Heating Season Preview

It’s a good time to be in the hydronic business.

The concept of “going green” has morphed in many ways on its way to becoming considered a popular culture phrase. From its early, modern-day political association with Earth Day in the 1970s, to its international expansion through the lens of recycling in the early 1990s, to its current ideology associations with health, sustainability, climate change, etc. that started in the early 2000s through ambassadors, such as former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Industry has felt these changes; from the focus on wastewater recycling to the push for low-flow products. And today, the catchall word for “green” in the industry seems to be “efficient.”

Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.
Working in a well-organized and competent way.
Preventing the wasteful use of a particular resource.
Synonyms: Organized, methodical, systematic, logical, orderly, businesslike, streamlined, productive, effective, cost-effective, labor-saving.
(*Source: Google)

It’s a mouthful. But, the good news is that the industry’s confidence in how to achieve efficiency is increasing. And, of the feedback that Plumbing Engineer received on the coming heating season, hydronic is the answer to the big “how.”

“Regarding water heaters, the focus has been on delivering higher efficiency, especially with the residential products affected by NAECA. The new NAECA regulations have encouraged customers to take a deeper look into the many options available before making a water heater purchase,” explained Chad Sanborn, manager of Product Marketing at Bradford White Water Heaters. “With several emerging technologies available in both tank and tankless water heaters, we expect to see consumers considering a variety of options. Similarly, boilers are continuously improving in the area of efficiency and durability. And boilers, both residential and commercial, are continuing to deliver more efficiency in increasingly smaller footprints.”

Technology availability to customers and regulations affecting the industry are just two of the contributors to the shift in conversation around residential and commercial infrastructure. Now that the conversation has been themed efficiency, our industry has to figure out how to sell that.

The latest answer: comfort. Mark Eatherton, executive director of the Radiant Professionals Alliance (RPA), and others believe the solution is to educate consumers on the benefits of comfort systems.

“People can still afford to waste energy, and basically waste their money,” Eatherton said. “If the price of energy were to double or triple, those consumers would be coming to contractors for help saving money.”

Eatherton continued, “That will eventually happen. And when it does, the demand for hydronic heating will go up because it is the known most efficient way of transferring heat from point A to point B.”


Eatherton went on to explain that the hydronic industry is currently competing with forced air systems that consumers are deeming more affordable. He argued that the logic lapse there is that neither warmth, nor coolness, equal comfort. He defined comfort as: not being aware of your surroundings. That sounds like the selling pitch. 


In a more long-term comparison of heating in the U.S. residential market, industry professionals noted that moderate growth has occurred in the past decade with the 2008 recession being a large factor in that comparison. In a more recent scope, however, it was noted that due to the past two unseasonably cold and wet winters across the U.S. there is a possibility for aggressive growth when looking at 2013 to 2015, as consumers may be more apt to invest as a precautionary measure. 

“I believe strong consideration will be given to the investment in an efficient and dependable heating system by many homeowners,” said Brian Fenske, manager of Specialty Channel Sales at Navien, Inc.

Though weather conditions have affected demand in the heating market, they have not necessarily affected product development. Instead, manufacturers are utilizing the opportunity to educate consumers about offerings that have existed for years.

“Water heater and boiler product development is less seasonal than service and sales, which are greatly affected by extreme weather conditions,” Sanborn noted. “The work that is done to bring new products to the marketplace is on-going and driven by many factors, weather just being one of them.”

“There has not been a change on product development plans based on recent meteorological history,” commented Mark Hudoba, director of Heating and Cooling at Uponor North America. “Uponor’s offerings address the consumer’s concerns with cold weather.”

When consumers are looking at heating technology, they are asking about space savings. Fenske said that in order to meet this request the industry is moving away from higher mass/larger water content boilers. 

“Mostly being floor standing, the 80 and 90 percent AFUE water boilers are decreasing in use and popularity. High-efficiency, low water content and high turn-down ratio boilers will be leading the future of boiler installations, both new and replacements. Multiple smaller boilers are quickly becoming the norm, offering security by redundancy along with efficiency gains,” Fenske said. “From the start, Navien has believed in space saving, out of the way, off the floor throughout our entire product offering. Off-the-floor for space saving, easier housekeeping and reduced water damage potential is a trend that has been growing at a significant pace the last four years or so.” 

With the boilers, and other heating offerings, customers have also begun requesting better monitoring and control capabilities. 

“There is a trend toward more technologically advanced controls with energy-saving features and remote accessibility for homeowners to access and control their homes’ heating systems via their smartphones,” Hudoba said.

“Remote monitoring and temperature control has become the new trend and will soon be the norm. Who wouldn’t want advance notice of a problem, or to warm their house up just before they arrive?” Fenske asked.

As interest among consumers regarding existing heating technology is increasing, manufacturers are anticipating that their opportunities to have conversations about comfort will increase as well.

“Customers are learning that there are options for a more comfortable heat than they get from a traditional on-again off-again furnace, and are willing to consider other alternatives – even in new construction,” said Joe Holliday, senior director of Product and Business Development at Rinnai America Corporation. “For boilers, we anticipate around 10 percent growth in the overall condensing boiler residential market, as consumers are starting to understand the comfort level of radiant heating.”

Radiant was a buzzword mentioned by almost every industry professioanl who spoke with Plumbing Engineer. Most echoed the sentiment that radiant heating has been popular in the residential new construction arena for a while, and will improve its standing in the remodeling and retrofitting sectors this season. Eatherton noted that though solar thermal is something being presented as competition to radiant in the new construction market, educating the consumer of consistent comfort can be the solution.

“In the fall and in the spring, a solar system is going to have more energy than you can use for domestic water preheat, which is primarily where the need is,” Eatherton explained. “Add a radiant wall to your living room where you spend the majority of your time then use the excess heat from that solar thermal system to deliver good radiant comfort to this one continually occupied space for a minimum investment. Once people have an opportunity to experience radiant comfort then they will think of ways to add it to the rest of their house.” 

The ability to heat a certain area, or “zone,” is appealing to consumers, especially for areas that are traditionally difficult to heat.

“We are seeing a trend for homeowners, and homebuilders, to utilize radiant heating in a portion of the home. This partial-home system keeps the price low while providing thermal comfort in important or thermal problem areas of the home,” Hudoba said. “For example, we have some projects where the Uponor radiant system is being installed only in the basement and the master bath.” 

Radiant heating is picking up in remodeling and retrofitting because consumers are realizing that the installation process has improved.

“It is important to provide products that simplify the radiant heating system installation,” Hudoba commented. “To this end, Uponor has developed products that are specifically designed for remodeling installations. For example, Quik Trak and Fast Trak are two installation products that allow remodelers to easily install Wirsbo hePEX tubing over an existing floor or concrete slab.”

“In retrofit, now we’ve got some of these contractors, and some of the wholesale suppliers, educated. And, they’re starting to learn the advantages of taking radiant to the ceiling or wall,” Eatherton noted. “The cost of retrofits and displacement of the occupants is significantly less than tearing up a floor and trying to install or add a floor system.”


Predictions for commercial heating this season were a little more varied than those for residential. Comments ranged from “usual seasonal spikes” to “monumental growth.” And from that we gathered that for commercial the only place to go is up.

As discussed with residential, retrofitting for the sake of efficiency is growing in commercial. 

“Most commercial renovations are likely to convert to high-efficiency technology, as energy savings and operating cost savings remain a priority with owners," said Andrew Macaluso, manager of Product Solutions – Light Commercial Solutions at AERCO International. “In light commercial applications, there is a higher propensity towards like-for-like replacements, as upfront installation costs can be a challenge for some customers.  However, the trend in these markets is still towards more efficient equipment.”

Looking at new construction, efficiency also surfaced in the commercial heating conversation by way of design ideologies and requirements.

“There is the expectation that new construction designers and specifiers will continue to take more holistic views in designing “complete” and better integrated systems versus simply focusing on the heating or other components as separate entities,” Sanborn explained. “That’s the advantage of new construction as you get to build for an entire system versus having to retrofit a system or parts of one into a heating/cooling scheme.”

Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), the green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices, has become a “golden standard” in the industry and as a result pushed building professionals toward focusing on efficiency. 

“We’re seeing continued focus on high-performance building strategies, as many new construction projects seek higher levels of LEED certification,” said Devin A. Abellon, P.E., manager of Business Development - Engineering Services at Uponor North America.

LEED has helped boost radiant heating design in the commercial space.

“Radiant heating and cooling is a proven solution that can dramatically reduce energy consumption, while providing superior thermal comfort in accordance with ASHRAE Standard 55,” Abellon noted. “In-slab radiant heating works best in new construction, as the tubing can be easily integrated into the building structure or flooring surface.”

Uponor’s Radiant Rollout Mat is being used in a new construction project currently taking place: the roof design for the Minnesota Multipurpose Stadium. The Metrodome collapsed in December 2010 under the weight of 17 inches of snow. Afterwards, stadium officials wanted to make sure that it never happened again. Now, the stadium design calls for a sloped roof that allows snow to slide into catch basins around the perimeter of the building where the snow will be melted using the radiant heating mat. The stadium is under construction now and will be ready for the start of the 2016 National Football League (NFL) season.

Finally, space saving was also echoed as an efficiency trend in commercial, just as it also is being anticipated in residential.

“Space saving is exceptionally important in many markets and is a large part of how manufacturers think when designing new solutions and products for the future,” Macaluso explained. “Saving space in a mechanical room means increasing revenue somewhere else; more hotel rooms, additional apartments, more classrooms, etc.”


From the conversations conducted with industry professionals, Plumbing Engineer presents the following takeaways for your reflection.
Industry talent: “One of the largest challenges within the heating industry is a shortage of skilled contractor labor for the upcoming heating season. To address this, Uponor has continued to build customer support services such as training, design support, customer service and technical services to help contractors. In addition, Uponor is continually working on products and solutions to make system installation simpler and more efficient for the contractor.” – Hudoba

Professional training: “My job is to educate the industry so they can come together and get on board to see the difference between just heat and comfort. The technology has been developing over the last 30 years. But, people are so focused on what they’re doing that they lose sight of the picture as a whole. Our industry has a long ways to go in terms of educating themselves on the different methods of delivery and understanding it. It requires initiative on their part to think outside of the box.” – Eatherton 

“Training on products and installation has always ranked high in challenges for manufacturers. Navien aspires to find and try every avenue to educate the installing contractor on the correct installation of our products. But more importantly, fully share and explain the capabilities, operation benefits and features, along with the programmable operation parameters. Even though they are described in the installation manuals, we find that only a small percentage of installers understand and apply these benefits. That’s a shame, as we design these programmable parameters to offer full-system design tuning to achieve the desired efficiencies, prolong system life and add system comfort.” – Fenske

“Cost is always an issue. But, as more and more contractors are gaining familiarity with installation techniques, we are seeing this becoming less of an issue.” – Abellon

Consumer education: “One of the biggest challenges is educating consumers and dealers about the heating choices and savings available from energy efficient products. There are lots of rebates and incentives available for upgrading to more energy efficient heating equipment so homeowners can save money not only on the operation of the new, more efficient equipment but also on the purchase and installation.” – Holliday 

Government communication: “Unfortunately our federal government is way behind the 8 Ball on catching up with what the industry has to offer. Recently, 82 percent is the minimal thermal efficiency for boilers. I haven’t used an 82 percent efficient boiler in the last 15 years. The minimum efficiency of a boiler that I will use is 95 percent.” – Eatherton 

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