Preassembled radiant components are a great way to get the job done right and on time.

Ever get overzealous during a radiant project? Each tee, each loop, each drop an artistic expression of a radiant master. The end result is a tour de force as you stand back and admire the accomplishment.

But what happens when you leave? Are you confident in your installation? And with all the components required to deliver the cleanest, quietest heating system around, taking too much pride in the mechanical wall can begin to resemble some shiny, copper monster with tentacles filling a room. You may as well hang a sign up for homeowners: Stay Out!

Over the past year, radiant manufacturers have been working to round up these behemoths and contain them in tighter, more efficient (and cosmetically more appealing) units.

These preassembled, prewired paneled radiant systems provide a repeatable and consistent installation that take up less space, but also provide equal efficiency and labor savings of up to 80 percent. The installer is then free to move on to complete more jobs with the full confidence that the system was installed correctly.

As the radiant industry continues its upward growth, and housing starts and sales remain strong, radiant contracting companies have experienced such an increase in jobs that it has become hard to keep up with the demand for quality installations.

“Some can't afford not to use paneled systems,” says Jan Andersson, brand manager of heating for Uponor Wirsbo. “Manufacturers have taken a complex system and made it more digestible for contractors, builders and homeowners, which only grows the industry further.”

Here we'll take a closer look at a preassembled radiant installation, as well as new items on the market today that are working to change the way the industry does radiant.

Dennis Borshardt has been installing radiant heating systems since 1987. He's seen his share of basement beasts. As owner and vice president of Interstate Heating Co. Inc. in Sussex, Wis., it's important that his team of 55 technicians complete radiant jobs quickly and correctly.

The 42-year-old family-owned company began with residential systems, and in 1996 installed its first commercial job. Since then, radiant heating has become the fastest growing segment of its business.

A recent review of company procedures and an analysis of installation efficiency made Borshardt believe that things could be tighter on the job. Interstate looked to its long-standing relationship with Wirsbo for a solution.

“We had been installing hand-built systems since 1987. At first when Wirsbo approached us with the idea of preassembled components, my employees and I had reservations about the change in the industry,” says Borshardt, concerned that this method of prepackaged, radiant-in-a-box systems could remove the trade from radiant installations.

“But after using many panels, Interstate Heating has come to the conclusion that it does not dumb down the trade. You still need the skills to design and lay out a system and boiler room to meet the needs of the building.”

Surpassing Clients' Needs

The radiant application PM tagged along on was a large residence in Waukesha, Wis. More than 3,100 square feet of Wirsbo radiant heat was installed in a lower level and hard-to-heat areas on the first and second floors. Two Interstate employees installed the system cleanly and quickly using Wirsbo's ProPanel™ series 311P. The plug-and-play controls and panels limited the number of trips to the mechanical room. No more buckets of fittings, pumps and flanges to assemble. And no waiting for an electrician.

“The panels make the job easy because they come prepiped and prewired in a beautiful enclosure,” says Borshardt. “It makes the job extremely clean and simple, and also gives a consistent look to all our jobs. So when a builder is selling or explaining a job, it makes it simple for him to make the sale.”

“If piped from scratch, a system like this easily would've taken up 8 feet of wall space,” explains Andersson. “Today's builders give up very little space to the mechanical room.”

The customers were looking for quality in both the products and installation for their new home. Some of its challenges included a large glass area overlooking a lake, and a tower room on the second floor with four walls of glass windows and a hardwood floor.

The homeowners wanted a silent, energy-efficient heating system that could be felt and not heard, but also one that could keep up with the cold Wisconsin winters.

Interstate chose Wirsbo's 311P because of its reset ability. Also, its one-mix temperature and indirect water heater capabilities can be contained in one enclosure for the entire system. The panels can be linked easily to meet any type of system application or job requirement. All this translates to a clean, straight, serviceable and well-controlled radiant system for the client.

“The owner is a professional architect who is very well versed in new ideas and products for both comfort and energy savings,” says Borshardt. “This architect now has complete confidence selling similar full and partial radiant systems after enjoying the real comfort it provides his own home.”

“Removing that 'intimidation factor' is important,” adds Andersson. “And a builder can appreciate this type of radiant system's consistency and reliability. It's an easier sell.”

'Just Add Water'

At the Radiant Expo (REX) in 2003, presenter Robert Bean, a registered engineering technologist for the heating industry, spoke about the advent of smaller, smarter systems and the application of nanotechnology to the industry. Changing the game right now is Taco with its recently launched Radiant Mixing Block (RMB). This complete injection mixing system combines a variable speed injection mixing control, injection circulator, system circulator and air eliminator into one unit.

“The RMB changes the way radiant systems are put together, not just where they're put together,” says Mark Chaffee, Taco's senior product manager. “We took the most complicated part of a radiant system and said, 'How can we make that smaller and more efficient?'”

There is no special piping with the RMB. No balancing valve, no closely spaced tees, no external controls or complex wiring components. Each device is manifold-ready; just four pipe connections and you're done. Its full diagnostic LCD display helps monitor the unit's performance while it handles radiant load demands of up to 120,000 Btus.

No Room For Error

The RMB offers substantial space savings (only 6 inches wide and 14 inches tall at 18.5 lbs.), and there's no need to change existing methods of zoning for radiant loops.

“I've seen radiant systems with three injection loops that took up over 20 feet of valuable wall space,” says Chaffee. “The RMB eliminates all the special piping needed for injection mixing; this one unit takes up one-third that space in a mechanical room.”

The importance of prepackaged systems lies not only with space savings and quickness, though.

“The injection mixing loop is where things usually go wrong,” says Chaffee. “All the rules, the reduced diameter pipes, closely spaced tees, check valves - that's where inconsistency can disrupt a job.”

Producing a reliable and consistent system gives a contractor confidence in his project, which transfers to a confident building owner that his heating system will perform. And a happy radiant customer is helpful to all in the industry.

“We basically sell our contractors time,” says Andersson. “They can confidently quote a job because they know installing a panel will only take two or three hours. These products help give them a professional representation, which brings up industry quality as a whole.”

“Prepackaged controls are more costly upfront, but the labor savings are substantial,” concludes Borshardt. Interstate no longer needs to send out its highest-paid technicians to the jobsite. It can send the less-experienced guys to install, who benefit from the field experience, but still produce a consistent, quality system. “It enhances the quality of the radiant industry and the control side of the industry, which is greatly needed.”

With preassembled radiant systems and new technology to streamline the control side of the installation, the benefits of owning a radiant heating system increase all around.