I felt like a cub newspaper reporter on his first important assignment. A panel discussion was about to start at the HARDI convention in Phoenix, AZ. I’m on a hydronics committee for HARDI, which means Zoom meetings for most of the year, until the national convention. One of the committee members, Jeff Thompson of APR Supply, was going to moderate since it was his idea to assemble a panel of the experts from the boiler manufacturers.
Jeff works in the heart of the East Coast boiler market and is concerned with the political climate of the area and its trend towards banning fossil fuel heating equipment in new construction in certain cities. He wanted to get the boiler manufacturer’s ideas on their path forward. I used my limited pull with Lochinvar, our major boiler supplier, to get them to send Mike Junke, Product Marketing Manager.
The other members of the panel were David Walsh, VP of Sales for NTI, Tom Kelly, Technical Sales Manager for Bradford White, and Sal Brunetto, National Sales Manager for Bosch Home Comfort. Many thanks to all four panelists for coming to the desert in December to help shed some light on the future of the industry a lot of us hold dear to their hearts.
Changes and Challenges
Jeff had everyone give their history in hydronics. All have experience ranging from 25 to 40 years and all have experience in product development. We’re talking about guys that have seen the changes that we have been dealing with since the elimination of the standing pilot.
Next topic was their opinions on the upcoming changes that the DOE and EPA are trying to get legislated. The big one being the requirement of residential size hot water boilers to be 95% efficient. Everyone was in agreement that the industry was prepared for that, since they all manufacture that type of boiler already. The bar for oil-fired residential boilers is up at 88%, which is above most equipment now, since it’s in the condensing range.
From the contractor and consumer prospective, the proposed change could be quite problematic. The obvious complications were the cost for some consumers, the flue changes that might not be able to done for some city/townhouse applications, and the training required for installation crews. The government is saying that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) should help the consumer, but it was agreed that the rebate is too low. Flexible PPL flue pipe should help, but won’t be the solution for every installation. Training will always be a concern, especially with a workforce challenged by retirements and limited new hires.
The Path Forward
It was agreed that any changes to current regulations take time to become effective and are likely to be challenged by lawsuits from various groups, so don’t expect to see anything set in stone for at least five years (at which time I should be retired).
One of the alternatives that I can see as a path forward is the blending of non-carbon fuels into the current infrastructure of natural gas pipelines and propane gas delivery services. The best choice there is hydrogen gas. It burns the cleanest of the non-fossil fuels and can be mixed initially with natural gas, but hydrogen is hard to separate from other elements to become a gas. The panelists concurred that it is one of the technologies being investigated.
Another obvious point of agreement from the panel was the comfort of wet based heat. It is almost universally accepted that a house with toasty warm hot water cast iron radiators is more comfortable than a house with semi-warm air blowing out of registers. Not a lot of love for the air-to-air heat pumps in this room.
That takes us to one of the alternatives to a fossil fuel fired boiler, the electric heat pump boiler, or the air to water heat pump. Each manufacturer has something like this in development. Where they deviate is the refrigerant that they use, sorta like the HVAC manufacturers. Different refrigerants have pros and cons, and I won’t get too detailed about that. Some have flammability issues to overcome, while others have issues with water temperatures.
The Europeans are ahead of America again, since they are heavily into wet heat and have a similar political climate. Their approach so far is with the air-to-water heat pump, which works well in their market because Europe works on a much lower design water temperature than the US and Canada. Air-to-water heat pumps get more complicated at the higher design water temperatures we use on this side of the pond.
All heat pumps run on electricity from a grid that is currently not able to cope with the added burden of heating in extreme weather. Mike Junke of Lochinvar noted that the American electrical grid is not ready for heating homes and water. He cited a rolling blackout recently in Tennessee caused by cold, not even extreme, outdoor temperatures.
David Walsh of NTI commented that the trend towards high efficiency and decarbonization is irreversible. He also spoke of the pendulum effect. Swing too far one way and the pendulum swings back.
Tom Kelly of Bradford White was optimistic, saying America can do anything it decides to do. There is a history of innovation to overcome problems and whatever the future holds, American technology advances will prevail.
Sal Brunetto of Bosch Home Comfort was bullish on the health of hydronics. He agreed that technology advancements will provide solutions. He also commented that consumers will help decide the direction that hydronics will go.
In closing statements, there was agreement that hydronics as an industry and source of comfort is not going away, just changing with the times and that hydronics will be improved, rather than eliminated. To me, that was good news. No magic solution or advancement, just good old trial and error to find out the best way forward for manufacturers, distributors, contractors and consumers.
Patrick Linhardt is a thirty-nine-year veteran of the wholesale side of the hydronic industry who has been designing and troubleshooting steam and hot water heating systems, pumps and controls on an almost daily basis. An educator and author, he is currently Hydronic Manager at the Corken Steel Products Co.