Warming up to new ideas stirs debate in a Conn. farmhouse

BY STEVE SPAULDING Of CONTRACTOR's STAFF FAIRFIELD, CONN. Thor Vanderblue's enthusiasm for new plumbing and heating technologies would probably get him labeled an "early adopter" if he worked with computers or mobile phones. Instead, he works construction. He started his business, Thor's Creations, in 1990 here. The company specializes in high-end work using a small, tight-knit crew. The company works

BY STEVE SPAULDING
Of CONTRACTOR's STAFF

FAIRFIELD, CONN. — Thor Vanderblue's enthusiasm for new plumbing and heating technologies would probably get him labeled an "early adopter" if he worked with computers or mobile phones.

Instead, he works construction. He started his business, Thor's Creations, in 1990 here. The company specializes in high-end work using a small, tight-knit crew. The company works only one job at a time and prides itself on attention to detail and Old-World craftsmanship.

And yes, that "Old-World" label is genuine. As might be expected of someone with the name Thor, Vanderblue is of Norwegian descent. In fact, his connections to the Old World are part of what fuels his excitement for new technology. Thor and his wife, Julie, have a home in Norway.

"We visit Norway every year," Thor Vanderblue told CONTRACTOR. "We built our home over there in 2000. And when we built it, the only heat in the entire house was radiant floor heating."

Since then Vanderblue has been a big proponent of radiant heat. The problem: Thor's Creations operates out of Fairfield where the local mind-set is against him.

"Most people out here on the East Coast, we're creatures of habit," Vanderblue said. "People just keep doing what they've been doing before. I've talked to some builders, tried to show them the advantages of hydronic heat, and some of the older guys are just, ‘Well, we've been doing it this way forever.'"

So how to convince people of the added comfort and value of the new technology?

Vanderblue's big ideas became something he calls The Idea Home. In February 2005, he and his wife purchased an almost 9,000-sq.-ft. farmhouse built in 1947. Vanderblue first gutted the place and then, by partnering with local suppliers and national manufacturers, Thor's Creations turned the renovation project into a showcase for the very latest in plumbing and heating technology.

For the plumbing and hydronic work, Vanderblue contracted with Jack Curran of Curran and Son's Plumbing & Heating, a local contractor with experience in high-end installations.

At the heart of the system is a compact Munchkin high-efficiency, self-modulating boiler that turns out 199,000 Btuh. A series of Taco pumps controls the flow of heated water through PEX tubing to the house's seven hydronic radiant zones, which include the finished basement and the first floor. Three further zones on the second and third floors are hydro-air heated.

"With hydro-air," Vanderblue explained, "the boiler pumps hot water into coils, and then a fan blows air through the coils."

The hydro-air system uses ducts to move heat through the home, but the air it delivers doesn't have the dry, almost "scorched" feeling of a standard, furnace-heated forced-air system, he noted.

For the bathrooms and laundry room, Vanderblue decided on an electric radiant system, both for the ease of installation and for how well electric radiant works with tile surfaces. He installed the NuHeat system, which comes with pre-connected rolls of electrical mats and a controls set-up.

Right now, The Idea Home is in its final stages with the painters doing the inside walls. But Vanderblue has been hosting events for local contractors sponsored by various manufacturers all through the renovating process.

The heating system has been up and running for more than a year. The Vanderblues and their three children are living in the house, although some sections of the floor and tile are still deliberately exposed to give attendees an up-close look at the technology.

"It's like a trade show at the house," Vanderblue said of the events he hosts.

Watts Radiant is sponsoring his next one, scheduled for mid-March. The event is going to be a socks-only party, so that people can walk around and feel the warmth on their feet during the NCAA basketball playoffs, Vanderblue said.

"They'll be inviting contractors, builders and architects out," he said, "so they can see the boiler, experience the radiant-floor heat."

Visit www.theideahome.com for more information on the project and the company.