A Wisconsin Must-Have
Dr. Juliet Gunkel was looking to fulfill her childhood fantasy. Dale Arndt, of Brooklyn, Wis.-based Arndt & Son Plumbing, was her knight in shining armor.
“My friend’s dad was a doctor and they had a heated driveway and I just thought it was the height of fanciness,” she says. “I thought ‘Oh my gosh, someday maybe I’ll have a heated driveway.’ When I was doing my own house, it always was in the back of my mind from being a kid.”
When Gunkel - a dermatologist and assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison - was working with her general contractor, she asked if a heated driveway was possible. The contractor put her in contact with Arndt, his neighbor, and the two got to work on installing a snow-melt system under Gunkel’s driveway and patio.
Gunkel’s 1,431-square-foot system would be the first of two systems Arndt has finished since 2008. A third, at his own home, is close to being completed.
Arndt, who bought the other half of Arndt & Son Plumbing from his father in 1985, is able to take the radiant floor-heating systems he’s mastered over the years and create a snow-melt system that provides peace of mind to homeowners.
“It’s just a radiant heating job outside,” Arndt says.
Snow-Melt Systems Are BackIn 2008, former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle abolished a law from the 1980s banning heated sidewalks, stairs, entrances and pedestrian walkways. This was just months after the state got through its snowiest winter on record. During the winter of 2007-08, the Wisconsin State Climatology Office recorded 101.8 inches of snow in the Madison area, which included the second snowiest December on record in Madison.
Whenever Gunkel hosts family and friends at her house, she informs them of what they could have had if they just had the foresight to ask their general contractor or plumber before laying the latest round of concrete or stone.
“They say, ‘Oh my God, I could’ve done this when I did my new driveway?’” Gunkel says.
When Ron Trachte contracted Arndt for a radiant floor-heating system, Arndt was surveying the garage and asked Trachte if a snow-melt system would be of any interest.
“He said, ‘Oh, you can do that?’” Arndt recalls.
Trachte jokingly disagrees that he wasn’t aware of the ability to install a snow-melt system, and he’s pleased he and his wife made the call to do it.
“I know it’s a luxury, but when I consider all the other things in the house that kind of went over-the-top, this was certainly in the realm,” Trachte says. “I was aware of the process. I don’t remember that Dale had to do much of a sales job on me. I think I was convinced as long as I was going to have radiant heating, I might as well extend it outside.”
Putting It TogetherWith the 812-square-foot Trachte job, Arndt expanded the mechanical room in the basement to include enough space for the radiant floor-heating and snow-melt systems.
“It made my job a lot easier,” Arndt says. “I didn’t have to pack so much stuff into a smaller mechanical room. Ron still has his storage area, plus he’s got a shelter for tornadoes and such that he can walk into.”
For the in-ground tubing at the Trachte’s house, Arndt worked with REHAU PEX-a tubing. On the sidewalk, Arndt laid 5/8-inch tubing in 8-inch loops connected to a REHAU Pro-Balance XL manifold with flow and temperature gauges.
“I like using PEX-a tubing,” he says. “We have a piece of it a couple of feet long, with water in it, in the freezer. We bend it this way and that to see if we can break it. It will not break.”
Arndt uses a 50/50 mixture of antifreeze before filling the system with water. He advises fellow plumbers to follow the same idea after noticing it took 14 minutes for Gunkel’s system to freeze without antifreeze.
“When you power purge the system and clean the lines out, even though there’s nothing in the lines, use an antifreeze mixture so it doesn’t freeze when you fill it,” Arndt says.
On both jobs, Arndt separated the system into zones with Taco’s zone valve control system. Zones give the homeowners some control over when and where they want the system running. Each zone kicks on when the tekmar sensor is activated at 34 degrees F and moisture is on the sensor. The concrete slabs are heated to and hold at 38 degrees F. Monitor boilers were used on both jobs.
User-FriendlyOn one occasion, Trachte called Arndt with some questions regarding the snow-melt system.
“I asked him if the blue box was lit up, and he said no,” Arndt recalls.
Trachte was able to flip on the tekmar 665 snow-melt control system himself. Since the controls are easy for homeowners to understand, Arndt did not have to make the 20-minute trip to Trachte’s house and resolve the issue.
“It’s how we wire and label things,” Arndt explains. “The customer can go down, stand in front of the system and tell me what’s on the screen. I don’t have to go out there just to turn on a switch because it was off for whatever reason.”
For the electrical wiring, Arndt depends on Terry Reed of Elite Electric in DeForest, Wis. “He can go through these blindfolded now,” Arndt notes. “He knows exactly how I like to have the system installed. We like to have things nice and neat, and to stand out from anyone else’s work.”
Arndt takes great pride in the assembly of his customers’ mechanical rooms. All the pipes are organized and labeled, creating a clean space that won’t cause consternation to a homeowner.
“That’s our signature,” Arndt says. “Can you figure this out? Does it look clean and neat? Or do you get a headache looking at it?”
Gunkel notes: “I just love to look at that thing. I think it’s so beautiful and Dale did a wonderful job. I’m impressed how tight and clean that mechanical system is.”
Another way Arndt found to avoid pitfalls was to use a PVC raceway from the mechanical room to the center of the sidewalk and driveway at the Trachte and Gunkel residences, respectively.
“You spend a couple of extra dollars and you’re not fighting anything,” Arndt says. “Everything goes in a lot easier instead of trying to jam too many lines.”
Added BonusesWhile Gunkel’s motives for the snow-melt system were “purely selfish,” she can’t help but think that if the time came to move out, the system will be a nice feature in the house listing.
“Because I’ve done so much to this house, I’ve always thought of it as a long-term project. Of course, things can change,” Gunkel says. “I think this will be a major amenity that people wouldn’t expect and would absolutely chomp at the bit to get.”
Arndt hasn’t needed to advertise his snow-melt systems. He’s got Gunkel and Trachte doing the work for him.
“They’re my best advertisers now,” Arndt says. “Everything is word-of-mouth.”
Arndt has fielded a lot of calls from people interested in installing a snow-melt system, but the economy still hasn’t ticked back up to where people are comfortable spending any more money than is necessary.
“When the economy shifted, the inquiries kind of went out the window,” Arndt says. “I always get a lot of inquiries at the home show (in Monona, Wis.) about snow-melt systems. I haven’t had a lot of people pursue that avenue in the last couple years. Maybe when things swing around a little bit that’ll change.”
Arndt also has put down tubing for a system at his own house, but hasn’t installed the boiler yet. Arndt hopes to have it finished in the next year or two so he and his family can enjoy the perks that Gunkel and Trachte get from his craft.
“When they turn it on at the right time and the snow is hitting, this stuff is evaporating. You don’t get any build-up,” Arndt says.
Anybody would consider the luxury of not having to shovel the driveway to be enough of a sales pitch for a snow-melt system. No more back pain, and kids will no longer pout because shoveling is not on the chore list. But, as always, it comes down to cash.
“For the five months of the snow season, I average $128 (gas bill) for the garage and snow-melt system,” Trachte says. “How nice is that?”