DESIGNING A RADIANT system and installing a radiant system are two entirely different processes. Because the transition from the "perfect" design to the actual field install will undergo many changes, you'll have to adjust on the fly.
As consumers become increasingly aware of the benefits of radiant heating systems, you'll find yourself getting more requests for them than you have previously.
To install these systems so that the customer can really enjoy these benefits, a great deal of design and thought must be put into the work.
Unfortunately, some people will say that just about anyone can install these systems in their homes for a fraction of the cost that a professional heating contractor would charge. And why not? How hard can it be to install some plastic tubing and connect it to a water heater with a pump?
But what happens when this unprofessional system doesn't function as advertised? Who's to blame for the operation of this system?
This is a problem that can occur not only when the contractor is out of the loop, but also when the professional has installed the system.
Rely on yourself
A large number of professional contractors are relying on their local supplier to design their radiant systems. While I don't necessarily have a problem with this, I do have a problem with what can happen during the installation — and after a job is complete.
Your local supplier has been to manufacturer training and understands how to input the required information into the computer. He also can give you a design report and materials list. What he may not understand is the installation process in actual field situations.
I'm sure many of you have designed ducted forced-air or hot-water baseboard systems while sitting in the office, only to find that while on the job, your original design needed to be modified to fit into the space. You're able to make those changes and be confident that they will work, because you did the initial design and have the resources to make those changes.
This finger-pointing battle can be avoided.
What happens on that radiant floor job when you can't get the required amount of tubing into the room because floor joists aren't installed "by the book," or the customer decided to add additional cabinets to the kitchen and you lose that necessary floor space for heat? Have you ever arrived on the job and found a new wall of windows? Have you been able to make the necessary changes and be confident in the results?
You must understand the limitations of a radiant system and know what the results in heat output will be when you make a change.
On the flip side, say you don't make any changes and the system is installed the way the local supplier specified, per manufacturer's guidelines, and you have trouble maintaining comfortable temperatures in the great room. Who will the customer blame when it doesn't work? When your customer calls you and says that the radiant floor system you installed isn't working to his satisfaction, what will you tell him?
Typically when this is the case, the contractor calls his wholesaler and says, "The system you designed isn't working." But the supplier has no idea how the system was installed, or if any changes in construction occurred.
All he can do is tell the contractor that he followed the manufacturer's program design, and it should work. The supplier may even put the blame on the contractor and say that the system wasn't installed properly.
Even if the contractor then calls the manufacturer for answers, he may not be able to get help. The result is a finger-pointing battle between the contractor and the supplier — one that will probably not end easily for the contractor. What do you do?
Proper field training
This finger-pointing battle can be avoided with the proper training and field experience. Field experience is a huge part of the final design. At Stack Heating & Cooling, one of our first radiant projects was our own office. We followed the manufacturer's design for the typical system and later found out, after putting the system into operation, that we were unable to balance the heating system for perfect comfort in each room. We learned from our mistake and now apply that knowledge to every installation we do.
I've been a part of the design and installation of all sizes of radiant heating systems, and have yet to install one the way it looks on paper. There's always something that comes up during the installation that needs to be modified to fit the application.
Because we have the right tools and programs for design, however, and because we understand the limitations of radiant systems, we're able to make the necessary changes and feel confident in the final outcome of the system.
I am currently involved in a residential project that consists of varying finished-floor thicknesses. The homeowner wants every floor surface to be at the same height — and these floor thicknesses have changed twice since the original design.
We've been able to adapt and design a radiant system to help the owner achieve his final outcome while maintaining the integrity of his new radiant system, because we have the proper field-training experience. We were able to provide a solution in a relatively short amount of time, which may not have been possible if we had to go back and forth with an outside design consultant.
In addition, we're also very confident in what the final outcome is going to be for our customer.
The Radiant Panel Association (www.radiantpanelassociation.org) has been an excellent resource for education and training in the radiant industry. RPA offers testing and certification in design and installation of radiant systems. I encourage anyone involved in the ever-changing radiant industry to become members of trade associations such as RPA to keep up with the latest technologies and design techniques.
As heating professionals, I believe that it's our responsibility, and our job, to understand every aspect of what we install and service. If we don't, we're just guessing at what we do and not giving our customers what they deserve and what we promised.
Would you like your doctor to guess on your next operation when something comes up that he's never seen?
Brian Stack is president of Avon, Ohio-based Stack Heating & Cooling, a residential contractor specializing in service, repair, and replacement of steam and hot water boilers and heating systems. To contact him, e-mail [email protected].