A week before we wrote the following report, the Pope landed in Cuba; septuagenarian senator John Glenn announced he still had the Right Stuff; one of the soldiers interned in the Tomb of the Unknowns turned out to be not so unknown after all; O.J. compared himself to Moses, Jesus and/or Job; the Russian president released a videotape of himself snowmobiling just to prove he was alive; and President Clinton almost had to declare his pants a federal disaster area.

Oh yeah, and then the Broncos beat the Packers.

Amidst this maelstrom, Radiant Panel Association executive director Larry Drake confidently predicted that the 1997 tally for radiant tubing shipments from U.S. factories would be 90 million feet.

Well, at least we can all count on one bit of news going as planned.

“The good news continues for radiant,” Drake adds. “The contractor base continues to grow as more consumers demand radiant heat. About the only bad news I do see is the base isn’t growing fast enough to keep up with consumer demand. There are more customers out there than radiant contractors. I’m always amazed by the calls we get from the public looking for more information — particularly from parts of the country that don’t even have hydronic roots.”

As it’s plain to see from our accompanying graphic, the radiant marketplace has enjoyed spectacular growth since the beginning of the 1990s. If Drake’s forecast of 90 million is accurate (he’ll make it official at next month’s RPA Convention), then the radiant tubing market has increased at a compound rate of 25 percent a year since 1991. Even the Dow Jones can’t match that.

“The growth is certainly the big news, but the real challenge is in making alliances with other building construction players,” Drake adds. “In the past, we always looked at how other construction materials affected our system. Now, I think the radiant industry has reached a new maturity, and we can discuss how our system affects other parts of a home. For example, radiant can heat floor joists to 160 degrees. What effect does that have? We need to open up the lines of communication.”

Radiant Resurgence: There’s no doubt there will continue to be plenty to talk about. In the year since we last recounted radiant’s resurgence, the good news for the market shows no signs of disappearing. Last year, we reported on technological improvements that helped give consumers more confidence in new systems. In addition, demographic trends such as homeowners owning their abodes longer translated into positive news since the higher initial cost of radiant over more conventional forced air systems could be amortized over the long run.

None of these developments have let up. And above all, the passionate zeal of an army of Wet Heads ready to convert the forced air market ... well, you know, that’s never going to go away.

However, in talking with various contacts, we did find one item we think Wet Heads might find interesting: The Internet might be just the place to advertise your radiant wares and services.

The RPA’s Web site, for example, receives 20,000 hits a month! By and large, consumers were not just merely searching for information, but actually searching for a contractor to hire.

“The Internet has a big future in marketing radiant,” Drake adds. “I think our would-be customers are very savvy regarding the Internet.”

If so, contractors have their work cut out for them. An America Online search of the term “hydronic radiant heat” produced 242 matches, whereas the term “hvac systems” turned up 5,110 possible sites for more information. Meanwhile, “hvac contractors” produced 222 matches, while “hydronic radiant heating contractors” produced nothing.

AOL search aside, however, we do know there are radiant contractors who have entered this electronic chamber of commerce.

“I think it’s definitely worth having a web page,” says Mark Fox, who runs Fox Heating Service Inc., Stafford Springs, CT. “We won one job that’s just five miles away, yet the homeowners didn’t even know we existed before finding us on the Internet.”

In Duluth, MN, Kevin Stepp says he’s received as many as 65 visits a day to his web site.

“If anything, having a web page enhances our professional image just like uniforms and clean trucks,” says Stepp, owner of American Mechanical Service Inc. “We use the web address in all our advertising, vehicles — anywhere we can put it we do. I have been asked many times if we were a national company.”

Page Turner: But anyone wanting to take a page in website pizzazz might want to key in advancedradiant.com and pull up the web site of Advanced Radiant Technology. It’s the latest work of art by Paul Pollets, who recently founded ART, in Seattle, after working as a senior project manger of NW Mechanical also in Seattle.

“We’ve gotten two jobs in the past three months directly from the Internet,” Pollets emphasizes. “And the leads we get are all high quality. I consider the website another marketing device that will make our jobs of selling that much easier.”

Rather than look at websites with a gotta-do-it-cause-everyone-else-is attitude, Pollets says he and business partner, Sheldon Balberman, thought long and hard about what they wanted to say and how they wanted the site to look. As a result, you just can’t help but feel the enthusiasm these two have for radiant.

For example, Pollets put together an entertaining “essay” on the joys of radiant heat. Here’s an edited rendition:

“Humans don’t live on ceilings, flies do. Over the past 50 years Americans have typically heated their homes by blowing warm air from ceiling-mounted registers. This crude attempt at warmth sacrifices comfort for 200 days of the year in the Puget Sound region. Why are radiant heating systems superior to forced air systems? Air is a horrible conductor of heat. While the air coming from the vents may be warm, it does not warm the objects in the room or radiate that warmth throughout the room. A hydronic radiant heating system takes advantage of the superior conductive properties of water to more efficiently heat your home by heating the objects in it.”

Get the picture? Speaking of pictures, Polletts says he plans on regularly posting snapshots on the website to chart the progress of a new 15,000 sq. ft. home the company is currently working on. He’ll be using a special camera that gives viewers a “virtual reality” tour of the jobsite.

“It does seem to be that you have to have a website in this day and age,” Pollets says. “I’ve had a lot of customers tell me how nice it is to be able to reach me 24 hours a day electronically. However, I still wanted to raise the bar in terms of how a website should look and function. To get our price — and that quote is inevitably going to be higher than the competition — you have to look professional and show a difference. The Internet is the No. 1 place for us to prove this distinction.”

So what’s the down side to all this? Well, the biggest is that the World Wide Web is just that — world wide. Pollets gets plenty of hits from throughout the country as do Fox and Stepp. But all agree that this curious blend of high-tech and high-touch is the price of doing business today. In face, Pollets says he wouldn’t mind making some money someday off setting up a referral service to his out-of-town Wet Heads.