Despite challenges within the industry, there are still opportunities for contractors to make a profit with radiant heat.



The popularity of radiant floor heating systems is gaining, even among home builders.

Almost a quarter (23 percent) of 302 home builders surveyed by the National Association of Home Builder’s Research Center (on behalf of the Propane Education and Research Council) last fall intend to “increase” or “greatly increase” their use of radiant floor systems this year. They cited radiant heat’s ability to provide even heat and cleaner air with lower operating costs as the primary factors for choosing them over competing systems.

Of course, forced-air systems still comprise the bulk of heating systems in the United States. But builders’ perceptions of homeowners’ acceptance of radiant heat systems could be a major factor affecting market growth, according to the NAHB study; almost 48 percent of builders said that consumer attitudes remained neutral toward radiant floor heat.

We surveyed 2,000 of our subscribers in April about their radiant heating installation practices, brand choices, buying patterns and market opinions, with a 14 percent response rate. And of the 51 percent of respondents who install radiant heating systems, almost two-thirds (65 percent) are most concerned about getting the word out about how comfortable radiant heat is.

More than 70 percent of respondents to a similar study we conducted in 2002 had the same concerns.

Industry Challenges: But is the problem consumer education? There may be other factors at work here, including skepticism on the part of the design community and contractors toward the acceptance of hydronic radiant heating as an alternate system.

That conclusion is part of a recent study by marketing research firm Frost & Sullivan, which projects that the radiant heating industry will post revenues of $1.5 billion in 2011, up from $476 million during 2004.

The argument put forth by some in the design and contractor communities, the study notes, is that these systems take more money, more supervision and are a heavy responsibility for contractors and system designers, as any fault or error in the work can lead to bad consequences.

Instead of informing their customers about the benefits of these systems, some contractors often try to talk their customers out of them, the Frost & Sullivan study says. And while there may be an increase in consumer awareness of the benefits of the systems, consumers are facing difficulty in finding competent, trained and knowledgeable installers to do the work.

As a result, the report notes that customers may approach plumbers who have the equipment and skill to assemble the system but often lack the knowledge of heating technology and controls, or HVAC contractors who understand heat loss and controls but are reluctant to be involved in the hydronics part of the industry.

This shortage of qualified installers has been the radiant heating industry’s greatest challenge and has been getting more difficult, Larry Drake, executive director of the Radiant Panel Association, told Reeves Journal, a fellow BNP Media magazine, earlier this year. “We see that there’s this increase, but we haven’t seen the same type of increase in RPA membership,” he says. “That had us concerned until we started doing some studies and found that our members are just doing a lot more work. The challenge still remains for the consumer of how to find a good radiant contractor.”

The shortage of qualified radiant heating system installers is but a small part of an overall issue facing all of the trades these days. “The blue-collar worker is just disappearing,” he notes. “They’re having a hard time attracting young people to the various trades and it’s no different with the radiant industry. We are looking at ways of getting radiant programs into the tech schools and two-year colleges.”

In order to address this issue on the radiant front, Drake says RPA (which boasts more than 900 members) is moving toward a multipronged approach on the training side. He said the association will continue to offer between 10 and 12 sessions a year across the country, but the Internet may be playing a greater role moving forward.

“We’re focusing on getting set up with Internet education where you can actually sit in a live class with a live instructor on the Internet,” he explains. “A contractor can join these schools and spend maybe one hour an evening once a month or once a week. The other prong is the home study courses.”

Contractors and designers who complete RPA courses become “certified” in their disciplines, with the OK to use the certification in their individual branding efforts. Drake says that ties in with a consumer awareness program. And RPA publishes the Radiant Flooring Guide (in affiliation with PM’s parent, BNP Media), which goes to about 50,000 dealers, flooring companies and architects, and promotes using certified radiant contractors.

“Probably one of the most often-asked questions we get when consumers contact us is where can they find a radiant contractor in their area,” he says. “We have about 600 contractors as members we can refer them to, but it’s not nearly enough to deal with the demand and not nearly as spread across the country as it could be.”

Survey Results - 2002 Vs. 2006: So, is it a consumer education problem or a contractor marketing problem? Maybe a little of both. Dan Holohan, a PM columnist and hydronic heating guru, told PM that his sense of the radiant market comes from the postings on The Wall, a public forum on all things hydronic.

“I think that what we’re seeing is a market that surged at the start, gained a lot of enthusiastic supporters, peaked and there it remains,” he says. Contractors need to get much better about marketing the comfort of radiant heat and the payback in energy-efficiency, and not let consumers get hung up on initial costs of the systems.

Drake disagrees. “The growth in the radiant industry remains on a dramatic upward trend,” he recently told PM. “What has changed in four years is that the technology has become more stable and established. This fact has contributed to the acceptance by the public that radiant heating is a viable and proven system. Technology changes are still occurring, but they are more refinements and improvements rather than industry-changing renovations.”

A “peak” in the market could explain why we saw no significant changes in our radiant heat surveys of 2002 and 2006.

Our survey respondents in 2006 say that 89 percent of their installations are residential; 58 percent of those installations were new construction jobs. In 2002, 88 percent of respondents said their installations were residential, with 56 percent of those jobs in new construction.

The most common type of installation for 2006 respondents was slab on grade (80 percent), followed by staple-up (61 percent), poured underlayment (58 percent), subfloor engineered radiant panel (45 percent) and snowmelt (43 percent). In 2002, 78 percent of respondents installed slab on grade, 66 percent installed staple-up, 63 percent installed poured underlayment, 50 percent installed subfloor systems and 44 percent installed snowmelt.

Forty percent of 2006 respondents used a combination of radiant and other hydronic jobs in their radiant heat installations; it was 37 percent in 2002. In 2006, 40 percent were strictly radiant jobs, compared to 32 percent in 2002. Only 7 percent used a combination of radiant, other hydronics and warm-air jobs in 2006; this number was 16 percent in 2002.

The most-used strategy in residential installations was primary/secondary piping (74 percent in 2006, 67 percent in 2002); 13 percent of installations used continuous flow in radiant panel circuits (during the heating season), compared with 18 percent in 2002.

Other residential strategies included: 1) other types of direct digital control systems (7 percent in 2006 and 5 percent in 2002); 2) multiple boiler systems (5 percent in 2006 and 8 percent in 2002); 3) controls that can be accessed/adjusted via the Internet (1 percent in 2006 and 2002); and 4) LON-based control systems (less than 1 percent in 2006 and 1 percent in 2002).

Despite our survey results, there seems to be optimism in the radiant heating industry that the market will grow. It’s just going to take some work to convince the nonbelievers out there.

“In order for growth to continue, two things must happen,” Drake explains. “The systems must become more consolidated and appealing to the customer. Walls of pumps and valves that are works of art to the mechanical contractor are threatening to homeowners. Radiant equipment needs to be encapsulated in well-designed, attractive containers.

“This consolidation of equipment will also increase contractor involvement. For mass-marketing of radiant heating, the contractor needs an appliance he can set on the floor or hang on the wall and make his connections - like a forced-air furnace - instead of doing a custom build on each job. Until the radiant industry provides moderately priced systems or convinces middle-class consumers that the additional investment is worthwhile, we are not likely to see a change.”

Editor’s Note: Jack Sweet, editor of Reeves Journal, contributed to this report.

Radiant Tubing Installed In 2005

1,000 ft. to 10,000 ft 41%

10,001 ft. to 50,000 ft. 44%

50,001 ft. to 100,000 ft. 8%

100,001 ft. to 500,000 ft. 6%

500,001 ft. to 1 million ft. 1 %

Residential/Commercial Mixing Controls Used For Radiant Heating Installations, 2006

Three-way thermostatic mixing valves R=33%, C=27%

Injection mixing using variable speed pump R=29%, C=36%

Manually set blend valves R=24%, C=18%

Three-way motorized mixing valves R=8%, C=13%

Injection mixing using two-way modulating valve R=4%, C=4%

Four-way motorized mixing valves R=2%, C=2%

R = Residential, C = Commercial

Wholesalers See Increase In Hydronic/Radiant Sales For 2006

Last year, our sister publication, Supply House Times, surveyed its readers that sell hydronic and radiant products about their selling habits. More than three-fourths (75 percent) expect the amount of hydronic/radiant products that they sell to increase this year; only 3 percent expect a decline.

Most sell to PHC contractors (92 percent), but also to maintenance staff (40 percent), builders (36 percent) and homeowners (23 percent). Eight percent sell to other wholesalers/distributors and HVACR dealers.

When asked the total dollar volume of hydronic/radiant products sold in the last 12 months (Aug. 2004 to Aug. 2005), 27 percent sold between $2 million-$5 million; 19 percent sold between $1 million-$1,999,999; 8 percent sold between $500,000-$999,999; 20 percent sold between $100,000-$499,999; and 19 percent sold less than $100,000 worth of product. Only 7 percent sold more than $5 million worth of hydronic/radiant product.

About half (51 percent) of hydronic/radiant sales come from renovation/replacement/expansions, while 48 percent come from new construction. And 71 percent come from residential work, with 28 percent coming from commercial/institutional/industrial markets.

Percent Of Heat Sources Used For Radiant Jobs, 2006

Boilers 87%

Water heaters 9%

Geothermal 3%

Other (such as solar) 1%

Residential/Commercial Controls Strategies Used For Radiant Heating Installations, 2006

Boiler reset control (based on outdoor temp.) R=29%, C=27%

Controls that combine boiler reset and mixing reset control R=27%, C=34%

Mixing reset control (based on outdoor temp.) R=20%, C=17%

Slab temperature sensor & room temperature sensor R=16%, C=14%

Slab temperature sensor only R=8%, C=8%

R = Residential, C = Commercial