A Niche Within A Niche
As Marilyn Thurau accepted her 1997 System Showcase Award during April’s Radiant Panel Association Conference, she urged all the Wet Heads in the audience to at least consider electric radiant heat.
Afterward, Thurau explained she didn’t think hydronic radiant and electric radiant were mutually exclusive clubs.
“I don’t expect all the Wet Heads to convert,” explains Thurau who runs Summitteers Radiant Heat Inc., in Oakland, CA. “But if a customer wants to just warm the floors of a bathroom, electric radiant is going to be a less expensive method to satisfy the customer’s needs.”
This was the first year that the RPA had separate electric radiant categories for residential and commercial projects. While PM’s allegiance is to Wet Heads, our conversations with Thurau revealed a spirit just as impassioned about electric radiant as any Wet Head feels about their form of heat. Some of the trials and tribulations she’s endured in order to market electric radiant certainly sound pretty similar to the slings and arrows suffered by the average Wet Head.
“I do a lot of hand-holding since this is an unconventional form of heat,” Thurau says, “Everyone wants to know what can go wrong.”
Her fellow Watt Head, Terry Allen, sales and marketing manager for electric cable maker Orbit Manufacturing Co. in Perkasie, PA, takes the same ecumenical spin.
“The hydronics market is the market for radiant,” says Allen. “But a BTU is a BTU whether it’s in the form of hot water going through tubing or, in our case, electrical current. Electric products give hydronic contractors more options to meet almost any application. With all this in mind, you can become a one-stop contractor for any and all radiant systems.”
According to Allen, on a first-cost basis, electric heat is more attractive than oil, gas or propane systems. The installation cost is lower and the equipment cost is usually less. The stigma, however, is electric heat costs too much to operate.
“I’ve been selling electric heating products for 22 years, and I hear this all the time,” Allen says. “The best way around this objection is to present the electric product as an appliance instead of a heating system. Nobody would purchase a gas-fired toaster! Meanwhile, the average hair dryer at 1,800 watts would warm an 180 sq. ft. room in cable form.”
Above all, Allen says electric radiant systems aren’t necessarily on all the time.
“Given the relatively low wattage required, coupled with the inherent efficiency of a radiant slab system, I think the cost is well-hidden in the customer’s overall bill.” Allen says electric radiant is a smart option particularly for small rooms such as bathrooms or kitchens, particularly if there is no hot water system in place. Award Winners: Small rooms were just the ticket for the San Francisco suburban home for which Marilyn Thurau won her RPA accolades. But at 14,000 sq. ft. for the total residence, “small” room is a relative term.
Electric mats were installed in the master bath, two smaller baths, conservatory, dining conservatory, gallery, kitchen, family room and billiard room of the forced-air residence. Radiant friendly marble or stone went on top. The mats, actually fabric, completely enclose insulated resistance wire operating at 110 volts. Mat is an apt description since it implies the thinness of the electric radiant product.
“We didn’t have to raise the floors more than a 1/2 inch,” Thurau explains. “That’s one of the biggest advantages electric radiant has over hydronics when it comes to renovating existing homes.”
The mats are controlled by floor-sensing thermostats connected through relays to a laptop computer no less.
Meanwhile, there’s nothing small about Allen’s commercial project. “When I say ‘small rooms,’ I’m really only talking about the residential market,” he adds. “On the commercial side, electric radiant is quite competitive not only in terms of first cost, but also in terms of operating costs.”
Case in point: The Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia, which serves as a hotel of sorts for parents visiting their children who are undergoing cancer treatment at nearby hospitals. In order to meet Philadelphia’s parking requirement, the building is constructed over a parking garage that is partially under grade.
This situation presented the architect with the potential problem of cold floors. To make matters even more difficult, the building went all electric with an electric air-to-air heat pump serving as the building’s main heating source. However, this still left areas closest to the floor quite chilly, especially considering the 20-foot ceilings. Children being children like to play on the floor; but cancer patients have a low resistance to the flu, colds and other common maladies.
“Obviously the potential of cold floor surfaces for children to play on was a strong concern so electric floor heating was the choice,” Allen says.
Electric cables outside also help melt snow and ice.