There’s a problem with the Gettysburg, PA, volunteer fire department’s new station. Apparently the firefighters’ personal gear is so comfortably warm when stored in the radiantly heated portion of the facility that they all fight for a spot to hang their gear.

That little slice of life speaks volumes for radiant heat’s recent resurgence. Hot air, with its commanding market share, may have the dominance. But it’s radiant, with its minuscule single-digit share, that has the passion.

“I’ve never heard of any homeowners raving about their new forced air system,” says Todd Shaw, vice president of Radiant Technology Inc., Bellport, NY. “But plenty of homeowners sell other people on the benefits of their new radiant system during their next party.”

Clay Thornton, a contractor we wrote about last year after his company earned two Radiant Panel Association System Showcase Awards as well as our own Publisher’s Choice Award, says word-of-mouth from past customers is a major reason his business continues to grow — and grow.

“We’ve purposely limited our sales growth by 10 percent, since I don’t think we could manage quality jobs at a faster pace,” says Thornton, president of Thornton Plumbing & Heating, Sandy, UT. “However if we wanted to do all the business we’ve been asked to do, we could have grown by 50-60 percent this past year.”

True Believers: That’s the great part of radiant. Not only are contractors true believers, but their customers become just as committed to the cause. A cause embedded in comfort, efficiency and esthetics, and that can’t be accomplished in quite the same way it can with radiant. Don’t laugh; that sense of purpose is an integral part of radiant’s success.

Look at it this way. Anyone can sell a product in one of two ways:

  • Ask customers what they want. “I just want to heat my home,” they’ll say. Fine. In that case a one-size-fits-all approach goes a long way in explaining how hot air conquered America.
  • Tell customers to buy what you sell. “That sounds nice but it isn’t practical,” is unfortunately an all too common refrain.

But no one’s going to become a true-believer of a so-so product or a manipulative process. Wet Heads know there’s a third way to sell their wares:

  • Combine innovation with a love of what you’re doing and an understanding of what customers really need — often before they even know it.

It’s a slow process. Let’s face it. Radiant takes courage to sell. And it takes just as much courage to buy. To the layman, a radiant system looks like a bunch of garden hose buried in cement. As a result it may not start out for everybody. But then those courageous souls, and I mean more the buyers in this instance, seem to want it for everybody.

On A Roll: Radiant heat certainly seems to be on a roll. Larry Drake, executive director of the RPA, esimates that the 1996 tally for radiant panel tubing shipments from U.S. factories may be 75 million feet. (He’ll make the official announcement during the opening session of this month’s RPA conference.) That’s up from 60.9 million feet in 1995. And as you can see from our accompanying chart, radiant shipments have enjoyed healthy gains during this decade.

“It’s a little like compound interest,” Drake says of the recent growth. “When you first start saving, it may not seem like you’re making any tremendous strides. Slowly but surely, however, you are laying the groundwork for some substantial gains down the road. I think the industry finally reached the ‘down the road’ part thanks to a lot of past innovators.”

The growth in radiant has been welcome news for the hydronics industry overall. “The industry hasn’t been too exciting lately — finally, here’s something dramatic,” says Mike Chiles, president of Heatway Systems, Springfield, MO, and current RPA president. “Boiler sales haven’t budged much for decades, with eight out of 10 boiler shipments typically going toward the replacement market.”

Of course, the current U.S. market still pales in comparison with the potential. Western European makers shipped 600 million feet of radiant tube last year. Consider also that the RPA estimates that hydronic heating has only about 2 percent of the U.S. heating market, and hydronic radiant heat has just 11 percent of that 2 percent. Still, the U.S. is where the European market was 10-15 years ago, and many manufacturers we talked to consider reaching 600 million feet a doable goal within the next 10 years.

As we’ve seen, the emotional content of radiant is what makes it fun to sell — and the enthusiasm contractors have for their product seems to rub off double-strength on the consumer. And it certainly is a big plus that current technology has more than made up for the failed attempts of radiant in the past. Most manufacturers we interviewed all said high-tech plastics gave the industry a second chance to amend for the copper buried in cement that gave the industry its biggest black eye decades ago.

However, there are plenty of logical reasons, most manufacturers consider radiant will continue to expand.

  • Homeowners Are Owning Their Homes Longer: For many years, people typically owned their homes for five to eight years before moving on to another. But during the 1980s, demographers started noting that people were beginning to stretch this time out to 12 years. Most people who track this sort of thing don’t see any reason that time span will do anything but become longer. The major reason is that real estate isn’t the get-rich-quick scenario it was in the past.

    “That’s a big plus for radiant systems since people will be able to amortize the extra expense of a radiant system,” Shaw says. “In addition, radiant is clearly more affordable to operate year after year. If it’s a straight one-zone system, heating bills can be 20 percent less than they would be with forced air. But with multiple zones, the savings can increase to 40 percent.”

    On a related note, Joe Pauley, general manager, sales and marketing for Wirsbo, Apple Valley, MN, points out that people are building smaller homes, but spending more money on the “guts” of the home, such as heating systems. “People are thinking more about what they’re putting in their homes, components like heating that they never would have given a second thought about in the past.”

  • Higher Consumer Awareness: Plenty of customers who currently enjoy radiant heat become an unpaid sales force for the industry. Maybe even better, however, is the “free” publicity radiant enjoys in mainstream media. “Maybe I just notice this more since I’m in the business,” Steve Sakoutis, vice president of sales and marketing for Embassy Industries Inc., Farmingdale, NY, “but it seems like every time I pick up a consumer-type home magazine, there’s a story in there on radiant.”

    The onslaught is a particular plus on TV. One manufacturer we spoke with remembered a recent Saturday in which This Old House, Home Time and Home Again came on virtually back-to-back with radiant stories.

    “There are more players in the market now so there’s more dollars to spend promoting and increasing everyone’s visibility,” Pauley adds.

    The publicity’s been a big plus for Thornton. “People are ‘discovering’ radiant,” he explains. “I don’t know if the publicity planted the seed, but it sure was the fertilizer.”

  • A ‘Critical Mass’ Of Qualified Contractors: Of course none of these trends would pan out if it weren’t for a veritable army of contractors in the radiant business.

“Contractors feel more comfortable about doing the work,” says Marisa Morales, senior marketing manager for Vanguard Industries, McPherson, KS. “Time was when burying pipe was a scary proposition for most.” All radiant manufacturers have invested considerable sums to train contractors about the business. “We’ve reached a point where there are enough installations to prove the benefits of radiant, and there are enough contractors to do the work,” Morales adds.

The competition from contractors should also bring the price of installation down. Morales says the price of radiant jobs have dropped by 25 to 30 percent.

Meanwhile, Thornton isn’t so sure about defending his crown for this year’s RPA System Showcase awards.

“It’s going to be tougher competition this year,” he adds.