A few years ago, we called towel warmers the most misunderstood product in the American radiant marketplace. Even manufacturers that sold what they identified as “towel warmers” in their own catalogs told us the radiators could do more than just warm up a towel.

“I think most Americans consider them as a fancy amenity as opposed to the functional practicality that Europeans consider them to be, both in terms of warming towels and warming the bathroom itself,” Paul Ross, president, Hydronic Alternatives, Springfield, Mass., told us.

A few years later, the functional practicality that Ross mentioned has helped the products become better understood. And an explosion of new styles, finishes and designs has helped the products become better known as “decorative panel radiators” that you can find in every room of the house.

For The Foyer

Take a look, for example, at Myson's Bench Radiator, suitable to warm up hats, gloves and backsides in a foyer or mudroom. The radiator incorporates a column radiator into a styled piece of furniture.

The radiator comes with a beech-laminated seat and specially designed legs that conceal pipe, valves and fittings. It generates the equivalent of 18 ft. of baseboard heat, the seats are available in 53-, 61-, 73-, 85- and 93-inch lengths, and the radiators are available in a wide range of colors.

“The product offering is wider than it has ever been before,” says Ray Farley, vice president, Myson Inc., Colchester, Vt. “And this for a category that was considered not that long ago as simply products for a limited, high-end market. I think what we are seeing on the market today is a combination of practicality and design that appeals to a lot more consumers.”

The Bench Radiator was named one of the most innovate building products of the year by Home magazine during last year's International Builders Show.

For The Living Room, Kitchen

But don't just think benches. Think vertical columns that separate a room. Think wall panels that wrap around a curved wall. Think fluid shapes that wrap around corners. Think about every color, style and finish you might ever want. Think traditional. Think modern. Think everything in between.

Most manufacturers have the ability to customize a mass-produced a product. One less flat panel here or two more tubes there, and the radiators take up as much or as little space as possible.

“Thanks to these models, innovation in architectural detail and interior design are no longer held hostage to the 'old rules' of mechanical heating systems,” says Owen Kantor, vice president of marketing and sales, Runtal North America, Ward Hill, Mass.

Runtal's Web site, for example, mentions that it builds radiators from 20 inches to 29 1/2- ft. -long in increments of 2 inches. The output of Runtal products range from a few hundred Btu/hr. per foot, to more than 8,000 Btu/hr. per foot.

As some of the pictures included in this feature clearly show, panel radiators come in a variety of styles and finishes. Metallic finishes, for example, are well suited to the trend toward a professional look to residential kitchens outfitted with commercial-looking ovens and refrigerators.

“Flat-steel panel radiators are our single largest growing segment,” Ross says.

For The Bathroom

Yes, manufacturers will still certainly be glad to sell you a “towel warmer.” But contractors should consider the towel warming a bonus since they can easily get the firepower they need to warm the bathroom first and foremost.

Kantor has always been a proponent in thinking of a towel warmer as a “towel radiator.” He says 2 ft. of baseboard might provide up to 1,200 Btus, but a modest-sized hydronic towel warmer would provide 8,000 Btus.

“Plus, you move the heat from down near the floor, which is the worst place for it to be in the bathroom,” Kantor adds.

Kantor says even bathrooms with radiant underfloor heat are great candidates for a towel warmer since the larger surface areas taken up by the bathroom fixtures may not leave enough floor space to adequately provide heat.

Towel warmers might just be the last metal surface of the bathroom to go high fashion. Today's consumers want all the metal surfaces of the bathroom - from faucets to showerheads and from towel bars to even p-traps - to be the same finish.

In addition to offering a number of metal finishes, manufacturers also offer a variety of custom colors to virtually match wall color or complement stone or tile surfaces

Even towel warmers are getting brand-new features. Myson recently adapted a towel warmer from its Tempo line, fitting it with a full-length, one-way mirror with a built-in, remote control plasma television. When the TV is off, the screen is hidden. The unit projects less than 4 inches.

Editor's note: This article was adapted from an article that appeared in the 2005 Radiant Heating Report.