Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!

For older folks, that’s a serious consideration, and falls can break bones and cause lifelong debilitating injuries, while ice and snow present numerous dangers. Older folks often have a strong desire to remain in their homes rather than being shuffled off to an “old folks home.” You are in the unique position of being able to help them comfortably, and, more importantly — safely, remain in their homes.

Naturally, we all think about plumbing first: grab bars; barrier-free showers; walk-in tubs with doors that seal shut; and ADA-style fixtures. What you, and they, might not have front of mind is an effortless way for them to eliminate safety hazards associated with the removal/elimination of snow and ice. Aside from heart attacks associated with shoveling snow, the slip-and-slide hazards on snow and ice loom larger for older folks whose reflexes, muscle atrophy and imbalance issues greatly increase the risk to life and limb. A great many of your elderly customers from the baby boomer generation, 59 to 77 years young in 2023, are either retired or seriously thinking about retiring and, in general, the 78 million boomers alive today have saved more than $202,000 toward retirement. An estimated 23 million boomers have saved more than 1 million and will not see any financial challenges provided they remain good stewards of their money. This does not take into account investments or stock portfolios. The vast majority have the means for discretionary spending. It is up to you to broach this subject and plant little sales seeds that can, and will, sprout!

Hydronic snow-melt system

For a hydronic (water-based) installation, a 50/50 mix of water and inhibited glycol solution is circulated through 3/4-inch or 1/2-inch loops of oxygen barrier PEX tubing embedded within a concrete driveway or sidewalk. Typical spacing between tubes is 9 inches to 12 inches apart with the individual loops connected to supply and return manifolds. Individual loops must not exceed the manufacturers’ ratings, and, whenever possible, all coils should be as close to being equal in length as possible. Reverse/return loop connections will ensure a balanced flow between all loops. Reverse/return connections are simple and straightforward: loop one connects to port #1 on the first manifold and the last port on the second manifold. Wash, rinse, and repeat for each of the remaining loops. From the manifolds, primary supply/return lines (glycol side of the system) connect to the circulator, pressure gauge, feed-water connection for manually adding glycol/water solution, potable water expansion tank with its air-pressure reduced to the snow-melt side operating pressure and a heat exchanger to maintain separation between the heating and snow-melt systems’ water solutions. PEX tubing manufacturers are happy to assist with training and manuals.

Control system

Snow-melting systems can either be automatic with sensors that will begin idling the system to pre-warm the slab(s) and keep the system active until all snow has melted or manually operated by means of an on/off switch or timer. You can also add a manual timer to be utilized with an automatic control as a just-in-case should the automatic control fail or the owners want some added runtime for stray bits of snow, or drifting snow, to be melted. Google “snowmelt controls.”

Electric snow-melt system

Don’t have a boiler with excess capacity? No worries! With the current (pun intended) push for all things electric, there are plenty of electric snow-melt system options. As more and more homes add solar PV to go “green” and take advantage of the many rebates/incentives available, electric snow-melt systems are looking more and more attractive. Google “electric snowmelt” for a look at the wide variety of products available.

Installation for both electric and hydronic snow melt systems

In both scenarios, the tubing or electric wires should be within 2 inches of the concrete’s surface for best response times. Design conditions will dictate operating temperatures (hydronic) and tube/wire spacing when utilizing manufacturers’ design programs or designs the manufacturers provide from the information you provide.

Determine the operating characteristic desired by your customer(s). Most residential snow-melt systems are designed to melt snow and ice over a longer period of time than are commercial applications where quick-and-dry is typically desired/required. Tube spacing and hydronic temperature will vary depending on how fast they want snow cleared, if some snow accumulation is acceptable during blizzard conditions, and how long the system will need to be “on” to adequately provide clear and dry safe passage.

Driveway snow-melt systems don’t need to clear the entire driveway. You can, instead, provide strips of snow-melt where their vehicle tires need traction. Runoff of water from melted snow/ice also needs to be considered. The last thing you want to create is a nasty patch of slick ice for people and vehicles to slip/slide upon. Include diversion of water to a safe area or incorporate area drain(s) to carry melt-water to a storm drain or catch basin.

Pump selection

You need to determine gpm (gallons per minute) required based on the Btu/h load and then the total head (resistance to flow) that will generate. Bear in mind that glycol increases resistance to flow and inhibits heat transfer (larger Btu/h heat exchanger required). Circulator manufacturers all have charts illustrating gpm flow rates at varying head losses and the best match normally finds the circulator operating midway along its operating curve. Today, there are a number of variable speed ECM (electrically commutated motor) circulators that can automatically operate at the best speed/GPM for energy efficiency or be set to a fixed speed. Here again, the manufacturers’ design programs can assist on circulator selection or, at the very least, provide the required head and gpm required for the system you are designing.

Driveway snow-melt systems don’t need to clear the entire driveway. You can, instead, provide strips of snow-melt where their vehicle tires need traction. Runoff of water from melted snow/ice also needs to be considered.

I am familiar with both the Watts and Uponor design programs for assistance when designing snow-melt systems for residential, retail and commercial applications. Both have aided me in designing snow-melt systems and that included some rather tense moments during a commercial electric snow-melt installation when the electrical inspector pronounced for all present to hear that our snow-melt system would not melt snow! Unfortunately, I was on vacation with my family and not present on site, or I could have headed that knuckleheaded prediction off at the pass. Fortunately, the design engineers at Watts had been involved throughout the entire planning stages and became the saving grace to enable the corporate headquarters project to move forward. Well, you know how that went: the owners had been present for the inspector’s ill-advised comments and let me know in no uncertain terms I was on the hot seat until they saw, firsthand, that the snow-melt system worked. It snowed and we kicked (melted) that snow to the curb!

I completely understand you might be reluctant to venture forth into uncharted waters because of a fear of failure or possible liability issues that can loom large. I was, too, the first time I designed a snow-melt system. I always touched base with design engineers at Watts or Uponor for help, which greatly eased my concerns. As a result, I never once had a snow/ice melt system that failed to deliver the promise of safety and free/clear sidewalks, steps, and/or driveways. Profits followed too and that’s the icing on the cake.