Industry issues you can plumb, even before I'm sworn in.

It's Oct. 18, and I've just received the theme for the January issue from Steve Smith at PM. The assigned topic of pontification: If I were president of the hydronic heating industry, here's what I'd do.

Never being one with political aspirations, I had to think about this for a while. What are themes that would keep me in office? What would polls suggest I do? Perhaps even what would be best for the industry? These are hard concepts for an engineer to draw schematics of.

The more I thought, the more certain issues revealed themselves as priorities. Issues like installer certification, education, research and market promotion. Issues that must be addressed, and soon, if the industry is to maintain the strong growth it has enjoyed in recent years.

So here's my slate of issues:

The Professional's Mark

Nothing hurts the hydronics industry more than bad installations.

The effects of a bad installation are first felt at the local level. If the building with the thermally-challenged system has public occupancy, it's likely hundreds of people will be subjected to discomfort the very first year. Many of those people will someday help make decisions on future buildings - perhaps while planning a new home, maybe as members of a church or fire company building committee. Be assured their experience in that uncomfortable building, however brief, will weigh in heavily when the discussion turns to heating options.

Should information from a few such flubbed jobs be gathered by an investigative journalist looking for the next sensational documentary, the local gossip can quickly go national. I'm sure many of you recall the treatment afforded the radiant heating industry by The Wall Street Journal and New York Times approximately two years ago. Years of hard work, diligent craftsmanship and effective marketing by thousands of people suddenly were marginalized and made suspect by the national media. We as an industry can't afford this kind of negative image.

So what's the plan? In short, this industry should develop a recognized certification program for hydronic system installers.

Although I'm a strong advocate of self-responsibility, entrepreneurial spirit and independent thinking, I also know good intentions won't stop the proliferation of marginal installations in this industry.

Many of you already hold plumbing licenses, oil-burner licenses, EPA certification to handle refrigerants and other "paperwork" stating you're qualified to do what you do. I also earned and maintain a license to perform engineering work. Most of us worked hard to get these licenses or certifications and are proud of them. Having them elevates our thinking beyond just doing a job - to doing it professionally.

We should promote certification or licensure as a professional accomplishment, not as an encroachment in the way we do business. In this age of the consumer as "victim," the public generally views certification and licensing favorably, as the mark of a trustworthy professional. Can you imagine boarding a plane not knowing if the flight crew had undergone training and passed tests to verify its competence at the controls? Many consumers are just as sequestered from dealing with their heating systems as the passengers are on an airliner.

The rule book for such certification should be written by this industry, not the government. Collectively, we know what works and what doesn't. We understand how to design and install quality systems and make a profit doing it. None of us wants an overly- invasive, expensive or antiquated standard imposed on us. If we won't write the rules ourselves, we shouldn't complain when uninterested government bureaucrats eventually write them for us.

I also feel certification should start at a local level and progress upward. Local hydronic professionals who understand the value of certification should work with local code enforcement officials to get the wheels rolling. They should draft a simple, realistic and achievable certification standard appropriate for their municipality, and enact it. Perhaps the Hydronics Institute or RPA could produce a suggested model certification process to assist such efforts. Get it written and get it implemented. Refinements can come with time.

Limited Possibilities: Another way to reduce bad installations is to reign in what are now endless variations on system design. Almost every week I hear about an unproven hydronic piping and control configuration. A system based on a sketch variation from old sales literature, with a little local flare and personal "ingenuity" mixed in. Some no doubt will work. Others are disasters waiting to pounce on their well-intentioned but under-informed designers.

Instead, suppose you could select one of perhaps 100 "prequalified" generic piping and control configurations for your next residential hydronic system. Chances are at least one layout would serve the needs of that project, with little more than superficial detailing. These designs could be updated annually as new technology demonstrates its ability to perform.

Every new system would either conform to a prequalified design or require review and approval by a P.E. The latter simply leaves the door open for progressive, nonprescriptive designs when needed and places responsibility and liability for their success solely on that engineer's shoulders.

Gone would be the days of "design-as-you-solder" and "I've been doing it this way for 30 years, don't give me that #*@.!!" Over time, systems would become easier to service because they would be standardized. Both the industry and the consumer would benefit.

This standard wouldn't replace existing standards like the NFPA Fuel Gas Code. Instead, it would specifically address piping and control configurations that are not covered in other standards, especially for traditionally "non-engineered" systems.

The RPA Standard Guidelines publication, now in its third revision, is a good start in this direction. Although its intent is radiant panel systems, much of what it discusses is hydronics. It's available free to any code enforcement officer.

I occasionally hear complaints about code enforcement officers accused of not knowing the latest hydronics technology they are assigned to inspect. How many of you who make such complaints also make sure that the C.E.O. gets a copy of the RPA Standard Guidelines?

Check This Out

As president of the hydronics industry, I'd also push hard for more research. Within the HVAC industry, many research efforts are under way on issues like indoor air quality, alternate refrigerants and software standards for building automation, but few directly address hydronic heating. Our industry still has many (generic) questions waiting for answers. Here are but a few that have floated in limbo over the last several years, with little more than opinions or sales hype offered as answers:

How much underslab insulation is necessary for heated floor slab in different parts of the country?

How can one evaluate the thermal tradeoffs vs. cost and then decide?

What are the effects of boiler short cycling?

What are the tradeoffs in terms of efficiency, emissions and maintenance requirements?

What design and control strategies can alleviate the problems?

What is the present and long-term performance of radiant-barrier insulations in radiant panel installations?

What temperatures can we safely expose wood products to in radiant floor installations?

What should installers know about water quality in small hydronic systems?

How can they assess the water quality, and correct it if necessary, before filling their systems?

To its credit, ASHRAE is sponsoring research through Kansas State University on several methods of tubing installation. The results are due in early 2001. It's a start, but I think our industry needs a sustained research effort. I also think the Hydronics Institute should devote time and resources to making this happen.

You'll Never Know It All

Continuing education is essential in any industry that expects to survive. When any of us think we know everything about hydronics, it's time to find another line of work.

Given the constant flow of new people into this industry, training on the basics is essential and must be ongoing. Even those at the "peak of their game," hydronically speaking, need to be fed new information every year. Much of this should trickle down from increased research efforts.

This industry should educate its own. The Hydronics Institute, perhaps working alongside the RPA, should continue to expand the educational materials available to this industry. To its credit, the Hydronics Institute will soon release a very comprehensive new training manual on hydronic heating. I think that's a good start. I also feel the information it contains must flow across the Web as easily as it flows across the paper pages. Ditto for the educational materials available from the RPA.

Why is it that many contractors enthusiastically attend almost any educational program this industry offers, while others wouldn't go even if paid to do so? Part of the problem is that the right information has the wrong means of delivery. The Internet must become the default delivery "vehicle" for hydronics training in the near future.

What's Right About Hydronics?

We all heard stories of marginal or failed hydronic installations. Some make me wonder how the perpetrator manages to stay ahead of the lawyers. How can anyone install hardware that didn't work properly last week on this week's job, and then plan to do the same on next week's job?

I think it's time we in the industry, as well as the buying public, hear more about successful projects and less about the hack jobs. How about a Web site hosted by the Hydronics Institute that constantly showcases 50 hydronic heating jobs. Installers interested in promoting their capabilities, craftsmanship and availability could submit pictures and descriptions of their projects. The projects could be reviewed for merit by an impartial group of two or three reviewers and then posted free of charge for all the world to view for, say, two weeks. New projects could be added on a daily basis. Those having run their online time could be moved to an accessible archive for 12 months and then removed. Projects depicting both simple and low-cost jobs, as well as mid- and high-end systems, could be shown. What a way to keep a fresh face on a Web site and convey the message of what hydronic heating can accomplish.

A Committment To Professionalism

: Most of what I've proposed can be summarized in one word:

professionalism. It's an attitude that we, as individuals and a whole industry, must continually aspire to.

Professionalism is not about whose equipment is installed; it's about taking time to make sure it all works together as a system.

Professionalism is not about getting on and off the job ASAP; it's about the willingness to pull a joint apart and redo it when you find the pipe is a 1/4-inch out of plumb.

Professionalism is not about caving to price pressure; it's about knowing what quality is, how much it costs to provide it, and conveying this truthfully, confidently and unabashedly to customers.

Professionalism is not about verbally trashing your competition; it's about being sure you're doing the best job possible.

Professionalism is more than just another day's pay for another day's work; it's about going home night after night with a sense of accomplishment, knowing you're creating something unique that (literally) will comfort lots of people for many years.

This is a great industry for those who want to be professionals. Those who don't are kindly asked to choose a career elsewhere.

So that's what I'd push for as president of the hydronics industry.

In all sincerity, I've put forward these ideas with no self-serving intent, no interest in promoting one product over others, and no grudges to settle with anyone. I hope you'll give them honest consideration. If you agree with them, I hope you'll role up your sleeves and work to make them happen, because in the end, there's one issue we surely all can agree on: Plenty of uncomfortable people are still out there.