Obstacles include energy codes and a shortage of capable installers.

I spoke with a handful of wholesalers involved with the radiant heat market seeking their views on a variety of topics. Here are some of the most interesting snippets from those conversations.

Stimulating The Market

Dennis Bellanti, Ferguson Enterprises/Denver

— “Our radiant sales increased 50% last year, so it’s definitely on a growth curve. We’ve seen some slowing due to the economic slump, but it’s still the fastest growing segment of our business.

“The radiant market has matured enough in this area that it’s pretty much self-driven. Years ago people didn’t know they could heat homes through floors. Now, almost everybody knows somebody who has the system in their house, and the benefits get transmitted by word of mouth. When people go to build a new house, one of the first things they ask is how much will radiant floor heat cost. We put together a nice marketing package for our customers with heat loss calculation, drawings of how the system is installed, manufacturers’ brochures and other literature describing radiant. We take charge for contractors.

“At first it was tough to get the contractors on board. But we found that if we can get contractors to put it in their own home, they sell the daylights out of the systems. When you put it in your own house, your confidence level builds about the quality of the heat.

“I think education is a large part of what the wholesaler needs to offer. Because if we educate the contractor and help him do a job profitably, everyone benefits if the job goes well. If the job goes upside down, the contractor will have a sour taste and will not sell radiant anymore.”

Bill Curry, County Supply, Lowell, Mass.

— “For a long time HVAC contractors were not too interested in the hydronics business. That’s because the warm air guys work on a different business model than hydronics contractors. They make money on equipment and give away the accessories, pipe, ductwork, registers and grilles. They looked at hydronics and saw no money could be made on the boilers, so they had no interest in this kind of work. They kind of got pulled into it kicking and screaming with the hydro-air systems, and they saw that radiant was potentially profitable. So we’re seeing a lot of HVAC customers getting interested in radiant jobs.”

Mike Bleier, Able Distributors, Chicago

— “Radiant definitely is growing fast, but that can be both a blessing and a curse. We receive many architectural plans that come in showing they want radiant everywhere. But there’s not a lot of detail from architects. Is the project going to be Gyp-Crete®, concrete, staple-up, wood floors? The contractor needs a good price on this right away, but doesn’t typically have the time or knowledge to keep up with everything. So our responsibility becomes rather large. Because unlike with a forced air furnace, you can’t half-bake this stuff or it just won’t work.”

Jeff Riley, Thos. Somerville Co., Chantilly, Va.

— “In some ways there’s more demand at the homeowner level than can be filled by qualified contractors. People gain exposure to radiant by watching the home improvement shows on TV. The biggest challenge is protecting this tremendous growth by making sure it’s done right. Nothing threatens business more than a bad installation. You run into people who put in a 1,500 ft. loop of PEX tubing, where you need a pump the size of your car to make it push the water through, then they wonder why it doesn’t work. It’s not that they’re bad contractors. They just don’t know any better. That’s where education comes in.”

Biggest Problem Faced By Contractors

Bill Curry

— “It’s the fear of price, the fear of asking for what they need to get from the job. Heck, even with a normal heating job they have trouble telling customers it will cost $7,500. Now they have to tell the homeowner this job may cost $18,000. This is holding the field back.

“As for the technical issues, they get concerned when doing the first couple of jobs, because it’s new to them. Then once they do a couple, it’s like riding a bike. But they still have to learn to deal with the price issue.”

Dennis Bellanti

— The biggest problem contractors run into is with controls. They understand piping for the most part. They do that all the time, and a hydronics system is not much different than plumbing, but controls is where they really struggle. That’s why we do real simple wiring diagrams for them. Also, the focus of our educational efforts is shifting to controls now that radiant piping is pretty much understood.”

Biggest Problem Faced By Wholesalers

Mike Bleier

— “The trade magazines tend to focus on trophy home projects. Most of the contractors involved are top-notch and do their own designs, but they are not the majority doing radiant. So it’s a delicate balancing act between wanting to court more business and being able to service that business. Just today a contractor came in with plans for a big luxury home and asked me to design a heating system. This is a huge, arduous task that might take 40-50 man-hours. Then they might say, ‘That’s too expensive!’ So I have to ask if my time might be better spent doing a bunch of basement projects than the big trophy homes.”

Jeff Riley

— “There is still a lot of resistance to something that’s new, which is okay. Everybody’s time is valuable. I lead with radiant when I first meet with someone just to see if interest is there. If not, I’ll go on to something else.”

Bill Curry

— “It’s not really a problem, but the cost of being in this business is you must spend a lot of time with customers on their first few jobs. We have a guy on staff who handles all HVAC and hydronics technical issues for our company. I’ll bet 40% of his time is spent with radiant. Yet, that’s probably why we’re so successful in this market. We can do everything in-house. We don’t need to call on our vendors to hold hands in the field.”

Dennis Bellanti

— “One aspect of radiant that’s never been nailed down has to do with the energy codes we have in parts of Colorado. The homes and heating systems have to be designed in accordance with these energy codes, which are aimed at reducing energy usage and pollution. These are good intentions, but the people who wrote the codes don’t have any heating experience. For example, they require setback thermostats with radiant systems, but we all know setback thermostats aren’t a good idea. Or, they require high-efficiency boilers, but don’t understand that with baseboard nothing runs 90%. But we can’t argue the code!

“Our industry needs a third-party organization to do scientific research to prove the efficiency of systems, not products, to say these things may work separately but not necessarily together.”

Does Radiant Cannibalize Other Hydronics Sales?

Dennis Bellanti

— “Not in our market, because we’ve never had a lot of hydronic heat in Colorado compared with the Northeast. Our competition is more forced air.”

Bill Curry

— “I look at radiant as a new market opportunity. First of all, there are snowmelt projects that are not taking anything else away, so that’s all new business. Also, for the traditional hydronics contractor, radiant is getting him inside the house where there may have been forced air before. For air side guys, it’s extra business. And it’s not like replacing a $5,000 job with another $5,000 job. It’s more like replacing a $5,000 job with a $10,000 job, or $15,000 job.”

Jeff Riley

— “More often than not, people are replacing cast iron radiators because they don’t like the look. Or they’re new installations. Or the people are sick and tired of hot air.”

Mike Bleier

— “Some people may shoot me for saying this, but I try to discourage people from having a completely radiant house. What we try to promote is not so much radiant but hydronics. Instead of furnaces, we promote the idea of hot water being the right heating medium. Then let’s ask, what can you do with that boiler? You can melt snow on your sidewalks. You can heat some hot water coils. You’ve just eliminated two or three vent terminations. We can even heat your swimming pool. This means I can take that big expense and absorb two or three other heating functions to help justify the cost.

“We’re trying to differentiate ourselves by setting up more of these European types of systems — very efficient condensing boilers, panel radiators, making the systems as comfortable and efficient as possible, running low temperatures but with outdoor reset controls, thermostatic radiator valves and so on.

“The magic is not in the tubing. The magic is in the system. Is it all working together, appropriately, at low temps and high efficiencies? That’s our approach.”