Knowledge beyond pumps, pipes and boilers.

Becoming a hydronic heating professional requires more than knowing how to solder copper tube and fittings together. It takes a willingness to learn about many types of piping systems, circulators, electronic controllers, numerous specialty components and a host of issues related to building construction. Such knowledge puts you in a position to advise others and design systems for specific applications.

I view the knowledge base we use in the hydronic heating business analogous to a wheel. The hub of that wheel represents the core knowledge and skills needed by any hydronic heating pro. These include the ability to:

  • Correctly perform heat load calculations.
  • Select and size metal and polymer piping materials.
  • Properly select and describe fittings.
  • Correctly size, locate and commission circulators, expansion tanks, purging valves and air separators.
  • Properly size any type of heat emitter you use the first time and every time.
  • Properly determine the necessary supply water temperature for a distribution system and set up a reset controller for the same.
  • Connect fuel supply and venting, and provide ventilation for any boilers you install.
  • Properly operate test equipment to adjust fuel-burning heat sources for efficient and safe operation.
  • Select a distribution system that best serves the project requirements from among several options.
  • Know when and how to use radiant panel heating, including wall and ceiling panels and several options for floors.
  • Correctly use the concept of hydraulic separation within systems.
  • Design and safely install electrical circuits, and operate online voltage and low voltage. Use basic devices such as switches, relays and thermostatic controls.
  • Operate a business including basic accounting, knowing what to charge for your services, how to handle payroll, tax and insurance issues and inventory control. The specifics in this category obviously depend on what you do. As a self-employed writer and consulting engineer, my needs are quite different from those of an installation and service company.


Expanding Outward

The spokes of the knowledge wheel represent related technologies that may not be considered essential to the installation of a basic hydronic heating system, but are what separates an acceptable installer from a true professional. Here are some areas in which basic knowledge can pay big dividends:

  • Knowing how various flooring materials react to heat and moisture, and which types of finish flooring can be successfully used with floor heating.
  • Knowing which formations of concrete (not “cement”) are used in different situations (floor slabs, walls, pavements, thin slabs, etc.).
  • Expanding your knowledge of “building science,” which includes methods for insulating, air sealing, moisture control, ventilation and drainage.
  • Knowing how modern building construction techniques such as SIP and ICF construction work. How common and specialized construction techniques affect structure, and what should and should not be cut or drilled into as you install systems.
  • How to safely work on, fasten to and penetrate through roofs, especially if you plan to install solar thermal systems.
  • A basic knowledge of Web-enabled controllers and how to assemble a basic Web-enabled control system.
  • A growing knowledge of renewable energy heat sources such as solar collectors, ground source heat pumps and solid fuel boilers. Learn how to integrate these with other hydronic heat sources to create well-controlled and reliable systems.
  • Staying abreast of the current technology used in forced-air heating systems including duct sizing, zoning, ventilation and air filtration.
  • Having sufficient knowledge to address cooling in homes where you install hydronic heating. Although your company may not design or install this equipment, you should still be able to advise customers who want it.
  • Knowing how to use computer-aided drafting software for making schematics, tubing layouts, electrical schematics or general illustration.
  • Learning the basics of carbon-based energy accounting and concepts such as “embodied energy.” This will help you make informed decisions about proposed energy legislation. It may also be a topic that comes up when discussing options with consumers who want to make environmentally responsible purchasing decisions.

Although most of us earn our bread and butter dealing with heating systems, we shouldn’t design those systems in a vacuum. We need to know how those systems interact with structures and materials that we may have little control over. The rapid growth of the radiant panel heating market over the last two decades is certainly proof of this. Those who chose a one-method-suits-all approach, or ignored the characteristics of materials such as wood flooring, often stepped in the quicksand.

The Internet is a great place to start looking for information on these “spoke” topics. Search engines such as Google are a resource we could only dream of a mere decade ago. I’m always impressed by the speed at which information can be found. The information may not be listed in a way that’s most relevant to your immediate needs, but with a bit of patience you can almost always find resources that help you make wise decisions.

Topic-specific discussion boards such as those at The Wall at is all worth checking out at least a couple times a week. You’ll find frank opinions, photos and information that you would never come across scanning a manufacturer’s Web site or product literature.

Beyond these resources are books and manuals that typically provide a more structured approach to these topics. Some of my favorites include:

Ching, Francis. Building Construction Illustrated, 4th Edition. John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2008.

Lstiburek, Joseph. Builder’s Guide To Cold Climates: Details for Design and Construction. Tauton Press, 2006.

Kosmatka, S., Kerkhoff, B., and Panarese, W. Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures, 2009 Edition. Portland Cement Association, 2009.

Krigger, John and Dorsi, Chris. Residential Energy: Cost Savings and Comfort for Existing Buildings, 5th Edition. Saturn Resource Management Inc., 2009.

Stein, Benjamin and Reynolds, John. Mechanical and Electrical Systems for Buildings, 9th Edition. John Wiley and Sons Inc., 2000.

Canadian Home Build’s Association Builder’s Manual. Canadian Home Build’s Association, 2001.

Ground Source Heat Pump Residential and Light Commercial Design and Installation Guide. Oklahoma State University, 2009.

Planning and Installing Bioenergy Systems: A Guide for Installers, Architects, and Engineers. EarthScan, 2005.

Planning and Installing Solar Thermal Systems: A Guide for Installers, Architects, and Engineers. EarthScan, 2006.

I won’t claim to have read these from cover to cover, but I will tell you they are on my shelf as ready references when decisions at hand go beyond my core knowledge.


It's A Journey, Not A Destination

An old axiom goes something like this:

“The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know.”

Although at first it seems depressing, it’s meant to humble those who feel they know it all - in any area of human pursuit.

We all have a tendency to concentrate on the core knowledge and skills that keep our day-to-day cash flow machines running. It’s easy to say that we don’t have time to read about things that don’t produce immediate income.

However, being a professional implies a commitment to expand your knowledge in areas that may enhance or expand what you currently offer. If you make that commitment, an income stream associated with the expanded knowledge almost always follows. If you ignore it, expect to be supplanted by those who understand the benefits of continuous learning.