Hydronics left behind: Can the trend be reversed?

Dec. 1, 2011
We don't want to hear it, but the reality is that hydronics are on the endangered species list of space heating. Hydronic heating systems (hot water and steam) have only one third of the market share they held in 1973, according to the Census Bureau. The industry’s share in spec homes is down 80% from 1973.

We don't want to hear it, but the reality is that hydronics are on the endangered species list of space heating. Hydronic heating systems (hot water and steam) have only one third of the market share they held in 1973, according to the Census Bureau. The industry's share in spec homes is down 80% from 1973. There has been a steady decline in hydronic market share over the last 40 years, with the exception of the mid-1980’s when solar tax credits boosted the industry.

Some say the rise in popularity of central air conditioning is at fault, except that 74% of new homes had warm-air furnaces in 1973 and only 56% had them in 2010. Heat pumps came out of obscurity to capture 38% of the market by 2010. Why? Because, they could offer both heating and cooling from the same unit for less upfront cost than anything else. Comfort became secondary to price.

For years the hydronics industry cranked out the same cast iron boilers, seemingly happy with the replacement market. After all, there was a lot of money tied up in foundries and stamping machines. It would be costly to retool the industry with new technology. Then radiant floor heating began to gain momentum in the mid-80's (after brief post-World War II popularity). Initially, industry leaders resisted radiant floor heating because it did not fit with their high-mass, high-temperature, cast iron boilers.

As the 1980's passed, it became obvious that radiant floor heating could be the saving grace for the declining industry. Boiler manufacturers began to warm up to the idea that this new, trendy hydronic system could actually improve boiler sales.

The developing radiant heating industry became the playground for the mechanical artist who found a canvas for his expression in radiant heat. High honors were given to the mechanical contractors with the most elaborate display of liquid pumping and controlling component arrays, spread out in artistic style over the wall of a mechanical room in someone’s mansion.

Of course, these mechanical wonders were out of reach for most home buyers, and only a few of those who could afford them would put up with such a complex display of mechanical wizardry in their mechanical rooms. The industry seemed oblivious to the fact that, even with this renewed interest in radiant heating, the overall hydronic market share was shrinking.

Then came the low-mass boilers from Europe. Mechanical contractors, particularly those high profile radiant guys, were in awe of this new technology. The U.S. boiler manufacturers had no alternative but to dig in and invest in their own versions.

All this complexity and technology demanded a price. Radiant heating cheerleaders chanted to the mechanical contractor crowds, "Get out there and upsell, upsell, upsell!" And upsell they did, to the upper crust of society. Meanwhile, average homeowners walked away by the tens of thousands with heads bowed low, disheartened by the fact that the comfort of radiant floor heating was beyond their reach. Hydronics market share continued to shrink.

Then, in 2007, everything changed. Our economy came crashing down and the housing bubble burst. The hydronics industry fell to its lowest market share in 50 years. The vast majority of mechanical contractors struggled to find a market for their highly complex, expensive, albeit comfortable, heating systems. “Sell the benefits, not the price,” just didn’t ring true anymore. The fact remained, as systems became more complex and expensive, market share shrank.

Homeowners wanted to be comfortable at a reasonable price. They didn't care about polished copper pipe and perfectly aligned rows of pumps. They wanted a warm floor, a simple thermostat on the wall to give them control, a low utility bill, and an affordable price. The rest was best left out of sight and out of mind.

Suppose the hydronic heating industry concentrated on giving the customer a simple warm floor at a truly competitive price. Would that make a difference? Forget the quest for the highest efficiency, the ultimate in control, the race to see who has the most tech-worthy product, and just concentrate on giving the consumer what they want; affordable warm floors. Would we see an overall increase in hydronic sales?

"But wait, that is not possible," you say.

"It would cheapen the systems, it would offend our professionalism, it would take away our independence and our artistic license, it would damage the planet, and we couldn’t make as much money selling less expensive systems."

Henry Ford heard similar arguments when he took on the task of making an automobile for the average person. At that time the state-of-the-art automobiles were hand-built, sophisticated works of art, affordable only by the well heeled. Many of them still grace our museums as things of beauty both mechanically and esthetically. But if it were not for Henry Ford and his "cheap" automobile, we might still be walking while watching the rich speed by in those high-priced horseless carriages.

The radiant heating industry can continue on its quest for the ultimate high-tech boiler and the consummate control, right into extinction. Or, it can take a page from Henry Ford's playbook and develop simple, cost effective systems that compete head-to-head with forced air. It is possible. There is a solution, and it is within our reach, but it will take a revolution in thinking.

Larry Drake is the president of Teal International Corp., Loveland, Colo. He was the executive director of the Radiant Panel Association from 1994 to 2009. He can be reached at [email protected]. The full length version of the article can be found on his website, ThinkHydronics.com

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