Towel warmers aren’t just fancy accessories anymore.

Modern bathroom layout makes radiant floor heating design a real challenge. The magic moment comes during the heat loss calculation when you deduct the unheated area (whirlpool tub, four-man shower stall and double his/her vanities) and find the floor temperature needs to be 110 degrees F — a bit too warm for bare feet. What better place for a towel warmer to help carry the heating load?

Today’s crowd-pleasing, but floor-squeezing bathrooms are one reason towel warmers aren’t just pretty accessories anymore. Used in conjunction to pep up the output of underfloor heat, towel warmers offer a combination hard to beat — warm floor, warm walls and warm towels.

“At first, towel warmers seem like a nice add-on sale — like icing on the cake,” says contractor Ray Stack, who runs a year-old 1,000 sq. ft. hydronic and radiant showroom in Avon, Ohio, “But more and more, our customers are understanding that they may need a towel warmer to warm the space, not just a towel.” Wisconsin contractor Mike Ward also installs plenty of towel warmers and concurs: “There’s just not enough floor space left to kick up enough heat.”

Smart contractors like Stack and Ward are selling the product first and foremost to heat the space, and thus moving the product further and further from the notion that it’s just a high-priced toy.

That’s fine with many people in the radiant world since the label “towel warmer” may be the product’s worst enemy.

“What we’re really marketing are panel radiators with some of the panels missing in order to hang towels,” says Owen Kantor, vice president/marketing and sales for the residential division of Runtal North America Inc. “In Europe, they’re sold as ‘towel radiators.’ They often serve as the bathroom’s primary heat source, with the secondary benefit being to warm towels.”

Not surprisingly, almost all new residential construction in Europe features towel radiators in the bath. Meanwhile, eight out of 10 bath remodeling jobs feature the low-temperature radiant panels. That leaves plenty of room to grow in America, but “it’s no different from where radiant heat was 10 years ago,” says Paul Ross, head of Paul Ross Associates, the sole importer of the Vasco line in the United States, who added that towel warmers are the company’s fastest growing business.

Most manufacturers reported the need 10 years ago to overcome the stigma of what people considered a towel warmer. “When I first got started with Runtal nine years ago,” Kantor relates, “I’d find advertisements in the back of airline magazines for $150 ‘towel warmers’ that had a few tubes. These things didn’t even do a good job of heating towels let alone heating the bathroom.”

Today’s models can kick out 8,000 BTUs — plenty of heat for a bathroom over 200 sq. ft. Manufacturers also report a positive trend of installing towel warmers in areas other than the usual spot in front of a vanity. With the premium price consumers are placing on turning the bathroom into their own private day spa, good locations to install towel warmers are above the tub. “That way when you’re relaxing in your $2,500 tub, your neck and head will stay nice and warm,” Kantor says.

Electric Toehold

Electric towel warmers also offer a chance for Wet Heads to gain a radiant toehold by infiltrating the vast majority of forced-air homes. One room your customers really need to heat is the bathroom. In other rooms, they can throw on a blanket or put on a sweater. In the bathroom, well, they’re pretty much naked most of the time.

And in many cases the master bathroom is at the end of a zone so by the time the forced air reaches your customer stepping out the shower, it’s lost some of its oomph. As a result, people tend to crank up the furnace just to provide heat for the bathroom.

A savvy Wet Head could install an electric towel warmer that would heat the whole room. If customers complain about a potentially high electric bill, ask them how much they spend on gas for the furnace.

“A lot of people do have a perception that they pay for electricity, but not for gas or oil,” Kantor says. “Think of towel warmers as an appliance; some use less energy than a hairdryer.”

Manufacturers, however, still report sticker shock from contractors who might stick to the old standbys, such as a kickspace heater or baseboard. “My sense is that contractors get into this kicking and screaming,” says Raymond Farley, vice president/sales, Mysons Inc. The company sells only through traditional wholesale channels, although it gets plenty of consumers finding its Web site and calling ready to buy from someone somewhere. “It’s a fabulous way for contractors to add to their bottom line,” Farley adds.

Todd Shaw, vice president, Radiant Technology Inc., always hears moans and groans when he quotes a towel warmer as part of a radiant system. “Contractors figure that towel warmers are too expensive, and they can just as well put in a kick space heater or 3-foot piece of baseboard.”

If you’re thinking this way consider just how much more inexpensive a towel warmer really might be. For example, review the typical kick space heater installation: Wait for the vanity to show up at the job site. Measure the location for the heater, cut the hole for the kick space, mount the unit and rough in the wiring for the aquastat. Then, figure out the rough-in for piping, set the vanity, wire the aquastat to power, pipe the unit into the system and pray that during the installation, you didn’t bend the squirrel cage so it doesn’t make a racket while operating.

Meanwhile, a towel warmer is typically mounted on the wall with three attachment points and is roughed in before or after the wall covering is up. When the rough-in occurs is up to you, but it typically takes about a half hour to rough-in a standard 3 foot by 3 foot towel warmer.

“I think a good case can be made when the total time/cost is figured into the quote,” Shaw says. “The towel warmer may be a more expensive product, but the installed cost is less.”

Shaw admits that baseboard is less expensive to install than a towel warmer — but just try to warm a towel on baseboard.

“The towel warmer brings warmth to the bathroom like no other heater on the market,” Shaw adds. “Match the towel warmer with a radiant floor, and the customers will think they’ve died and gone to heaven.”