Designing, installing, and selling hydronic heating systems come with its own set of challenges. One of the biggest adjustments that needs to be made is understanding that very soon our boilers will be hydronic heat pumps. It is important that we realize this when we get sticker shock if an air-to-water is $20,000 and a boiler is $12,000.
“With the rise in costs for fossil fuels due to supply constraints, regulations and taxation, it is only prudent for a design to include heat pumps to deliver at least a portion of the heat and cooling required for a system,” explained Gabor Milisics, owner of GTAHeat.ca.
Once upon a time, if you wanted a hydronic heat pump, your only real viable solution was a geothermal water-to-water. Nowadays, with major players launching or about to launch air-to-water equipment, we are about to see a major disruption in our industry in a positive way.
With these coming disruptions to the industry, there are some that aren’t a fan of the lingo used around this wave of new technology, “I don’t like using the word innovative in this industry. It scares more people than it attracts,” explains Mathew Pottins, president and owner of Laylan Hydronics and HVAC Sales. “I try to spin any design from a perspective of using tried-and-true technologies in a way that suits the needs of each client. Having said that, I’m particularly enamoured with a variety of modern air-to-water heat pumps.”
Installation and integration challenges
End-use education is a key factor in addressing installation integration challenges. By educating clients about system features, comfort, and energy savings, concerns about higher initial costs can be mitigated. One of the most common mistakes I run into is the expectation of the radiant floor heating system being too hot on the feet.
I suspect flawed industry messaging and consumers not being properly educated is the culprit for this busted myth. If the job has been done right, the temperature of the floor should never be noticed. When we do this correctly, you won’t feel the floor.
One of the biggest integration challenges arises when hydronic heating systems need to be integrated with existing HVAC systems or other building components. It’s important to consider factors such as added weight on a structure and loss of ceiling height for upper floor overpours in new builds, according to Csaba Gal, principal at Rhella. For retrofits, the challenge lies in heating the floor without sacrificing too much ceiling height and exceeding thresholds.
Educating the end-user is such a vital asset for hydronic experts; there are many dry panel solutions that don’t require structural changes or building engineering changes to install radiant heating systems. One example I have experience with would be Rehau’s RAUPanel. This system is under 5/8-inch thick and can deliver over 28 BTUs per sq. ft. with 110-degree water. We don’t need anywhere near that many BTUs in most designs, so in my own home, I heated it with 90-degree water.
The panels are more money, so often contractors dismiss it, but the reality is that when you use a dry panel system, you don’t need any structural changes to the building, which is major money. When you look at it from a BTU per dollar standpoint, you pay a small premium upfront to pay less each month for the rest of that home’s existence.
When considering a hydronic heat pump, it is important to be aware that the availability of power at the panel is a significant challenge for heat pumps and electric boilers, especially when installing a hydronic snow melt system, explains Gal.
Picking the right supplier
Logistical challenges in hydronic system installations include equipment delivery and supply chain reliability. It is very important to have an in-house hydronic designer and partnering with reliable suppliers that have a very strong technical team to prevent problems, suggests Milisics. The focus should be on problem prevention rather than problem-solving. Partnering with a supplier that puts people before profits, has engineers or technical experts on staff, and doesn’t just rely on the manufacturer can be the largest on-site cost-saving tool at your disposal.
One of the key aspects of a successful hydronic heating system installation is understanding and addressing client concerns. Effective communication and setting clear expectations with clients right from the design and quoting stage is highly recommended by both Milisics and Gal.
Start by explaining the significance of the installation process and system workings to clients. By providing detailed explanations, clients can better understand the benefits and operation of hydronic heating systems, explains Milisics.
Renewable energy integration
There are plenty of benefits that can go into installing advanced control systems, such as smart thermostats and zoning controls, explains Andrew Wilcox, principal designer for Filament Energy. He cautions against overcomplicating controls and emphasizes the importance of simplicity for user satisfaction.
There are many different combinations that can be put together to create a highly efficient hydronic system. For Gal, he prefers air-to-water. “Air-to-water definitely. Geothermal not really because of its long return on investment and the fact that most of our projects don’t have the space required for ground loops or roof area required for solar panels to make a difference.” He advocates for considering community-based geothermal as a successful example for broader adoption.
Water quality and treatment
Water quality comes up all the time for hydronic systems. Remember folks, water quality can be a very expensive mistake to make. “I started learning about the concerns of water quality about seven years ago. Then two years later it became the biggest issue we were facing,” explains Pottins. “It seemed like it went from zero to 100 overnight, and it was the part of the system we paid the most attention to. We had a bunch of boiler and pump failures because of the magnetic particles floating around older systems and we needed to find solutions really quick.”
Water quality issues are often encountered when using well water, explains Gal. Treatment chemicals can render dissolved calcium and magnesium harmless, and installing of filtration systems can address hardness and sediment concerns. Propylene glycol-filled systems can eliminate the need for tap or well water.
Client education and maintenance
Client education plays a crucial role in promoting the benefits and operation of hydronic heating systems. Providing ample information on company websites and encouraging clients to ask questions and voice concerns helps dispel misconceptions. Effective client education involves clear explanations, system drawings, and comprehensive component lists. “By teaching our clients about air handlers, low-temperature floor heating, the quality of hydronic heat, comfort, and energy savings that hydronic heating offers, we help them look beyond the higher initial costs,” explains Gal.
Industry experts collectively highlight the importance of avoiding common mistakes, such as under-sizing pipes and circulators, and mis-piping. Proper education, accountability, and relying on reputable companies can help prevent these issues.
The easiest way to figure out who the good installers are is to go on social media and look in the comments. If there is one thing about tradespeople, we love to constructively hate on each other. If you see a boiler install online and the comments from tradespeople fall somewhere in the “great job” category, you know the installer or designer is worth collaborating with. :