By Robert P. Mader of Contractor’s Staff
Loveland, Colo. – North American sales of radiant heating tubing hit a record-breaking 150 million lineal ft. last year, according to a survey of tubing manufacturers conducted by the Radiant Panel Association. Rpa Executive Director Lawrence V. Drake polled 18 tubing manufacturers, of which eight manufacturers representing 70% of the market, responded. Drake extrapolated the rest, based on his seven years’ experience taking the survey.
While radiant tubing sales are at an all-time high, the bad news is that the rate of increase slowed to 7.8% over 1999, compared with the 25% to 30% annual increases experienced between 1991 and 1998.
"I don’t believe that the slowdown in growth has anything to do with a lack of interest by consumers," Drake said. "Public interest is increasing, so we have to look elsewhere for the cause of the slowdown, and I see a bottleneck in distribution, primarily the contractors. We don’t have the outlets. We get calls from builders and consumers who can’t find anybody in their area. If they do find somebody, often they only have one or two contractors in an area, and they’re so busy that they only take the large custom jobs."
The lack of competition leads to high prices, sometimes three to four times the price of a forced-air installation, said Drake, who has fielded calls in his office from sticker-shocked consumers.
Part of the problem may be that it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between radiant heating and forced air, Drake noted. Homeowners who have a furnace with one thermostat find out about all the good things radiant can provide, Drake mused, and select a high-efficiency boiler, multiple zones or amenities such as towel warmers, and then they are surprised at the price.
Nevertheless, part of the problem is a lack of competition as highlighted by the real-life example of New Mexico.
Radiant heat got off to a strong start years ago in New Mexico, Drake said, because of the state’s typical construction of slab-on-grade with "Mexican tile" floors. Drake believes New Mexico has the highest per capita number of radiant installations in the country.
Radiant consequently has become a well-accepted way to heat a house there, with many radiant contractors vying for business.
"It’s a different marketplace with a lot of competition," Drake said.
Radiant systems in New Mexico cost $2 to $5/sq. ft., he said, but "if you go to Park City (Utah), Seattle or back East, you’re lucky to find something for $10 to $15/sq. ft."
Price disparity can be fixed a couple of ways, Drake noted. Wirsbo is promoting "radiant ready" slabs and basements with the tubing placed in the concrete during construction, he said. The house may be constructed with a forced-air system. Sometime in the future, a contractor could offer a radiantly heated basement as a way to "hook" the homeowner on the concept.
Another way is to install simpler radiant systems that may be heated with high-efficiency water heaters. The industry has installed thousands of economical systems, Drake said, including a number in Habitat for Humanity homes.
Another technical problem is that forced air is a package whereas almost every radiant project is a customized system. "Until we come up with a plug-and-play product, we won’t have growth," he said. "We have to have a reasonably priced package that you hang on the wall. And we have to come up with a cooling option."
Unless the radiant industry is willing to expand, Drake said, it will stagnate at 5% to 7% of the heating market.