As the radiant heating industry matures, look for 'plug and play' technology to be the next trend.

Hydronic radiant heating has shown remarkable growth in the last 10 years. Since the Hydronics Institute first began recording tubing sales in 1991, annual delivery of tubing used in radiant heat has grown from just under 23 million lineal feet to almost 123 million lineal feet in 1998.

The catalyst for this current revival? Hands down, it's radiant floor heat. We have early crusaders, such as the TV program, "This Old House," to thank for first carrying the message to consumers. The show's national presence added instant credibility to radiant heat. Word-of-mouth promotion has been the industry's most effective advertising.

Radiant floor heat has long since caught the imagination of many consumers, but the level of comfort achieved by radiant floors is no figment of the imagination. Comfort, combined with the reliability of modern materials, is a one-two punch driving the market.

What's more, this renewed interest in a technology first introduced to North America in the early-1940s has also spurred growth in other radiant applications. Here are a few "predictions" that barely qualify as a forecast anymore:

  • Decorative wall panels and towel warmers will continue to gain popularity as both supplementary heat and interior design features.

  • Retrofit installations will be made easier with new above-floor technologies.

  • A move toward ceiling and wall applications will make radiant heating more affordable.

  • Joist space heating will continue to rise in popularity.

  • Snowmelting has become a respectable profit center for many contractors and will expand in popularity for high-end homes and commercial applications.

  • Although still in its infancy, radiant cooling will continue to develop a small market, primarily for applications in walls and ceilings.

  • There will be a growing debate between high-tech, complex systems and simple, minimum control strategies. Both will find a prominent place in the industry and service valuable niches. The majority of business will be a blend of both.

The radiant heating industry is certainly maturing as it enters the new millennium. Once primarily a high-end residential custom sale, radiant heat is being installed in more middle-class homes on one end of the spectrum and large commercial applications on the other end. Solid, established equipment suppliers are developing from small, struggling (but adventurous) entrepreneurial businesses. Industry standards and practices are being established. Boiler manufacturers are not only actively promoting radiant heat, some have entered the arena with radiant heating products of their own.

Early champions of the radiant cause had to be focused primarily on floor heating, often taking on the role of radiant floor specialist. This kind of highly specialized energy was needed to move the little known technology into the market. It took single-minded, dedicated individuals to swim against the current of conventional thinking.

While we definitely needed this energy in the beginning, today's consumer is more aware than ever that there are choices. Huge advances in mass media, communication and the Internet have produced customers that are far more informed than ever before. The current affluence of the country has made it possible for home and business owners to make choices beyond simply providing basic shelter needs. Comfort is now affordable and even demanded by today's society.

With these changes in mind, and in order to accommodate the ever-expanding demand for radiant heating in the marketplace, here are a few other trends to watch:

  • "Plug-And-Play" Technology: The industry cannot meet its potential when every system is a custom design job dependent on the ability of the contractor or system designer to make all the right choices. Future service and repair of thousands of independently designed systems left behind for others to figure out what went where and why could single-handedly strangle the growth of the radiant industry.

    As a result, look for more standardization in the otherwise custom design and installation of radiant. The day will come in the not too distant future when the heat source, system controls, primary and secondary pumping, and basic required system components will all merge into one unit. The days when the contractor built a control box from relays, transformers, timers, sensors and terminal strips are fast disappearing. "Plug-and-play" technology is inevitable in order to compete with forced air and meet the demands of a mass market.

    While the art of engineering unique and individualized hydronic systems from a full catalog of components will always be a viable business, the bulk of the radiant heating market will eventually be pre-engineered. The trend is moving away from onsite construction of manifolds, control panels and primary piping.

    Control manufacturers are providing sophisticated control packages that have a wide range of operating functions for countless applications. Manifolds come ready made with zone valves, end switches, purge valves, flow meters, balancing valves, isolation valves and couplings, all of which can be mounted in attractive pre-manufactured wall cabinets.

    Some of the boiler manufacturers are beginning to reach beyond simply heating water and are incorporating interphase controls to make them more compatible with radiant systems.

  • Installers Of A Different Stripe: As wonderful as radiant heating is, it's not the whole solution to comfort. Many contractors are finding the market wants a complete solution to their building environment needs. Providing only the radiant heating system and sending the customer down the road in search for cooling, ventilation and humidity control has cost the hydronic radiant heating industry a lot of business. Many of those customers never come back.

    Savvy mechanical contractors have learned to have a full quiver. They provide a complete package, whether it is through their own abilities or by forming alliances with other companies that can contribute the missing pieces.

    The hydronic market is small (less than 6 percent by most counts) in comparison to the rest of the heating and cooling industry. The growing demand for radiant heating contractors has also sharpened the interest of the HVAC industry. As a result, not only are hydronic contractors picking up air-handling lines, contractors who were once exclusively forced air have found hydronic radiant heating to be an excellent profit center and a way to round out their product offering.

    Meanwhile, the large majority of "new" installers of radiant heat are plumbing/heating contractors who had previously installed only baseboard. More plumbing/heating contractors are interested to learn about radiant installations due to consumer demand.

    This trend will continue as the demand for radiant heat attracts more heating contractors to the table.

  • Radiant Synergy: Contractors can't install a heating system in a building without considering the consequences of that system on the total structure and its occupants. The radiant heating and cooling industry is no exception. The RPA initiated cooperation between the radiant industry and other affected industries - such as flooring, construction materials and insulation - two years ago. This is the beginning of relationships that will grow and produce understanding and compatibility ratings, which will allow radiant heating and building designers to make proper choices in materials and design for all involved.

    Communication between our industry and other building product suppliers is crucial to our survival. It will bring understanding and confidence in hydronic radiant technology, and result in support from the building community.

  • Educating The Installer: With rapid growth, competent training is a must in order for the industry to continue to prosper. As noted, joist space installations will continue to increase in popularity, but could give the industry a black eye because of its limited heat transfer abilities and misapplication by untrained designers and installers.

    The recent success of the Radiant Panel Association's training program and the education accomplishments of various manufacturers indicate that the desire and demand for education in the field of radiant and hydronics is on the rise. Much of the new growth in hydronic radiant heating is happening in areas of the country that are not traditionally hot water heating markets. This means that contractors not only need education in radiant heating, they need a foundation in hydronics as well.

    An installer certification program is in the early stages of development and should surface sometime this year or next. Manufacturers will continue to develop training programs to educate suppliers and installers on the application and use of their particular products. The RPA and other nonprofit organizations will lead the education process with generic, basic foundational courses.

It is an exciting time for the radiant industry. The future is bright and we must all do our best to make sure that things are done right to keep it that way.