Executive Director of the Radiant Panel Association, Larry Drake, takes a closer look at the possible slowdown for the radiant market.

'If a slowdown is occuring, what is most likely to be the cause?'
There is no doubt that radiant heating is a bright spot in the hydronics industry. Each year sales continue to grow. In the last 10 years, since the tracking of radiant tubing sales began, there has not been a single year where growth in the double digits did not occur -- until now. The industry has come to expect a 15 percent to 30 percent increase every year.

Tubing sales topped 150 million lineal feet in North America in the year 2000. This is almost 11 million more than in 1999 and 125 million more than 10 years ago. Most manufacturers and suppliers are reporting a bumper year. There is a positive feeling within the industry that numbers will continue to climb and opportunities will abound.

But, behind it all, there is a faint indication that there might just be something to be concerned about. A closer look at the numbers indicates a slowing trend.

For the past three years the growth has begun to sag. Is it the quality of the reported data? Maybe. Do the statistics need to be normalized to reflect sales that drift across calendar lines? Possibly. Or, could something else be affecting the actual growth?

The question of slowing growth was opened for discussion at the Annual Membership Meeting of the Radiant Panel Association, May 12, in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was obvious from the response that many members believe the figures are a false representation of the industry, and that they should be showing an increase rather than a slowdown.

Only time will tell if this is the case. The question was then posed, "If a slowdown is occurring, what is most likely to be the cause?" Several factors quickly came to light.

Local Focus

In the 1940s and 1950s when William Levitt and Frank Lloyd Wright were designing and building homes with radiant floor heating, hydronic radiant was viewed as an economical and efficient alternative to conventional heating. They saw radiant slab heating as a way of providing comfort to the masses.

Today, residential radiant heating seems to be primarily reserved for the upscale, custom housing market and commercial projects. Install prices often range from twice to five times the cost of a conventional system, not including air conditioning. The question was raised, "Are we reaching the saturation point of upscale housing?"

This is certainly a valid question in some areas of the country like Colorado and Utah where radiant heating appears regularly in high-end custom homes. There seems to be a rush of affluence in the Rocky Mountains with multimillion dollar homes popping up faster than wild flowers.

Other parts of the country aren't quite as fortunate. While the large custom home market is still viable, it is small in comparison to mid-range and starter homes.

New Mexico may lead the country in low-cost radiant systems. Radiant heating has been the norm for many years there. The state probably has more radiantly heated homes per capita than any other state in the union. The combination of slab-on-grade and adobe construction with predominately tile floors make New Mexico homes ideal candidates for radiant heating.

Stiff competition over the years has kept prices very low. Installers are putting in radiant heating systems for as little as $2.75 to $5 per square foot.

New England and the Midwest have a mix of custom and conventional work. Almost 50 percent of radiant installs occur in the Northeast. The fact that this is a hydronic stronghold certainly has something to do with it.

Prices seem to range from moderate to high depending on the viability of the upscale housing market. The Midwest market is growing as radiant heating is being discovered in pockets around the Great Lakes and central states.

For the most part, installers are able to pick and choose the radiant jobs they want to take on. While some contractors are struggling, the norm seems to indicate that, once established, there is plenty of work available for the qualified installer. The Pacific Coast is no exception. High-end custom homes continue to be the target of radiant contractors, and there appears to be plenty of them.

Even though there are contractors who have tapped into the mid-range housing market, the perception of the buyer is that radiant heating is very expensive, and for good reason.

The RPA office receives continuous calls from disillusioned consumers who are in shock after receiving astronomically high bids from radiant contractors. They are sold on the concept and are desperate to include radiant heating in their new homes, but cannot justify the tremendous expense.

They are looking for help. Often they turn to companies that do direct selling over the Internet to purchase the components. They then either install the system themselves or have their plumber do the installation. Internet and direct marketing radiant heating companies are quietly selling hundreds of packaged systems to hungry homeowners who have been put off by the prices or unavailability of local radiant contractors.

Unfortunately, there is no one on the jobsite to assure the quality or suitability of these systems. Service will be left up to the homeowner or the unlucky contractor who inherits a troubled system. Consumers want radiant heating in their homes. If our radiant contractors can't find a way to provide it, others will and are.

Tubing Shipments From Primary Suppliers In North America
source: RPA

Examine The Possibilities

The group at the RPA Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City identified another cause for a possible slow down in the industry -- lack of installers. There is a shortage of trained radiant installers and laborers. The RPA office can confirm that assessment. The number one complaint from consumers is, "We can't find a contractor in our area who knows anything about radiant heating." The second is, "We can't find a contractor to bid on our system, everyone is too busy."

If a slowdown in growth is occurring, chances are it isn't from a lack of sales opportunities. More than likely it is due to a bottleneck in the distribution system.

The industry needs more outlets. The question is, "Where are these new installers going to come from?" Plumbers are one logical group. They have the equipment and skill to assemble the system, but often lack knowledge of heating technology and controls. HVAC contractors understand heatloss and controls, but are reluctant to become involved in hydronics.

Then there is the challenge of providing proper training for the established contractor as well as the rookie looking to establish a career. Education is key in the healthy growth of the industry. The challenge is to attract new installers into the radiant field so they can be properly trained.

Cooling has always been a stumbling block for the radiant industry. Most of the building market demands cooling. Without an effective way to provide cooling in a single package, the radiant industry is handicapped. Developments in recent years of high velocity and ductless air-conditioning systems have given the radiant contractor some alternatives to central forced air.

Unfortunately, many contractors have not taken advantage of these systems and still send their clients down the road to negotiate an air-conditioning system with their HVAC competitor. Radiant contractors must face up to the reality that cooling and air-conditioning are facts of life. If we, as an industry, cannot provide the whole comfort system our potential for growth is limited.

Electric radiant heating systems are often overlooked by radiant contractors. These systems can be used to do floor warming or spot heating as well as entire homes, commercial buildings or snowmelting. The floor warming aspect alone can generate an immense amount of business for the industry. A warm tile floor in the bathroom pretty well assures that the next home will be completely radiant. The radiant heating contractor is the logical dealer for the electric system. It should be a part of a contractor's arsenal of comfort providing products.

Increases In Tubing Shipments Over The Previous Year
source: RPA

Old Concept, New Life

An old concept is seeing new life. This is the "Radiant Ready" house. Every house that has a basement should have tubing installed in the concrete for future use. The cost of installing the tubing in a slab that is already on the plans is minimal. The homeowner will then have the option at some future date to use anything from a water heater to a full-blown boiler, indirect heater, fan coil, hydronic multitasking system to heat the basement floor.

With the proper marketing, many in the radiant industry see the day when the "Radiant Ready" house will become a standard. The concept is not a difficult sell to building contractors. For a small investment they can offer a big comfort option. It is one approach that could lead to an explosion in the radiant industry. "Radiant Ready" is not cost sensitive, does not require highly skilled labor, needs little in the way of calculations, does not rely on cooling, and provides a big benefit to the homeowner.

There are three possible reasons for a slowdown. One is that the demand is no longer as great for the product as it once was. A second is that the product is unable to make it to the market in the volumes required. The third is that the price is beyond the market's threshold.

Demand for radiant heating seems to be growing at an unprecedented rate so it may be safe to assume that this is not the cause. Price and availability, then, remain as the possible culprits for any slowdown, should it occur. It is up to the industry to explore new methods, technologies and programs to alleviate these obstacles so that a whole new generation can enjoy the comfort of radiant heating.