BY ROBERT P. MADER
OF CONTRACTOR'S STAFF
LOVELAND, COLO. — Sales of hydronic radiant tubing surged 37.4%, according to a survey of tubing manufacturers conducted by the Radiant Panel Association.
The causes of the hot tubing market are twofold, said Larry Drake, RPA executive director. Homeowners have seen radiant heating on every home improvement program and in home and garden magazines.
" It really has caught the attention of the public and there's lot of word of mouth," Drake said. "That's one side of it. The other side is that we've also seen it become a major topic in most of the heating and air conditioning trade magazines as well. We've seen a lot of stuff on radiant in those publications and that has resulted in more HVAC contractors getting involved."
Each year, RPA surveys major suppliers of radiant heating systems in North America. The association collects information on both hydronic radiant tubing and electric radiant element sales for the prior year. The data is tabulated and compared against previous years to track trends within the industry.
The survey of suppliers of electric radiant wiring and mats has suffered in previous years from poor participation, so poor, in fact, that no data is available from 2001. Better supplier participation in the electric segment for 2004 has provided more accurate data for that market, RPA reported, resulting in estimated sales at a whopping 214% above the 2003 estimates.
Twenty-two primary suppliers/ manufacturers of hydronic radiant heating tubing were surveyed. Of those surveyed, 10 provided direct reports that account for 80% of the grand total. Sales for the remaining 12 suppliers/manufacturers were estimated and account for only 20% of the total. Four of those had reported in prior years, which provided a valid base from which to project estimates.
While the PEX tubing sales estimates include tubing used for snowmelt systems, they do not include PEX used for potable water plumbing systems, Drake said.
More than 265 million lineal feet of tubing sales in North America were reported and an additional 66 million lineal feet were estimated, making the total hydronic radiant tubing sold in 2004 in excess of 331 million feet. This represents a growth of 90 million lineal feet over that sold in 2003.
Half-inch tubing continues to dominate the market with a 70.5% share of all tubing sold. Five-eighths inch tubing is second at 10.8% with 3/8-in. close behind at 9.6%. Three-quarter inch tubing at 7.8% and 1-in. tube at 1.3% represent primarily commercial and snow melting installations, although there are a considerable number of commercial and snow melt applications that also use 1/2-in. tubing. Wirsbo's sales numbers are similar to the increase recorded by RPA, said Wade Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing for Uponor Wirsbo.
He noted that a nearly 40% increase in tubing sales was not the result of just residential new construction, so part of the increase must have come from retrofits and the commercial/industrial market. Wirsbo Canada has installed tubing in occupancies ranging from schools to hog barns, he said.
"We're just continuously busy," said Mark Eatherton, Advanced Hydronics, Denver, and CONTRACTOR's hydronic heating columnist. "We haven't seen a 37% increase in business, but I think the reason probably for the increase we're seeing in tube deliveries is that more people are asking for the product. Our phone is ringing more from tire kickers who've seen it on This Old House or another TV show or had a friend who had it."
A second reason could be that more plumbers, as opposed to plumbing and heating contractors, are getting into the market, Eatherton said.
"The reason sales are up so much more is that plumbers are jumping onto the bandwagon, convinced by either their wholesalers or others that they should be in this trade," he said.
Paradoxically, boiler sales, as reported by Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association, have not kept up with tubing sales.
Drake speculated that contractors might be using heat sources other than boilers, such as ground-source heat pumps and water heaters.
Eatherton definitely believes that more plumbers, "get afraid because of the word 'boiler'," and install water heaters as heat sources.
The electric radiant market is a lot tougher market on which to get good numbers, Drake said. A few years ago, the small number of players in the electric market kept their sales closely guarded. Now there are many more suppliers, and while some remain tied to RPA, others don't want anything to do with the heating and hydronic market. They see themselves in the floor warming market, not floor heating.
"The majority of sales go directly to the building contractor or electrician," Drake said. A lot of product is sold directly to consumers through Home Depot or Lowes, Drake said, and some electric manufacturers are distributing through tile and flooring contractors.
Drake believes heating contractors should use both, a combination of hydronic radiant and/or hydro-air for the whole house, along with electric floor warming in bathrooms.
"We're seeing more integration than we have in the past, and it's taken a long time for contractors to see they have to provide the best heating solution," Drake said. "It's not just water and not just air or just electric. At RPA we represent a distribution system. A contractor should be using all the tools he has to create the best environment for his customer."