Ten Years Of Radiant Heating
Lawrence Drake, Executive Director of the RPA
Early in 1994, three manufacturers commissioned "a feasibility study to investigate the possibility of forming a new association that would encompass the rapidly growing world of radiant panels including floors, ceilings, walls, hydronic, electric and air installations."
They said the purpose of the association must "promote the radiant panel concept, insure high quality industry standards, provide lines of communication, and interface with regulatory bodies."
Their vision was to "establish a broad cross-section of members within the industry, create an environment of cooperation and belonging, and promote industry enthusiasm."
The values of the association were described as "honesty, integrity and concern for the well-being of customers."
Their stated objectives were to "recruit membership sufficient to support a viable association, create a visibility of the association within the industry, create a standards and testing program, offer technical assistance to the industry, and represent the industry to the code bodies."
This group of three manufacturers also had the foresight to establish a well-rounded membership of manufacturers, distributors, contractors, architects, engineers and other associated businesses. They set a dues structure that has only increased by 20 percent overall in the last 10 years. In fact, contractors actually pay less now than the first dues established.
These three founding companies, Maxxon Corp. (formerly Gyp-Crete Corp.), Heatway Systems and Vanguard Plastics Inc., each put up $5,000 to hire my consulting company to do an association feasibility study. I had been a board member and president of the earlier Hydronic Radiant Heating Association (circa 1986-1989) and then chairman of the Hydronic Institute's Radiant Floor Heating Division (circa 1989-1994). I also had written radiant floor heating and snowmelting manuals for the I=B=R schools, worked as a radiant contractor, distributor and a manufacturer of radiant equipment.
Upon completing the study, the three founding companies approached me about forming a new association and getting it up and running. These companies became the first charter members of the Radiant Panel Association, named after the ASHRAE Handbook term for a heating or cooling surface that transfers heat primarily by radiation, the "radiant panel."
On June 22, 1994, Articles of Incorporation for the new organization were filed with the Minnesota Secretary of State. The Radiant Panel Association entered into an association management agreement with Teal International Corp., appointing me as the executive director, for a short-term start-up operation. That has grown into a long-term partnership.
The industry has seen a lot of changes in the last 10 years and the RPA has played a significant role in those changes. At the time the RPA was formed, there was a considerable amount of discord in the industry. There was little cooperation within the field and widely differing opinions about installation, equipment and reliability. Consumers were easily confused and often chose conventional forced air after encountering bewildering tales from each competitor about how the other guy's products would fail or cause considerable damage to the unsuspecting homeowner.
First ChallengeThe first challenge of the new association was to bring the diverse and heavily competitive manufacturers together in agreement on some basic rules of engagement. The new organization used the stated objective of creating standards as the tool to bring everyone together. The word went out in August 1994 that the RPA had set "standards" as its No. 1 priority.
By the RPA's first convention in Minneapolis, in April 1995, an outline had been put together. People from all corners of the industry flocked to the committee
Most attended out of self-preservation. No one wanted standards set that might conflict with the way they did business. Discussions were heated and opinions loud. Committee meetings were often standing room only.
As time progressed, people began to realize they weren't as far apart in points of view as they first believed and progress was made. Members began to agree on items and a standard guideline began to take shape. By October 1995, the first-ever draft of the RPA's Radiant Heating Design and Installation Guidelines was sent out to the industry for review. Since then the RPA Guidelines and its subsequent revisions have been the baseline for successful radiant systems in the industry. It also proved that the industry could work together.
Vision RealizedThe physics of radiant heating and cooling haven't changed in the last 10 years, but the dynamics of the industry and the supporting technology has. The vision to "create an environment of cooperation and belonging" has been realized.
The extreme polarization that was prevalent in the mid-1990s has subsided as the industry has worked together to better understand and define standard practices.
New and better ways of applying radiant heating to all types of structures have expanded the market while equipment continues to improve.
We have seen the heated debate over oxygen diffusion in radiant tubing give way to technically sound applications of oxygen barriers, heat exchangers and water treatments where necessary.
A variety of techniques for applying radiant heating to wood frame floors have emerged including structural subfloor panels, above-floor panels, under- floor systems, and lightweight cementitious over-pour products.
Control manufacturers continue to incorporate advances in computer chips and solid-state circuitry to provide outdoor and indoor responsive devices that modulate everything from multiple water temperatures to boiler flames.
The field of fluid temperature and flow control has expanded to include a host of mixing options including highly accurate injection pumps and valves. Mixing valve technology continues to improve and maintains a solid place in the industry.
Full system integration is blossoming as the new frontier. Radiant heating and cooling is being merged with heating, ventilation and air conditioning as well as domestic water heating, hot tubs and pool heating to provide total comfort systems. All of this controlled by a central processor that can be monitored or activated remotely.
Technology has expanded in two directions. The first is the highly sophisticated, fully integrated, super-efficient radiant system. The second is the simple, elegant, minimalized system.
While the hi-tech systems seem to get far more coverage in the trade press, it is the simple technology that is quietly building numbers of satisfied customers and holds the key to widespread use of radiant heating in residential applications. Of course it takes success in both arenas to make the industry strong.
Fast-Track ElectricThe electric radiant heating market also has seen a sizable expansion in the last 10 years. Primarily a small space solution, electric systems are responsible for introducing thousands of homeowners to the comforts of radiant.
Electric radiant also has found its way into whole-house heating, commercial heating and snowmelting.
This segment of the radiant heating industry is on a growth fast-track. It was recognized as a significant enough market that the RPA board of directors amended the RPA bylaws to require that the electric radiant industry always be represented on the RPA board.
Of course the last 10 years hasn't been without its challenges. As with any industry that is in a growth cycle, radiant has attracted its share of individuals and companies who are intrigued by the promise of profit yet fail to do the proper research or training.
Most manufacturers provide education on their products. The RPA has developed an education and certification program to give the industry a generic supplement to product specific training and presents a well-rounded base on all facets of radiant heating and cooling.
Still, it is a challenge to get contractors into the classes, particularly those who only get involved in an occasional radiant job. With all the advances in equipment, design and installation, finding good, qualified installers is still key to long-term success of the industry.
The last 10 years have been years of maturing for the radiant industry. What began as a rowdy rabble of independent and enthusiastic pioneers has grown into a respectable, reliable industry that is making the HVAC community sit up and take notice.
I am proud to have played a part in that process and look forward to many more years of growing with the industry.