An in-depth look at the installation practices and buying habits of radiant contractors.

If you want to know what’s going on in the radiant market today, we don’t mind telling you we know exactly whom to ask. We sent out a hefty four-page questionnaire packed with 26 questions last April to 1,000 contractors — a combination of contractor members of the Radiant Panel Association and a random assortment of PM subscribers. An impressive 19 percent returned the survey. (Believe us, that’s a very high number, particularly counting the questions and time it took to do the job; editors usually do back flips if they get a return half this great.) Here are some key findings of the survey:

  • By and large, most of our respondents’ radiant work is in residential — eight out of 10 jobs. The survey revealed more diversification regarding these residential jobs than we would have thought beforehand. While new construction was still king, it held a slim majority at 56 percent. Meanwhile, 44 percent was for remodeling.

  • Commercial and industrial work rounded out the tally with 11 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

  • Eighty-seven percent of the respondents installed between 1,000 ft. to 100,000 ft. of tubing last year. (For a breakdown on increments, see chart below.)

  • The survey reveals a group of independent-minded tradesmen not afraid of marketing a niche product in a market dominated by forced air. Seventy-two percent agreed that “getting the word out about how comfortable radiant heat is so I could get more jobs at the price, or higher, than I am getting now.” Only 12 percent thought that radiant would not gain market share because “warm air systems are that much cheaper.” And even less, 9 percent, thought that the radiant market would not increase “until cooling and air quality can be included in the package.”

  • The survey revealed a well-rounded bunch of heating contractors. Thirty-seven percent installed a combination of radiant and other hydronics. Sixteen percent installed a combination of radiant, other hydronics and warm air. Fifteen percent installed a combination of radiant and warm air. At the same time, 32 percent indicated they do strictly radiant jobs.

  • Boilers provided the power for almost 90 percent of radiant installations. However, 68 percent believed that non-boiler heat sources would increase in the future, with most saying alternatives would grow in two to five years.

Complete Survey Results: A complete copy of the Radiant Heat Market Profile Study, including 12 questions regarding controls and other heating strategies for residential and commercial applications, can be purchased for $175. Log on to and click on “Exclusive Industry Research” or e-mail Robert Conte at

Buying Habits

How many different brands of boilers did you use last year?

3 to 4 -- 42%
2 -- 35%
1 -- 15%
More than 4 -- 8%

How many different brands of tubing did you use last year?

1 -- 49%
2 -- 43%
3 to 4 -- 7%
More than 4 -- 1%

Which of the following would influence you to switch brands of radiant heating components? (Multiple response allowed.)

If there were problems with exising brand -- 60%
Easier installation -- 53%
Promise of "better" product (longer lasting, more effective) -- 51%
Price -- 43%
Easier to service -- 33%
Better availability -- 30%
Customers ask for another brand -- 30%
I would never change brands -- 9%

What percentage of radiant jobs have you used ...?

Products from different manufacturers where I am selecting the brand of boiler or hot water heating, pump, radiant tubing, control, etc. -- 80%
A radiant "package" from a single manufacturer -- 20%

Where do you buy radiant heat supplies? (Multiple response allowed.)

From more than one supply house -- 63%
From one supply house -- 37%
Direct from manufacturer or manufacturers rep -- 21%
Home center or other retail outlet -- 0%

Rank the importance of each when it comes to deciding which supply house you purchase your radiant heating products from.

1. Availability
2. Customer service
3. Technical training/assistance
4. Brand name lines
5. Price

On The Job

What percentage of radiant heat you install is ...?

Residential -- 88%
Commercial -- 11%
Industrial -- 1%

What percentage of your residential jobs in new construction vs. remodeling?

New Cosntruction -- 56%
Remodeling -- 44%

Which of the following products do you install? (Multiple response allowed.)

Slab on grade -- 78%
Staple up -- 66%
Poured underlayment -- 63%
Subfloor engineered radiant panel -- 50%
Snowmelt -- 44%
Suspended floor -- 28%
Wall panel -- 25%
Ceiling panels -- 11%

How much radiant tubing did you install last year?

1,000 ft. to 10,000 ft. -- 30%
10,000 ft. to 50,000 ft. -- 35%
50,001 ft. to 100,000 ft. -- 22%
100,001 ft. to 500,000 ft. -- 11%
500,001 ft. to 1 million ft. -- 2%

Of the jobs that you installed radiant heat, which percentage of these jobs were ...

A combination of radiant and other hydronic jobs -- 37%
Strictly radiant jobs -- 32%
A combination of radiant, other hydronics and warm air jobs -- 16%
A combination of radiant and warm air jobs -- 15%

Of the radiant jobs that you've handled, what percentage of the following have you used as the heat source?

Boilers -- 89%
Water heaters -- 8%
Geothermal -- 1%
Other (largely solar) -- 2%

Do you install electric radiant systems?

Yes -- 19%
No -- 81%

A Look At The Future

Do you think that the use of nonboiler heat sources will increase in the future?

Yes -- 68%
No -- 32%

If "yes," when do you think it will happen?

2 to 5 years -- 61%
This year -- 18%
More than 5 years -- 18%
Next year -- 3%

Which one of the following statements most closely describes your opinions regarding the future of radiant heat in the United States?

Eventually, we'll settle on a "good/better/best" range of products and we'll be more successful when we keep it simple and affordable -- 40%
The higher energy prices get, the more appealing radiant heat will be -- 24%
We'll continue to get more sophisticated products until we are on par with Europe -- 15%
Radiant will never command a large share of the market; warm-air systems are too much cheaper -- 12%
The radiant market will not increase until cooling and air quality can be included in the package -- 9%

Wholesaler Relations

One of the questions we asked was for the names of wholesalers who contractors considered the best at supplying product in their respective areas. We interviewed some of the wholesalers about how they helped contractors market radiant heat.

David Schmitt, sales associate, Plimpton & Hills, Hartford, Conn.

“We have formed a local group with some contractors who do radiant heat and some sales reps. We call ourselves the Comfort Group. We’ll do home shows together every spring and fall, splitting up the time and the leads. We have found it generates a lot of leads from people who are doing custom homes. We’ll bring in floor panels and warm the floors using a six-gallon electric heater. We invite the people to take off their shoes and feel the floor. We try to sell them on the idea of comfort vs. price. It is an expensive product.

“We offer training to contractors about every three months. In June we hosted 150 people for dinner and a radiant seminar that also included discussion of domestic plumbing pipe. We worked with Stadler on this.

“I have done seminars with home builders. We hope to create some pull-through business by approaching the builders, so they can ask the plumbers about radiant. In January I spoke to the local chapter of the Home Builders Association. I invited one of my good contractors and a wood flooring distributor and we talked about how the builders don’t have to worry about hardwood floors and radiant. We said you can heat through hardwood floors. Builders worry about how their flooring material will be affected by radiant heat. We had about 25 homebuilders from the Hartford area. We provided the food and held the event in our facility.

“When we do a seminar, we are not trying to sell a specific product. We do a generic radiant presentation. Too many people in the trade are afraid to do radiant and they are walking away from nice margins.”

Rick Mayo, regional hydronics manager, Familian Northwest,Sandy, Utah

“FNW, as a company, has offered design assistance to our contractors for about 15 years, with the Washington and Alaska branches among the first to jump into the radiant scene. We took on the Wirsbo line when nobody knew what a ‘Wirsbo’ was and followed their lead in emphasizing training. We knew if we were going to sell this stuff we were all going to have to know more about it, so we sent our employees and customers back to their factory for intensive training. FNW still does this today.

“This industry is a moving target, and in order to keep up with it, we are continually giving and receiving training, especially in the ‘control’ end of the business.

“At times, the general contractor puts up a barrier around the end-users. For one reason or another, they do not see the value in the ‘up sell’ of hydronic products in their houses. Occasionally, the owner will solicit directly to the plumbing or mechanical contractor, and we will make ourselves available for consultation in those situations. We also get some opportunities to speak with mechanical engineers and architects, and provide them with some basic training.”

Brad Rutherford, heating manager, Supply North Central/D&C Supply, Ann Arbor, Mich.

“The installation approach is very important because contractors are comfortable with selling what they can install properly. That is what we saw as the biggest need: getting the contractors to the point where they feel comfortable with what they are installing.

“As a result, we provide training. Sometimes this involves taking the contractors to a manufacturer’s facility. For example, Viessmann has an outstanding training facility and it’s not too far a drive from us.

“We also do in-house training seminars. We may schedule the training for one Saturday morning per month for four consecutive months or do it all in one day. Typically we will cover installation methods for in-floor radiant heat, the different ways to pipe up a mechanical room with radiant.

“We try to address all the different facets someone might be faced with, whether it be cement or a dry floor (sub-floor). There are many different ways radiant tube can be installed.

“At least 90 percent of what we do in the heating department is radiant. We started carving out a niche in that about 12 years ago. We lag behind the East Coast by about five years. In the late 1980s and early 1990s people started asking for radiant or the contractor would suggest it. In today’s market probably 50 percent of the sales are initiated by the homeowner.

“Five or six years ago you had a hard time finding an architect willing to talk about radiant. Today we have architects who ask for radiant on a regular basis. They are aware of radiant installations that have been running in homes for the last three years.

“Approaches to radiant continue to improve. It is still a work in progress. I don’t think we will be doing the same things in a few years as we do today. We seem to add some nuance every year.”

Marc Brodt, president, Longmont Winnelson, Longmont, Colo.

“The systems can be complex and the design is critical. We spend a lot of time working on heat-loss calculations and designing a system to meet the heat load. Then we make sure that our customer understands the design and the fine points of the installation. If that means going to the jobsite and laying out the job, we do it.

“A lot of jobs end up with different combinations of heat sources and heat distribution units. These could be radiant, finned-tube baseboard, European-type radiant panels and others, all requiring different water temperatures and flow rates. It can get fairly complex.

“We are training people all the time. Formal training is usually done with a manufacturer. We’ll meet in a hotel conference room or restaurant and go over all of the basics. Generally we try to do small size classes, with 20 people or less.”