You can bet Rob Walz is putting the finishing touches on all the maintenance details that fill up spring and summer at Cascade Mountain, a popular ski resort in Portage, WI. On a busy Saturday, as many as 4,500 snow bunnies will ski down the facility’s 26 trails.

His dad, plumbing contractor Phil Walz, whose other son continues to run Walz Plumbing in suburban Chicago, bought the place 20 years ago this winter.

“I just didn’t want all my eggs in one basket,” Phil replies, when asked why he made this rather curious purchase. Usually if a plumbing contractor wants to diversify he’ll get into heating. “Knowing plumbing and pumping as I did I thought this was a natural.”

Phil also knew the marvels of hydronics and radiant heating, in particular — which is exactly why we traveled up to Portage earlier this year. Radiant tubing is buried just about everywhere, providing heat for all five buildings, and melting snow on the walkways, steps and, of course, the ambulance pad.

“We’ve got everything here but a Hartford Loop,” Phil jokes. Our tour mystified us more than a little, what with manifolds located behind the bar and all. And both Phil and Rob said that they’re probably pushing the envelope in how far they take advantage of radiant heat’s flexibility — literally and figuratively. Heck, there’s even a snow melt system in the roof of the ski rental shop. “With people walking in and out of double doorways all day long, radiant is the only way we could keep people comfortable and our heating bills manageable,” Phil says. “The tremendous heat sink of radiant slab just can’t be beat.” The resort even came close to running out of oil one day since the heat still seemed to be “on.”

Radiant Pioneer: Hydronics has intrigued Phil ever since his early contracting days. What other contractors were afraid of, Phil either went ahead and built or troubleshot. “I did my first radiant job in 1957. Copper tube in the ceiling and in the floor; it was the best darn system there was.”

Radiant systems in the Midwest were few and far between back then and are probably fewer and farther apart today for most residences in this part of the country. “I just despise the forced air system I have in my own home,” Phil says. That may go a long way in explaining the energy Phil’s put into Cascade Mountain. Besides the extensive use of radiant, Phil expanded from just eight trails to the current 26, and from four snow-making guns to 134.

Comfort aside, Rob points out the sheer practicality of radiant. “We’ve got to make the snow where people want it and get rid of it where they don’t. There’s a big safety consideration in having the snow melt in the sidewalks.”

Aesthetics come in play, too. “People pay for nice, white snow,” Rob says. “If it wasn’t for the snow melt, the snow would be dirtier looking because of all the muddy slush.”