Creative contractors can offer radiant systems in plenty of installations to provide comfortable heating solutions.

Our headline isn’t meant to be a play on words. Yes, we know radiant tubing is certainly physically “flexible.” But in the case of the three profiles that follow, as different as each may be, all highlight just how flexible the notion of installing radiant heating can be.

Take our first case of an extensive residential remodel for a 70-year-old home in Highland Park, Ill. Plumbing and heating contractor Zbyszek Jonak (also known as “Ziggy”) and his real estate agent wife, Marzena, bought the place three years ago. The idea was to fix it up and then put it back on the market.

They couldn’t have picked a more solid investment. Highland Park is one of a string of high-income suburbs, collectively known as the North Shore, which hug Lake Michigan north of Chicago.

Anyone who remembers the 1980s movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” will have seen the general neighborhood of the Jonak’s address. Toward the end of film, Ferris’ nervous friend Cameron, in an attempt to reverse miles off the odometer, sends his father’s restored Ferrari 250 GT through the back of a garage and into the ravine below. The Jonak’s backyard looks out into the same ravine.

Heating contractor Zbyszek Jonak had planned to remodel a Chicago suburban home and sell it, but he and his wife liked it so much they decided to make it their home.

Remodeling With Radiant

The Jonak’s investment was a change of pace for us. We’ve written gallons of ink about million-dollar new homes built with radiant from the ground up. For this article, we had a chance to see how a high-priced home could be extensively remodeled with radiant heat in mind.

The two-story, 4,500-square-foot home had been designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. “We certainly wanted to keep that style and appearance,” Jonak says, “but we also wanted to modernize the layout for a more open look.”

The home had been heated with cast-iron radiators. Underfloor radiant was his only choice for heat since it would fit perfectly with the open design. Driven by the couple’s desire for a spacious, open interior, Jonak demolished the home from the inside-out, clearing most of the inner walls to the outside walls.

Jonak is no stranger to radiant heat. A Polish native, he was in the heating trades in Poland and Austria before leaving for the United States 13 years ago. Once here, he worked for a few different local heating contractors, but has been on his own since 1998.

For help in the radiant design, he turned to Piotr Zelasko, who runs the design department for Able Distributors, a Chicago distributor noted for its commitment to radiant and hydronic heating.

Zelasko, also a Polish native who came to the United States in 1985, gave us an idea of the “radiant triage” that often takes place in remodeling existing homes.

“When you’re working on a space like this that was originally built decades ago,” he explains, “you’re never going to be working with perfectly level surfaces.”

And as large as the home was, nobody builds the kind of mechanical rooms a contractor would like to work in.

“You always have limited space,” Zelasko adds. “The mechanical room for this home is really a concrete cellar under the garage.”

Typically, every square inch of floor space is precious for pricey real estate like this. “You can’t put manifolds where you might want them to be,” Zelasko explains. “So there are the usual challenges in meeting the contractor’s need for access, and the homeowner’s desire not to see or hear the mechanical system.” At least, in this case, Jonak was one in the same.

“It’s a different position to be in,” Zelasko says. “Ziggy had a clear idea of how he wanted to satisfy the need for radiantly heating interior spaces before our first meeting. I just put those thoughts into a system design and made the recommendations for products and other heating components.”

Two Viessmann Vitodens 200 condensing boilers make up the heart of the system. Jonak used Watts Radiant Subray through both floors of the home for the heating; in the home’s attached garage, he embedded in the slab 1,500 lineal feet of Watts’ RadiantPEX tubing. In the mechanical room, a bank of Grundfos SuperBrute circulators can be seen at work, and a variety of hydronic components from Caleffi include a HydroSeparator.

The boilers also provide domestic water heating for a 120-gallon indirect, plus 2,500 square feet of snowmelt, where Watts’ RadiantPEX tubing was used to warm the extensive circular driveway and walkways in front of the home.

The Jonaks ultimately had a change of heart as their investment in the home progressed.

“The more we worked on it,” Jonak says, “the more we decided we wanted to live here.”

The Jonaks and their two children moved in last fall. It didn’t snow much last winter, but the temperatures were brutally cold even by Chicago standards.

Jonak reports everything worked fine. Ever a perfectionist, however, when we visited him last summer, he was re-configuring the high-velocity air-conditioning system.

Sawmills aren’t your run-of-the mill commercial projects. Dick Schoch provided radiant for a 7,840-square-foot addition to a New Hampshire mill.

HHP Inc. Sawmill, New Hampshire

Dick Schoch, Dick Schoch & Son, Contoocook, N.H., provided a heavy-duty radiant floor heating system for a bin sorter room, a new addition to HHP Inc.’s sawmill in Henniker, N.H.

While residential jobs are his bailiwick, Dick and his son, Jake, weren’t afraid to tackle an unusual commercial job.

“You can’t squeeze your shoe between the loops,” Dick told us of the work he completed last year in February.

“We had the system up and running while the weather was still cold, and it was very comfortable. In fact, workers were coming into the bin sorter room to eat their lunches because the space was warmer than the rest of the mill.”

“Room” doesn’t quite describe the 280-foot x 28-foot building. It’s enclosed on three sides, with the fourth wide open to the sawmill that produces 8.5 million board feet of lumber annually. The sawmill itself contains little or no heat.

Any type of forced-air system was out of the question. There’s plenty of mill equipment and other obstructions 32 feet up at ceiling level. Any blower action would only add the airborne particles that are part of any sawmill.

The Schochs provided 10,000 feet of 5/8-inch Uponor hePEX plus tubing installed in the floor along one wall, with much of the tubing buried in a single-pour concrete slab 6 inches deep.

This radiant heating system runs off a 300,000+ Btu/hr. boiler, a Slant/Fin Liberty. The boiler is actually located in another part of the plant, some 300 feet away and connected to the system with approximately 1,000 feet of 2-inch iron pipe installed 20 feet from the floor.

The original specification called for an ambient temperature of 55 degrees F 10 to 12 feet off the floor, but Schoch designed the system for 75 degrees F, making the tubing loops much tighter than 6- to 8-inch centers.

New Single-Family Home, Connecticut

Claude Bisson, Bisson Inc., Hamden, Mass., not only gave the new owners of a two-story, 2,800-square-foot home in East Windsor, Conn., the type of heat they wanted, but ended up converting the homebuilder to radiant, too.

“I’ve always been a big believer in the use of PEX tubing for plumbing in home building,” says Jim Burrup, J&N Builder Inc., also in East Windsor. “But until now, I never really gave radiant heat much thought. After seeing the results of this project, I would definitely recommend it to my clients.”

His clients were the ones that forced the issue for the home Bisson plumbed and heated with PEX. The homeowners had both grown up with radiant and wanted it throughout their new home.

“They wouldn’t hear of anything else,” Burrup adds. “They were adamant.” Up to this home, Burrup had limited his hydronics installation to baseboard heating, but typically went with forced-air systems for most of his construction.

Bisson came to the rescue by using Uponor’s Quick Trak, an alternative he’s been using more often than poured-floor underlayments or joist heating applications.

“A lightweight pour would have cost more due to the finished flooring used in this home - carpeting, prefinished hardwood and tile. A grooved subfloor system is also easier for floor installers to see exactly where the tubing is located underneath where they are working, minimizing damage to the tubing.”

The 7-inch x 48-inch wood panels - all 138 of them for this job - are only a half-inch thick, and once the panels were in place over a plywood subfloor, Bisson’s crew snapped 5/16-inch Uponor hePEX plus tubing into the grooves running down the center of the panels. In all, Bisson used about 1,000 linear feet of 5/8-inch and 4,000 linear feet of 5/16-inch hePEX plus tubing for radiant heat.

Bisson computerized the entire radiant heating system, which ties into a Viessmann Vitodens 200 condensing boiler. “We installed an outdoor reset control system that allows the floor to maintain a constant temperature year-round.” The system is password-accessible remotely via telephone to obtain temperature readings. Through a series of telephone prompts, the owners can adjust or reset the temperature if necessary.

Bisson claims that the use of radiant heating, in conjunction with the high-efficient condensing boiler, should save the new homeowners anywhere from 25 percent to 40 percent in their fuel bills.