The Plain Vanilla System
Simply put, Vince Gallipoli has perfected a simple way to install radiant heat. A crew of six men from Vince Gallipoli & Son, Albuquerque, N.M., completes "everything from manifold to test" in three hours for a 3,800-sq. ft. home.
And as soon as one job's done, they're off to the next, typically doing two jobs a day, and possibly squeezing in a third if other jobs are rescheduled at the last minute. All that remains is to pour the slab, and for Gallipoli's workers to return another day to hook up the boiler.
As we said, a very simple approach very simply done. What's more, the job's done at around $2.50 per square foot.
"We call it the 'plain vanilla' system," Gallipoli says whose company does practically all its business installing radiant heat. "We come out straight from the boiler, go to a manifold and back with a pump and that's it. By and large, we do not put in mixing valves and tempering valves. We could, but then that would be pistachio, and I prefer vanilla."
Gallipoli can choose the ice cream, but we'll emphasize the word "system" in his description since it accounts for his success building over the years what amounts to about 25 percent of the local radiant heating market.
This year, Gallipoli will install more than 1 million lineal feet of Wirsbo PEX in approximately 200 homes in and around Albuquerque, N.M.
Gallipoli has been promoting radiant in New Mexico since the mid-1970s with much of his groundwork paying off over the past 12 years. (Lately, his son, Glenn, also has helped grow the business.) But his Wet Head experience actually stretches back to his days as a Long Island contractor actually got his start in the heating industry working for a supply house in the 1950s. "Don't put it that way or I'll start sounding like Methuselah," he jokes. "I just always wanted to work with stuff I sold in boxes."
One of his first experiences in seeing how a simple system could work in a big way was when he moved into an original Levittown home. Gallipoli remembers that almost 40 homes went up each day, and you'd often see the boiler, plumbing and other mechanical items lined up right in front the sites just like an assembly line.
Odd Place?Simple approach or not, the New Mexico desert may seem like an odd place for radiant heat for first-time visitors. "Most people think that since it gets so hot in summer, we don't need heat," adds Gary Socha, president of local rep agency Socha Co., who has helped Gallipoli grow the local market. "I can tell you that if you get accustomed to being warm, it doesn't take very much cold to make you very uncomfortable."
If it doesn't take much, then Albuquerque residents really need to warm things up. Local temperatures can easily swing 45 degrees in the afternoon and another 15 degrees at night. So in a roundabout way, radiant is the perfect source of heat in New Mexico, since people are used to being surrounded by warm surfaces and want it put back when it's taken away.
New Mexico, in fact, may lead the country for low-cost radiant systems, according to Larry Drake, executive director of the Radiant Panel Association. "The state probably has more radiantly heated homes per capita than any other state in the union," he adds. "The combination of slab-on-grade and tile floors inside makes the state ideal."
As Drake mentions, local construction methods certainly help. Slab-on-grade construction, for example, is quite common and the perfect partner for radiant installations.
Gallipoli's crew installs radiant with a straight shot from the boiler to the tubing with no mixing. Under most conditions, a boiler would condense inside and quickly corrode. One difference for Gallipoli is the number of zones he uses. You might be surprised that the "simple" system for the 3,800-sq. ft. home we saw built includes 12 zones. By using this many zones, the flow rate is very small and the temperature rise is very large.
But another big reason Gallipoli doesn't fight condensation problems is that the dew point changes considerably at New Mexico's elevation - 5,000 feet above sea level, at least for Albuquerque. The high elevation inhibits condensation. A boiler at sea level under the same conditions would not be able to handle Gallipoli's plain vanilla system.
Promotion-MindedBut while local weather conditions may be in his favor, they are still the same conditions for all other radiant contractors. As a result, Gallipoli also has made plenty happen in his favor by heavily promoting his services to local builders.
One of the first ways he got attention years ago was by mailing a thousand dollars worth of $2 bills with a note saying he could provide the unbeatable comfort of radiant heat for $2 a square foot. "I think a lot of people still have those $2 bills," Gallipoli says.
He's also a big believer in organizing trip giveaways. "You may not spend any more for a nice trip than you would some other common promotional effort," Gallipoli explains, "but when you come back from a trip, you've all come back as friends."
Gallipoli is also a senior member of the local homebuilders association and is well known for emptying out an area builders' cupboards of old coffee mugs and replacing them all with Wirsbo mugs. He also promotes his company's membership in PHCC-NA - the only contractor in town who can make that claim.
While his visibility might be what brings him to the dance, what keeps him there is the quick work his crew makes of each job.
"The entire process is designed to get them in and out in the least amount of time," Socha adds. Everything Gallipoli can think of over the years to simplify, he's done. Beside making quick work of installing tubing, the control wiring for the system is fed through piping situated under the slab in most cases. That saves time otherwise spent climbing over rafters and drilling through beams.
"All this translates into a 'radiant-on-demand' ability that his builders expect," Socha adds. "In other words, when a builder calls Vince or Glenn, they don't wait for a design, and nothing holds up the construction process. Obviously, they've optimized the price, too."
If anyone's still trying to understand the merits of Gallipoli's plain vanilla system, it will help if you just consider for a moment that he can do it that way. He can install radiant simply and still provide comfort. He can do it at a price homebuilders can embrace, and he can install it hassle-free. He can do it at a price that, believe or not, isn't the lowest price in town. He can do it in an area of the country where cooling outweighs heating concerns. And he can do it where the entire state has only 2 million residents.
Sometimes the simplest way is also the hardest.
And Now For SomethingBased on the main story, we hope you got the idea that they install radiant a little differently in New Mexico. But if we didn't make the case strong enough, take a look at the High Feather Ranch, a bed and breakfast located 30 miles outside of Sante Fe.
The 4,600-sq. ft. radiantly heated structure uses an updated approach to a traditional pueblo style of construction. The walls, for example, are constructed of straw bales, set on their sides and impaled with rebar to hold them in place.
The bales are popular among the alternative building crowd. Properly installed, straw bale walls have an R-50 installation value. The 18-inch walls are eventually coated over to give them the undulating adobe look. (Technically speaking, the structure is framed construction with a straw bale fill-in.)
But what really sets the building apart is the use of mud floors in two rooms. Mud floors have been around as long as humans have lived in the Southwest. One contractor we met during our visit had been to homes with mud floors that were 300 years old. Keep in mind, the soil has more clay so once the earth is pounded down over the PEX tubing, it will become quite hard.
Traditionally, the surface was covered in oxblood, which congealed and created a somewhat more durable surface. Nowadays, a combination of linseed oil and carnuba wax is more likely. The only drawback with mud floors is that they won't stand up to a lot of foot traffic.
Consequently, the two mud floors are used in rooms that are part of the B&B's private quarters. In other areas, the PEX is covered over by a regular pour. They don't do everything differently in New Mexico.