Having had cut my teeth on hydronic heating systems, consisting of tubing conveying energy with water-based fluids, when it came to looking at electric alternatives, I always thought of that method as being far too expensive to operate and not something I’d typically recommend.
Then I had the opportunity to meet with an electric radiant industry icon named Julia Billen. She’d been in this business for quite some time and has a really good handle on what can and can’t be done with electric radiant. She lives in an all electric radiant home, and said that her utility bills are very reasonable and that her comfort conditions within her home are one of the best she’s ever experienced. I met with her, her business partner husband, and most of her key employees at their place of business in Lake Zurich, Ill. Her operation there keeps her and all of her employees quite busy. She has one of the best Internet sites for people interested in doing electric radiant at www.warmlyyours.com.
Customer service is the highlight of a customer’s experience. People go to her company with an idea of what they’d like to do, and she and her team design an electric radiant system and ship the necessary components to the installer, be they DIY or professional installers. And their team doesn’t limit themselves to radiant floor applications only. They offer a full line of electric radiant products including flat surface radiant heating systems (floors, walls and ceilings) as well as a full line of towel warmers, radiant pictures, radiant mirrors (fog-less) and radiant countertops. In the course of our many conversations, I explained to her that on most of the top-end homes that I’d had the opportunity to work on, that I always strongly recommended that the general contractor not only install hydronic radiant floors in their clients’ bathrooms, but that they also install an electric radiant floor in the same area.
Remember, the consumer is purchasing radiant floors because they want to experience the “warm floor” concept, even during the summer months. In most cases, firing the boiler and the balance of the mechanical support system just for the opportunity for the client to experience warm floors will most definitely lead to the boiler plant short cycling, and we all know that short cycling is something to be avoided. Having an electric radiant floor over the top of the hydronic system allows the client to maintain their warm floor experience, even during the summer months, due to the use of some very intelligent programmable thermostats, without exerting stress on a conventional boiler-powered physical plant.
These intelligent thermostats can be a two-stage operation. The first stage is hydronic, and the second stage is electric. So when the boiler is locked out due to a warm weather shut down condition, and the room temperature falls a few degrees below the first stage (hydronic) setting, the electric element automatically kicks on and picks up the load.
I always have to consider that with a few rare exceptions, the cost per therm of electricity is typically two times the cost per therm for natural gas. It’s what I refer to as the 800-lb. electrical gorilla in the corner. In the case of a bathroom, during the summer months, the actual “heat load” is nonexistent. The hourly cost to operate the floor is pennies per hour. And remember, this is being done to maintain the customers “warm floor” experience, not to provide “heat” per se, although they are completely capable of doing so. The thermostats can be programmed so that the floors are only kept warm when the space is being used.
In my considerable experience, too many hydronic systems have twice the needed capacity even at design conditions. It would make sense that, other than the electrical demand charge, which is completely manageable especially with a high mass distribution system, the monthly cost of operation for electric isn’t going to be all that much higher than natural gas. Of course, your mileage may vary, but real world experience tells me that for augmentation purposes, electric can make economic sense. Obviously, the longevity of this company has proven that point. They’ve been in operation for over 18 years, and currently employ 50 people.
One item that really caught my attention was radiant counter tops. Nothing, in my personal experience, creates more of a radiant comfort buzz kill than having your toes nice and toasty then putting your elbows on an unheated granite countertop. It sucks the energy out of your body. The reality is that these countertops are not really “cold,” but with a skin temperature of 85°F, they feel cold and cause human discomfort. What an excellent idea, I thought to myself. Warm floors and warm counter tops.
In all the years that I have been designing and installing hydronic radiant floors, we’ve always had to deduct the square footage of floor-mounted cabinets from our active heating surfaces. This is typically done because canned goods and certain root crop veggies (potatoes and onions) don’t like a warm environment. The onions and potatoes have a tendency to sprout under these dark, warm conditions. Moreover, a heated kitchen cabinet doesn’t warm the space, so we avoid placing tubing beneath these cabinets. In some cases, we end up having to augment the kitchen’s heating needs using toe space heaters or some other convective means. With this alternative of an active heating surface on top of the counters, we can completely avoid the need for auxiliary heating, avoid sprouting veggies, and continue to deliver excellent radiant experiences, even during summer. Don’t forget to place insulation below the heat source to control the directional flow of energy.
Tune in next month as we continue to explore alternatives to hydronic radiant heating. Until then, Happy Watt Head radiant heating.