Radiant Heating Report: The Monster's New Clothes
One of the selling points of a radiant heating system, particularly a floor heating system, is that it is out of sight. No grilles in the walls. No registers on the floor. No baseboards along the walls. No bulky chases or duct runs. No lowered basement ceilings. In other words, nothing to detract from the architectural and interior design of the space É that is, until you walk into the mechanical room.
The mechanical room is a whole other world in which most home and building owners feel uncomfortable, at best, and terrified, at worst. I recall, as a boy, being relegated to the corner of the basement for my bedroom when my youngest sister arrived on the scene. It was a major change for a 12-year-old use to having a nice sunny room overlooking the backyard from a second-story window. In all fairness to my folks, my dad was hard at work framing in a new bedroom in the other corner of the basement for my younger brother and me. But for months we had to endure that unfriendly corner of the basement.
Right in the middle of the floor sat a huge mechanical monster with dozens of arms reaching out in all directions and then disappearing up into the skeleton of the house above. It had strange eyes of metal and glass. At night, as my brother and I lay in that big brass bed with the quilt pulled up over our noses, we would watch the monster glow in the dark as fire danced inside its toothy, evil grin. Every once in a while it would let out a great hiss and then sit there and growl as the flame in its mouth grew brighter. I can tell you, being watched all night long by that Leviathan did not make for sweet dreams.
I have never forgotten that experience and am reminded often of it as I enter the monsters' dens hidden away in the deep, forbidden chambers of most buildings.
For the homeowner, the mechanical room is a necessary evil. It is full of frightening devices that huff and puff and growl to provide heat and hot water for the real world above. The hydronics industry is particularly adept at creating monsters. In fact, it is one of the things that attract people to the trade.
Dr. FrankensteinEach mechanical contractor is a unique Dr. Frankenstein, piecing together a living, fire-breathing being from a pile of parts. Once assembled, the doctor throws the switch, fluid begins to course through the monster's veins, fire builds up in its torso, and it slowly comes to life.
If the doctor has properly restrained the beast, it dutifully should accept its appointed role of providing a warm and comfortable environment for the daylight dwellers above. It is quite a challenge, and there is great personal reward derived from creating a creature that slaves away, day-in and day-out, in the service of its masters.
For this reason, mechanical contractors often are reluctant to relinquish any of their creative talents in favor of simpler, more uniform, more modern, more efficient alternatives.
Not only that, but there are no two monsters alike. Each one is different, branded with the identity of its personal creator. If the monster begins to act up, the owner calls in the "monster tamer," who disappears down into the den and tangles with the monster using fire torches and iron weapons. Sometimes, he reappears victorious. Sometimes, the monster requires several sessions to get it under control once again.
The mechanical contractors should not be held responsible for the monster in the mechanical room. After all, they used the resources they were given. They had to choose from a lineup of boilers, pumps, valves, controls, pipe and a whole host of other parts. Each manufacturer took great pride in his little piece of the monster. As time went on, more manufacturers created an even greater number of choices. This presented an endless number of combinations, with no real blueprint for the overall design.
Some exceptionally talented contractors did their homework and created true works of art that are functionally and aesthetically superior. But, for the most part, hydronic systems are a collection of personal opinion, trial and error, rules of thumb, handed-down tips, sketchy training and a big dose of personal pride. The most often heard phrase of the tech working on someone else's creation is, "What was this guy thinking?"
Plug & PlayBut I think the days of the unique, contractor-created creatures are numbered. Automobiles used to be frightening monsters at one time as well. They huffed, puffed, popped and banged as their naked chassis, with whirling flywheels, pumping push rods, and exposed gears and chains, rumbled down the road. People would jump from their horse-drawn carriages and grab the reins of the horses to keep them from bolting as the mechanical monsters sped by.
Over the years, automobile manufacturers have learned that the public is squeamish about seeing the insides of mechanical things. They are far more assured by a pleasing exterior than the inner workings.
The hydronics industry is beginning to see the light. "Plug and play" technology slowly is making its way into the dark dungeons of the mechanical heating world. Pre-assembled panels, some with attractive covers, mount inconspicuously on the wall next to a boiler. A minimum amount of piping connects boiler to panel and panel to house. In some cases, installers even take care to hide the pipe behind the drywall so very little is visible. The walls are painted and clean. Each panel is an exact duplicate of its siblings hard at work in other buildings.
Some are complex, some are simple, but they all have two things in common: consistency and documentation. They are not freaks of custom creation; they are products of reproduction. It is a big step toward civilizing the mechanical room.
Where do you suppose the automobile industry would be right now if each person who wanted to purchase a car had to hire a mechanic to design the car, select and assemble the components into a working automobile, document it for future maintenance and deliver it to the buyer at a reasonable price?
Certainly some shops could create outstanding works of function and art, but I would venture to guess that most of us would be walking. Consistent, attractive, user-friendly packaging is what made the automobile a success.
Hydronics Vs. HVACUnfortunately, the HVAC industry is further down this road in many ways than the hydronics trade. Its burner, heat exchanger, circulator, controls, filtration, etc., all are contained in a single cabinet. Usually, all the installer has to do is set the cabinet on the floor and run ductwork, plastic flue and a little bit of gas pipe and wiring.
Imagine if the hydronic contractor simply had to set the cabinet on the floor and run pipe to the radiation, a plastic flue, gas line and wire. All the mixing devices, controls, expansion tanks, zone valves, pressure-related valves, air eliminators, pumps, etc., would be contained in the cabinet. Sure, it would take a lot of the creativity out of the process, but it also would take a lot of the callbacks, headaches and consumer fears out of it as well.
This is the future happening today. The industry is moving in this direction, albeit slowly. A lot of things have to change along the way, but it is a "plug and play" world and the hydronic industry needs to adapt. Just take a look at one of the European mega-trade shows such as ISH in Frankfurt or Mostra Convegno Expo-Comfort in Milan. The European hydronic system long ago made its way out of the subterranean dungeons to become an attractive appliance, often in a modern kitchen.
The custom-built system will never disappear completely. For many building projects, it is a requirement that demands a skilled technician. But the face of these systems will change what has been for decades a bare chassis that only the creator could love. Like the automobile, people are willing to pay for something that looks attractive. A chassis with a windshield will carry a consumer down the road, but a sleek, beautiful body exudes confidence and sells cars.
The monster in the basement is due for retirement. The new hydronic system will inspire pride in its owner, who will be anxious to show off his newly acquired treasure. If our industry can provide that attractive package, there will be no stopping the industry's growth. Clothe the monster and open wide the doors to his den for all the world to see.