EVERY once in a while, I'll use this column as a soapbox to denounce some of the practices I see going on in the field. And believe me, I've seen some real atrocities.
I've seen more bad and improperly installed hydronic heating systems than you can shake a stick at. Many of them are performed by hydronic wannabes who think that just because they know how to solder, they can install hydronic-heating systems too.
At present, there exists little more than a minimum national installation code for closed-loop heating systems. At best, it dictates "minimum standards" of installation. This generally includes the use of pressure-relief valves, backflow preventers and the like. It does not address critical issues such as proper design, proper sizing, component selection/placement and provisions to ensure that the system owner is aware of any maintenance issues that may be necessary in order to guarantee warranty coverage in the future.
I could use this whole article just to complain about all the poor installation practices I see, but the only people who would benefit are the ones who take the time to read this column and, unfortunately, that's not enough.
The time has come to take action. Instead of sitting around complaining about all the bad things we see, we now have the opportunity to make a difference. The Radiant Panel Association is undertaking the gargantuan task of writing a comprehensive National Hydronic Code, and the RPA wants and needs your help and input to make sure it gets done right.
If you're not a member of the RPA, you should be. This is a serious group of people who are hellbent on making changes to the way hydronic heating systems are designed, installed, inspected and maintained. The goal of this organization is to not only develop a national code, but also to make it mandatory that all contractors are regularly tested and certified to design and install these complicated systems. And it doesn't stop there.
The primary goal of this organization is education, including the consumer, contractor and code-enforcement authorities. If this goal seems lofty, it is, but it is achievable. All that we have to do is look north to our Canadian neighbors. They, too, got tired of seeing some of the crapsmanship that was being applied in the field and sold to the unsuspecting consumer.
They formed an advisory committee to develop and implement these required code changes. The committee consisted of a group of hydronic professionals representing all sectors of the industry. It included people from manufacturing, the engineering sector, code enforcement, wholesalers and contractors. Everyone who had anything to do with hydronic heating was included. These people put in many long hours in 1988 to develop the first edition of this key document. They are currently in their sixth edition.
The document is known as the RHWHA Hydronic Guidelines for Design & Installation manual, and it is available from Residential Hot Water Heating Association, 199-916 W. Broadway, Vancouver, B.C. V5Z1K7, phone/fax 604/414-0100. The cost of the book is $15 (U.S.).
This document is being applied and enforced in Vancouver and surrounding areas. It not only requires the licensing and certification of designers and installers, it also requires that the inspectors who are responsible for enforcing these code provisions become certified.
The document contains sample drawings of approved designs for all types of radiant and conventional hydronic heating systems. Before a permit is issued to the contractor/ designer, the designer must submit a set of plans showing detailed parameters for the proposed installation. This includes a basic heat loss for each room, selection and placement of heating units, type and configuration of the driving forces, and sizing information for pumps, pipes and auxiliary equipment.
While many contractors may view this as more government intervention in their business, I view it as a necessary evil. Most responsible hydronic heating contractors have to figure this stuff out before they can estimate the job anyway. It's the schlock artists who've never even seen a heat-loss calculation, much less performed one, at whom this action is directed.
This will also make your dealings with the local mechanical inspector go more smoothly. Instead of having the inspectors look strictly at minimum standards, such as the relief valve or backflow preventers, they will now know what they're looking at, because it'll be their job to ensure that what was designed, was installed. Pretty neat concept, eh?
This should put a dent in the fly-by-night operators. But you'll never be able to overcome those schlockmeisters. They aren't going to pull a permit anyway. I don't see a squad of anti-schlock inspectors sitting outside my local hydronic wholesalers in unmarked vehicles, writing down the license plate numbers of all the unmarked vans and following them around to see what they're installing where. I wish that would happen, but don't hold your breath. We can't even get the plumbing inspection department to go to the hardware stores and tell them to quit selling illegal, unapproved ballcocks.
Maybe we could convince all the wholesalers that these hanging chads are not even worth messing with. If all wholesalers adopted the policy that most of my suppliers have, we're guaranteed to squeeze these bozos out of the market. The policy that I'm talking about is to sell to "appropriately licensed tradesmen" only. Not some clown who produces a sales tax license and a catchy company name like "Cave Man Heating" and some P.O. box in a podunk town in the middle of nowhere, where they've probably never even heard of hydronic heating.
Enough dreaming. It's time to wake up and do something about it before it does something to us.
I, for one, am going to be involved in many facets of all the RPA wants to do.
You need to do a few things to make sure that you get the opportunity at least to review and possibly comment, if you'd like, on all these very important upcoming documents and issues.
First, if you're not a member of the Radiant Panel Association, you need to be. Join as soon as possible, either online at www.rpa-info.com, or call 800/660-7187. This will be the best money you'll ever spend on any membership fee. The RPA's monthly newsletter more than pays for the cost of admission.
Secondly, you need to get involved on the task forces being assembled for all the different areas to be tackled, such as a Hydronic Code, which will probably be similar to the Canadian one initially. Why reinvent the wheel? Why not buy one that works and modify it if needed? You can personally get involved by sending e-mail to contractor information at [email protected]
The intent is to do as much work as possible using the Internet, such as having private chat rooms where the different sections of the code are spelled out. You as a contractor can go in there and review it and say why you think provisions will or won't work. Here's your chance to be involved at the grass-roots level. It needs everyone's input. It's going to affect everyone.
Get involved. Make a difference. Join this worthwhile association today.
Happy New Millennium Hydronicing!!
Mark Eatherton is a Denver-based hydronics contractor. He can be reached via e-mail at guruofbtus@ mindspring.com or by phone at 303/778-7772.