In the case of a 90,000-sq. ft. mega-job, contractor and manufacturers rep worked together to put everything -- and we do mean 'everything' -- in place.

It's a given that without the hard work of the radiant contractor there wouldn't be radiant heat. But what about the unsung heroes who do all the behind-the-scenes work? Who finds out about the job? Who coaxes the owners about the benefits of radiant heat and counters objections to it? Who makes sure the concrete guys don't screw up? (Don't get me started on the concrete guys.) And just where do you store 60,000 ft. of PEX?

We don't doubt that a Wet Head can manhandle all the chores, or that many do just that. But for the purposes of this particular mega-installation, the contracting team received plenty of help. We'll meet the contractors in a bit. But first, let's consider the work of Bill Bailey, a rep with Lee Hydronics, Monee, Ill., a town about an hour's drive south of Chicago.

Lee began life in 1999 as an offshoot of another rep agency, Affiliated Steam. Lee focuses its work on commercial/industrial hydronic and radiant heat and doesn't shy away from larger, more demanding intricate installations.

Bailey's first bit of work began almost a year before the first tubing was even put down.

Through astute networking, Bailey and firm owner Rick Lee learned that Triton Mfg. was considering building a new administrative/manufacturing site. Triton manufactures circuit boards and electronic components for the HVAC, appliance and aviation/ aeronautics industries. At the time, the company was based in nearby Alsip, but operated out of a number of separate buildings. The move to Monee would put all its operations and about 150 employees under one roof.

And what a roof it would be at 90,000 sq. ft. with ceilings 30 ft. high. The facility was planned for about 82,000 sq. ft. of manufacturing space with the remainder set for office space.

"We did some preliminary heat calculations for the owner and showed him the possible savings of using radiant heat," Bailey says.

Since feeling is believing when it comes to selling radiant, Bailey also took the owner on a tour of other local radiantly heated industrial/commercial buildings to compare floor-to-ceiling temperatures.

The height of the ceilings at Triton's new site was one factor why radiant made sense. To heat the space with a forced air system would have required three times the Btus and done nothing to keep the warmth on the ground.

During the tour, Bailey took readings at the radiant sites that recorded comfortable room temperatures and 60-degree F temperatures at the top of the ceilings. Bailey went back to one of Triton's current buildings heated with forced air and discovered ceiling temperatures of 80 degrees F.

"It didn't take much to show the owner that he'd be spending plenty to heat his new ceiling," Bailey adds.

About a month after the initial meeting, Bailey designed a radiant system, put together an equipment and system package and got three bids from radiant contractors. The bids were stacked up against the general contractor's system of roof tops and air rotation units.

"It's the easiest thing to do from a mechanical standpoint," Bailey says of the HVAC system. "The problem is, if you open cargo doors -- and there are plenty at this space -- out goes the heat, throwing the system out of whack, too. Plus, nobody tells you how much it costs to run all that horsepower during the heating season either."

The results of the competition shouldn't be too surprising. While the energy calculations were about 40 percent less than the forced air system, the price tag for a radiant system was about $60,000 more, or about a 17 percent premium.

While no immediate decision was made, the radiant proposal wasn't DOA either. For the next five months, Bailey had any number of meetings with the GC, architect and concrete contractor (yeah, that guy). Finally, at the end of May, Triton decided to go with a radiant system installed by contractors Rivard Bros., Frankfort, Ill. John and Gerard Rivard got started in radiant in 1985, but didn't really get rolling until 1998 when they became part of Wirsbo's Home Comfort Team.

"We've been building on radiant ever since," John says. "If any local wholesaler finds out about a new radiant job or needs to troubleshoot an existing system, my brother and I are the 'go to' guys."

They've learned quickly that while the name of the game is heat, installing radiant offers plenty of other subtle benefits to owners. A snowmelt system, for example, they installed at a commercial bakery cut the owners' insurance premiums big time. Turns out the insurance agent showed up during a snowfall and commented on the excellent job the bakers had done shoveling the walkways. After the owners explained the snowmelt system, their liability insurance dropped by a six-figure sum.

In another job, workman's comp claims dropped at a cabinet shop since the radiant system didn't blow air around like its forced air predecessor had. Less dust equaled less eye problems.

After the Rivards entered the picture, Lee Hydronics still remained very much in view. After understanding the complexity of the radiant installation -- in particular, the plans to lay down as much as 8,000 ft. of PEX a day -- Triton signed on Lee to coordinate the job and act as quarterback for the trades and GC.

Wast Not . . .

We've already mentioned that radiant heat made sense due to the high ceilings.

"We certainly have 'zonability' with radiant," John adds. "But more importantly, we're keeping the heat right where it belongs."

But there's one more novelty particular to this job that highlights the marvelous adaptability of radiant heat. Air compressors are standard equipment for the type of manufacturing Triton does. The company could have gone with an electric version, but Bailey was able to point out how a natural gas-fired model would satisfy the air compression needs of the business, and provide a boost of about half million Btus to the radiant system.

"You get a double bang for the buck with this setup," John says. "We still dissipate the heat, but do it in a unique way."

The gas-fired unit runs off a Ford V-8 engine. Normally, the wasted heat would be vented out the roof. The makers of the unit, a Colorado company called Gas Com, supplied Bailey with the heat output of the engine's cooling system -- in this case, around 429,000 Btus. The engine's radiator essentially acts as a heat exchanger, moving water at 180 degrees F. Given such an output, the compressor is considered to be "Boiler 1."

The gas-fired compressor was a $60,000 investment, a much larger dollar amount than an electric version. But Bailey calculated that at current kilowatt rates, the gas model will provide a pay back in three years -- and that value doesn't include the half million Btus used to power the radiant system.

Of course, a 90,000-sq. ft. building needs plenty of more power to heat the space. For that, the Rivards installed three Viessmann boilers in a "lead-lag" succession. All boilers, plus the compressor, are staged from a Viessmann multimatic controller, which also controls a four-way radiant mixing valve.

The same boiler system also powers about 1,200 sq. ft. of snowmelt for the front entry and handicapped ramp.

Work Begins

Eleven months after Bailey's first meeting with Triton, tubing started to go down last September. The Rivards were able to lay out 12,000 ft. of tubing with a crew of seven in a day, far surpassing what they thought they could accomplish. (Prior to the installation, Lee organized the order and delivery of Wirsbo tubing with wholesaler, G.W. Berkheimer, which stored the tubing in a 40-ft. trailer at the jobsite at no charge.)

Less than two weeks later, more than 60,000 ft. of tubing was laid and concrete poured on top.

"The concrete contractor did want to do his own thing, but we had to make sure to protect the tubing," John says. "We told them that there were some things you can't do, but we can work out what you can do."

Here's where the rep agency's help played another big part -- they supplied the concrete crew with a detailed schematic that allowed them to do their work in just about the same time-saving fashion.

By October, the boilers and other equipment arrived, and, in the meantime, the Rivards started prefabbing a pump panel back at their shop. By December, the boiler room was ready to go. On Dec. 21 at 5 p.m., the heat began to flow. Given the size of the slab, the building reached 65 degrees F by Dec. 27. All the trades enjoyed putting the finishing touches on the building.

Even the GC's field superintendent was amazed at the radiant comfort and planned to do more with radiant on other jobs. (We can attest to the discomfort before the heat was turned on. Unfortunately, we visited the job on Dec. 17; standing on so much ice-cold concrete brought new meaning to the words "bone chilling.")

By February, the Gas Com system was also operational and adding its waste heat to the system

"This was really a joint effort by all involved to give the customer a first-class heating system," John says.

Heating Highlights

  • Power provided by three Viessmann boilers with a total of 2.9 million Btus. Plus, 400,000 Btus will be waste heat from a natural gas-fired air compressor.

  • Domestic hot water provided by a Viessmann 53-gallon indirect water heater.

  • 1,200 ft. of snowmelt system will also be run off same boiler system through a Triangle Tube brazed plate heat exchanger.

  • All boilers will be staged along with the compressor from a Viessmann multimatic controller, which will also control a four-way radiant mixing valve.