Larry Drake oversees a trade organization that’s become as hip as swing music. Like swing, radiant heating has been around for what seems like eternity. The Radiant Panel Association, where Drake is the executive director, is growing at a 30 percent clip every year. Born in 1994, the RPA can trace its roots back to the now defunct Hydronic Radiant Heating Association in the mid-1980s. The RPA enters 1999 with some 620 member companies, and a shining future.
PM: RPA serves as a public clearing house for consumer information. What’s on consumers’ minds dealing with radiant heat?
LD: The most often asked question from consumers deals with floor covering, and more specifically having to do with wood. Usually the question we get right off the bat is, “What kind of floor coverings can we use?” They’re misinformed about what can be used. People with wood floors have a big question about how radiant heating will affect the wood. The wood floor industry, for the most part, has a negative attitude about radiant floor heating. It’s a protective action; they don’t know the answers.
PM: Do people think of radiant heating as more of an iffy proposition than traditional hydronics? Are they more leery to buy it?
LD: Most consumers don’t relate hydronics to radiant floor heating. They see it as a new form of heating. Many of them don’t even know how it is powered. Most consumers think in terms of “Here’s the thermostat and is where the heat comes out.” They don’t know what goes on in between, and they’re not really concerned about it. People are intrigued by a warm floor, warm ceiling heating or a warm wall. The only things they have concerns about are something like “What if I have leaks in the floor?”
You also have some people who are into the mechanics, and want to know what’s going on in every part of the system.
The hydronics industry really needs to take a look at marketing. You don’t market the mechanics of a boiler, a control valve or even hydronic heat to the consumer. Most are not interested in it. They want to know what directly impacts their life.
PM: We know that RPA’s president resigned due to the controversy over Entran II. To what extent do you think the lawsuits and negative media coverage about the Entran II problems could retard the growth of radiant heat?
LD: We haven’t seen any major deterioration in the market. We’ve received a few calls from consumers who have picked up the articles. The people who have Entran II tubing have been impacted the most. It’s a small problem right now — and if the industry treats it right it’ll stay that way.
PM: To what extent have these problems impacted the business of suppliers of PEX and other tubing materials?
LD: We have not seen a big switch from rubber tubing to PEX. If anything it’s more along the lines of business as usual. Heatway continues to grow, despite its problems with Entran II. Contractor loyalty is the same. It’s not like when polybutylene was pulled from the market and supply became extremely limited. Switching was necessary.
PM: Will anything good come of it?
LD: Sometimes bad publicity can be good. In this case, we’re getting some bad press. It’s only one product. People who normally wouldn’t be talking about radiant heating are talking about it. That’s a real positive thing. The public is becoming more aware of our industry. We get the opportunity to educate the public and explain that it’s not the entire industry.
PM: Since 1990 the radiant heating industry has grown at an average 25 percent rate annually. How long do you see this pattern continuing?
LD: We’ll continue at the rate or accelerate as long as the economy stays strong. I don’t think we’re going to see a decline, in general, for a long time.
PM: The Wall Street Journal painted radiant heating as a rich man’s play toy. Does RPA have any demographic data relating radiant sales to income?
LD: We don’t have any statistical demographic data. We have seen a trend developing with radiant heating, though. People with lower incomes are buying it. We’re seeing many more entries in the under 5,000 sq. ft. category for our “System Showcase” awards. More conventional homes are being retrofitted with radiant heat.
We’re seeing a shift from upper-end people to the average American. I liken it to when air conditioning first came out. When it first came out it was a luxury. Now air conditioning is an accepted part of a home — it’s a necessity. A lot of people don’t realize radiant heat has been around for a while. They think it’s a new technology.
Consumers, in general, are finding something that they weren’t presented before. Before it was, “I’ll get whatever the contractor puts in.” Now they’re finding out they have a choice. Some people are foregoing a hot tub to get radiant heating put in. Radiant heating is a choice better made at the beginning of construction. You can add things like a hot tub later on.
PM: Why are the demographics of radiant heating buyers changing? Are there other reasons behind it besides more acceptance?
LD: We suspect the reason that it’s changing is there’s the level of comfort out there that the consumer wants, and has chosen to include as part of the necessity of their house and forego other extravagances in the house.
The knowledge level of the consumer is changing. For years and years, it was a matter of the contractor having to go out there and be a salesman. He really had to sell the product. The homeowner was usually skeptical. But with all the coverage we’ve received out there from programs such as This Old House and other home improvement type shows, it has really educated the consumer. They say “Gee, I want this,” and go out looking for it. Maybe that’s what has changed in the past couple of years.
PM: Are there any particular regions of the country showing more radiant growth than others?
LD: We’ve seen growth all over the country. We’re also seeing serious growth in the Midwest. It was an area that was particularly slow to take off, but is now growing.
PM: What portion of radiant heating goes toward snowmelt vs. space heating?
LD: That’s anybody’s guess. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the numbers. Now that our organization is a significant size, we’re going to start doing some more of these surveys. Snowmelt is definitely on the increase, and if I were to take a guess it would be 15 percent that of space heating.
PM: Is commercial radiant snow-melt growing as fast as the residential side?
LD: Yes. That’s not based on any particular numbers, just the people who I talk to. We see more and more commercial systems going in.
PM: Electric vs. hydronic radiant heating. What’s better?
LD: I couldn’t say there is one better than the other. Each has its applications. A lot is dependent on the price of the utility. It makes a big difference. In most cases, electric is much more expensive to operate. It makes hydronic the choice more times than not.
Usually electric has a lower up-front cost and quicker response time. Hydronic heating can take advantage of lower utility cost. It’s whatever best fits the application.
PM: What developments are happening with radiant cooling?
LD: There are two basic approaches to radiant cooling. One is from the ceiling and the other is from the floor. Radiant floor cooling is extremely limited. You can only make it work if you have a hard surface floor. You cannot put a carpet, padding or wood over a radiant cooling floor. A radiant cooling floor has half the heating capacity as a radiant heating floor.
If the building is designed properly radiant can be a very efficient, effective and comfortable cooling system. Cooling from a ceiling is generally a commercial type application; we don’t see much of it in residential markets.
The ceiling cooling can be a lot more effective than the floor cooling. It has a much higher cooling capacity; it has cooler surface temperatures. And, of course, cool air falls. It’s a better place to put in radiant cooling. We may see more of that later, as they have in Europe.
In either case, you have to address humidity and moisture content in the air. Condensation is a big concern. Most likely, the consumer will have to have some type of air system along with it.
PM: You mentioned that Europe is currently working with radiant cooling. Are U.S. companies developing any new aspects of radiant technology, or is it all coming from Europe?
LD: The European market is big. The European construction is almost entirely concrete and steel, whereas in this country we are predominately wood frame construction. There are plenty of issues with wood construction we’re addressing that they’re not. We’re seeing techniques being developed here that are entirely unique to North America.
There’s talk about the technology coming from Europe. I have been to Europe many times. I never personally felt the United States has taken a back seat to Europe. I think a lot of talk comes from European manufacturers. We have a number of European companies making headway in this country. And for the most part, I think it’s those people expounding the virtues of the European technology over the U.S. technology.
We just have a different approach in the United States. Our approach is similar to Denmark and the United Kingdom. It’s not better or worse technology, just a different philosophy.
When you talk Europe and general developments, you’re talking Germany, Switzerland and Sweden. Mostly the German technology. It may be more complex, but whether or not it’s advanced is a debatable point. I really don’t see anything different as far as radiant heat distribution except the approach to wood frame construction.
PM: Is there anything else about radiant heating you’d like to address?
LD: Radiant heating is a segment of the comfort picture that has been ignored for a number of years, but is now coming to light. As a heating industry, I think we need to keep in mind it’s the combination of convection, conduction and radiation that makes a person comfortable. Any time we focus on just one of those subjects, we’re shortchanging our customers.
Coming from the Radiant Panel Association, I feel the true heating professional is one who considers all these things, and they use whatever is necessary to give their customer the most comfort for that application. You need to provide the most efficient, comfortable and cost effective unit as possible. I am confident in saying that radiant will be a part of that picture. I expect the future will belong to the contractors who can apply all of these technologies.