, and this is one area where you can do that,” says Dave Zweber, marketing manager, building channel, Uponor North America.

Radiant heat gives builders one more marketing hook. “It tells someone that we are going to be at the cutting edge and we are doing what’s right,” says Alan Peterman, principal of Pound Ridge, N.Y.-based Flying Chameleon Design and Fabrication Workshop.

Peterman recently completed his first project with radiant heating and he predicts his use of radiant heating will only increase. “I don’t envision a job without it unless it’s in a different climate. I’d have to be convinced of a better system before I’d put something else in,” he adds.

Cliff Ivey, owner, Ivey Management, Fort Smith, Ark., is relatively new to his area and relies on radiant heating to set himself apart from his competition. “There are a lot of good builders in this area. I offer [radiant heat] as a standard because I’m new to this area and I have to do different things. I feel like I’m resetting the standard in my area in regard to new technologies,” he says. In addition, Ivey includes radiant heat in some of his spec homes.

Education and Support

Manufacturers are ready and willing to offer radiant heat support to builders and subcontractors. They understand builder hesitation to unfamiliar technologies and that it’s their job to offer an education process. “For contractors, we hold classes and educate them at the store, construction site or wherever makes them comfortable,” Warmup’s Mangino says.

Warmboard prides itself on its customer and technical services. “We work closely with builders. A builder won’t get a voice queue [when they call us]. They will get a person. We have extensive training for our employees and field reps,” Alsberg adds.

Uponor North America, formerly known as Wirsbo, has been in the U.S. market for more than three decades. “Uponor operates very much on a relationship basis with the builder and architect community. We make sure their needs are met and that they have the resources and training they need to confidently represent our product,” Zweber says.

Due to its still relative newness in the U.S. market, one challenge builders might face is the lack of qualified installers, RPA’s Drake says. “Consequently it is either hard to find someone to install, and if a builder does find someone, they may be higher priced due to demand,” Drake adds.

With increased knowledge comes an increase in demand and installation. “It’s a lot like air conditioning. When air conditioning first came out, it was used commercially and only by the upper-end wealthy. But as the population demanded more comfort, air conditioning became more accepted to the point now where it is a commodity,” Drake says. “Radiant heating is following that same track. More acceptance increases volume, prices come down and it is more affordable.”

The future of radiant heat relies on an education process with both homeowners and builders. Mangino believes radiant heat is at its baby stage in the United States. “It’s hugely popular overseas. Four years ago, people asked me what radiant heat was. People are now asking what makes our product different from the others. So, familiarity is growing,” she says.