User-friendly and affordable should be the goals of the radiant industry rather than custom-built and expensive.

RPA Executive Director Larry Drake


How can something be complex and simple at the same time? It seems to be an oxymoron, yet that is a description of much of our world. The term “user-friendly” is a result of this dilemma of making things that are inherently complex simple to use.

There is nothing simpler than turning a key and pressing a pedal to make a car go down the road. But consider what it was like in the early days when the driver had to set the throttle, advance the spark ignition, pull on the choke, flip the magneto switch and have someone strong arm the crank. Modern cars are far more complex, but much easier to use than a 1918 Model T Ford.

When we look back with a nostalgic eye, we tend to think those were simpler times. Certainly, the machinery had fewer parts, but the truth is life is much easier today in many ways. At least things are often easier to use than in our grandparents’ day, but the challenge is that there are a lot more things and they can do so much more.

We are in a transition time with hydronic radiant heating. Back in the “old days” of radiant, say the 1940s, systems were pretty simple as far as parts: cast-iron boiler, a pump, pipe, a few fittings and a mechanical thermostat. Go even further back and radiant systems consisted of nothing more than a fire pit and draught chambers under the floor. Today’s systems are far more complex, but we haven’t quite mastered the simple-to-use part of the equation yet.

We would like to think that all the end user has to do is set the thermostat and enjoy the comfort. We want them to think, “Oh, how elegantly simple radiant is.” But then they open up the door to their mechanical room and come face to face with one of the most visually complex heating systems there is. They have pressure and temperature dials to watch, pump motors to listen to, warm and cold pipes to feel and a collection of gadgets with blinking lights to wonder about. There are dozens of pipes running up walls and disappearing into the structure of the house like arteries. Their thermostats likely have multiple functions, timers and setbacks; and, not just one thermostat to worry about, but a number of them, sometimes one in almost every room.

Then there are the rules. What carpet can I use? How about the pad? What kind of hardwood? Should I use tile or stone instead of carpet? Can I fiddle with the thermostat or should it be set and left? Can I use throw rugs? The process itself becomes very complicated.

The truth is the comfortable transfer of heat to the space is elegantly simple; it is getting that surface to the correct temperature that is complicated. It seems our industry makes it more complicated as time goes on. Some of the complication is necessary, and some of it is there because we love technology for technology’s sake.

There are those who love to build cars from the ground up. My neighbor builds hot rods. He thoroughly enjoys what he does and revels in admiring his handiwork when he is finished. He will never see the day when thousands of his cars are driving the roads, but that is not what building is about for him. He enjoys the challenge and the creativity. Showing off all those chrome carburetors, valve covers, alternators and distributor caps makes him smile. Besides, he can command a pretty penny for his work because the well-to-do will pay for the privilege of being seen in one of his creations.

Custom Market

The radiant industry is a lot like custom car building. We love the creative part of designing and building radiant systems. We also like to admire our handiwork, spread out across the wall in neat rows of pipes, pumps and valves. We love all those controls with complex algorithms that need to be tweaked ever so carefully to squeeze the last bit of efficiency from the system. We have also found that the well-to-do are willing to pony up for the privilege of experiencing the luxury we create.

Henry Ford changed the face of not only the auto industry, but industry in general. While everyone else was hand-building automobiles one car at a time for the rich, he found a way to make cars affordable, reliable and user-friendly. He probably could have made a decent living building custom cars, but he had a vision that not only made him one of the wealthiest men in the nation, but sparked one of the largest industries in the world. He didn’t do it by building highly sophisticated, complex and expensive cars for the wealthy, he did it by making them cost-effective and easy to use for the average family.

Now I am sure that not everyone thought Ford’s ideas were the greatest. In fact, there were quite a few auto builders at the time that saw Ford as a threat to their comfortable, creative and lucrative custom-car-building business. They accused him of “cheapening” the product and undercutting them. There were all sorts of predictions that his cars would self-destruct on the roads and he would ruin the industry. Many even felt that the average American didn’t have the intelligence or skill to master the machine or the roads.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, before Ford and his assembly plant, it was understood that the best cars came from Europe. They were handcrafted to perfection and very expensive. Sound familiar?

Listen to what Ford had to say and substitute “radiant” for “automobile” as you read: “The automobile of the past attained success in spite of its price, because there were more than enough purchasers to take the limited output of the then new industry. Proportionately few could buy, but those few could keep all the manufacturers busy, and price, therefore, had no bearing on sales. The automobile of the present is making good because the price has been reduced just enough to add sufficient new purchasers to take care of the increased output. Supply and demand, not cost, has regulated the selling price.

“The automobile of the future must be enough better than the present automobile to beget confidence in the man of limited means and enough lower in price to insure sales for the enormously increased output. The automobile of the future must be an automobile for the people, an automobile that any man can own who can afford a horse and carriage.

“This means the substitution of quality for quantity, even to the use of materials not yet discovered.”

Without Ford’s vision, the world would be very different place today. When he introduced the Model T in 1908, people said it was impossible to produce an automobile priced so low. It sold for $850. Yet, with improvements in production, the price went as low as $290 within 10 years. He created millions of jobs and made life easier for almost everyone.

The radiant industry is filled with highly intelligent and creative individuals; people with passion and vision. It also has its share of naysayers who are afraid that the business will be ruined by simpler, less expensive radiant systems. They are comfortable in their handcrafted, custom-built, high-end market. The reality is, the custom market will never go away. There will always be wealthy homeowners ready and willing to buy the exclusive, one-of-a-kind heating system. It is that 98 percent of the heating market that is currently untapped where true wealth lies.

User-friendly and affordable should be the goals of the radiant industry. The fact that radiant is energy-efficient will be multiplied by millions when the average American can afford it. The radiant industry can contribute a small amount to the green movement by servicing a few wealthy homeowners, or have a significant impact on energy savings, healthy indoor environments and improved comfort by working to make radiant economically feasible for me and 300 million other people.

Talented and creative people are attracted to radiant technology. We have the resources. What we need now is to embrace the vision of simple and affordable.

Sun Shines At REX

Solar and other alternative energies will be discussed at the Radiant Panel Association’s Radiant EXPO, Aug. 13-15, Schaumburg, Ill.

“Radiant heating has always been green,” says Larry Drake, the group’s executive director. Here are some of the seminars to choose on Thursday, Aug. 14:
    8-9:15 a.m.
    • John Siegenthaler on “Simply Green: What is It?”
    • Jeff Persons on “Ground Up Geothermal.”
    • Dave Yates on “Mod-Con Condensing: Shades of Green.”
    9:30-10:45 a.m.
    • George Royce on “Electric Green.”
    Beginning at 11 a.m.
    • Siegenthaler and Robert Bean will speaking during the general session and luncheon on “Green Heat to the Rescue.” This session will be followed by the RPA annual meeting, which will go until 1:15 p.m.
    1:30-2:45 p.m.
    • Peter Biondo on “Sunshine and Radiant.”
On Industry Day, Aug. 15, Caleffi will hold two “Solar and Radiant Heating” seminars at 8-9 a.m. and 9:15-10:15 a.m.

This is just a preliminary schedule and the current schedule includes other seminars on other general radiant topics. Go to www.RPAConference.com or call 800/660-7187 for more information and to register.