Here are some design principles for hydronics that guide my thinking now.

In the last few years I’ve spoken with hundreds of fellow “hydronicians” (as Btu guru Mark Eatherton calls them). The wide variety of “previous lives” many of us had B.B. (Before Boilers) always amazes me. Among our ranks are former grade school teachers, missionaries, roofers and even ballet dancers. I originally wanted to be an aerospace engineer, and actually came within a semester of doing so in college. But the then emerging field of solar energy technology was just too much of a distraction. All that “free” energy shining down out there. Who needs fossil fuels anymore? Besides, what fun is it to design cruise missiles all day?

And now the scary part: Sitting there in the dorm one night I thought, wouldn’t it be great to apply some of this complex aerospace technology to the task of scooping up those solar Btus. Hence the start of my career in the energy field. My guiding principle back then was simple: Never let a Btu escape without submitting to whatever my new contraption expected of it. Grab it, move it, store it, squeeze it, stretch it, meter it out in the smallest possible increments, but always make sure it knew who was in charge. If doing so required complicated control hardware and racks of relays, so be it. After all, I had it on “good authority” that the world would run out of anything but solar Btus in another 30 years or so.

It turns out I wasn’t alone. Imagine this — NASA engineers, of all people, were going to show what could be done with heating energy using technology borrowed from the Apollo space program. Some of them even broke away to start up new solar energy companies. What do you think happens to companies with six engineers for every businessperson?

Needless to say many lessons were learned during these years. Lessons about material durability, piping design and system reliability. Lessons that inevitably have carried over to the present “new hydronics” era.

Many of the established hydronics pros I’ve met also worked through the solar era. Many of them learned the same lessons I did. Almost without exception they now strive for the highest system design and installation standards.

Here are some design principles that guide my thinking now. Most are based on the combined teachings of Murphy’s Law and good ol’ Mother Nature. Some were acquired slowly. Others hit like a lightning bolt as near disaster seemed imminent.

  • Reliability rules. Even the technophile customer quickly grows tired of glitches requiring repeated call backs and the need to nurse along a supposedly automatic heating system.
  • Energy efficiency is a factor, but not the most important factor. Heating systems should always act as good stuarts of energy, but anything that sacrifices reliability for small gains in efficiency is seldom worth it.
  • Simple elegance is a universal design principle. I’ve seen hundreds of hydronic systems — either on site, on drawings or in photos. Within seconds I’ll tend to form an opinion that the designer:

    a. appreciates simple design;

    b. just can’t have enough LEDs blinking back at them; or

    c. misplaced their level years ago, and haven’t seen a need to replace it since.

    Seriously, think about how your design can accomplish its task(s) with the simplest piping and lowest parts count. Not only does the end result look better, you’ll sleep better on those –30 degree F nights knowing you’re not the only person in the world who knows how to fix something should the need arise.

  • It doesn’t pay to install cheap hardware. We once had a $4 shut off valve start dripping after two months of service and do $6,000 worth of damage while the homeowners were away. Where’s the payback here?
  • Plan at the office, then execute that plan on site. The design-as-you-solder approach just doesn’t cut it on anything but a routine simple system. Make a schematic for the intended system. Then spend some time thinking “three-dimensionally” about how your piping and wiring best fits the allotted space. Locate components with moving parts so they can be easily removed for servicing if necessary. Keep electrical components above anything that can drip.
  • Create good documentation for those who eventually follow you. What a shame if someone eventually decides to cut up your creation simply because they can’t understand how it’s supposed to operate. The abundance of low-cost computer drawing programs currently available make this not only possible, but highly profitable if marketed creatively.

    Case in point, a very successful hydronics contractor recently told me how his firm won the contract for the hydronic system in large custom residence because of the professional appearance of their design documentation, even though their bid was about $60,000 higher than their competition.

  • Heating loads are moving targets. Even the best control hardware can’t compensate for every possible load condition. Valves, pumps, microprocessors and thermistors all definitely have their place, but once those Btu’s get out there in the floor, for example, Mother Nature takes over.
  • Be conservatively creative. What other technology gives us the opportunity to be creative with so many “mediums?” We get to work with fluid flow, electricity, combustion, architectural issues, computers and more to create something that provides such a basic human need. Always keep your eyes open for new technology. When you see something that interests you, try it at home first. Never treat customers as guinea pigs.
  • Don’t let the “pipes” hide the forest. The recurring sense of accomplishment, which comes from combining your knowledge in all these technical areas, to build a system that exactly matches the needs of each client is hard to top. Paychecks are certainly necessary, but the gratitude of a pleased (and blissfully comfortable) client is the ultimate reward.

Strive for it and savor the results.