Radiant heating has undergone a remarkable evolution. It has been a very long time since the days of the hypocaust (ancient Rome’s method of heating). Today, we are witnessing a significant transformation in radiant heating products, from air-to-water heat pumps to intelligent controls that are propelling our industry forward. These new innovative methods within the industry, particularly in hydronic heating and cooling, are poised to become increasingly prevalent in Canadian homes.
Before taking a deep diving into hydronic panel technologies, it’s crucial to address the subject of controls. The control systems represent a pivotal, yet often overlooked, component in radiant heating and cooling. Numerous manufacturers are developing controls that promise to revolutionize the way we heat and cool our homes. The right control system is the linchpin of efficiency; conversely, ill-suited controls can reduce a system to mere operation without delivering effective performance.
When it comes to selecting controls for hydronic systems, the initial cost often overshadows the importance of choosing the most effective control for the job. As the industry begins to shift from traditional boilers to hydronic heat pumps, there’s a pressing need to prioritize education on controls over mere cost considerations. The reality is that inexpensive controls may suffice for a boiler, but when it comes to a hydronic heat pump, it can lead to increased costs, diminished trust in the system’s efficiency, and the expertise of the installer or designer.
Making the investment
For instance, a $100 control might operate a heat pump adequately, but investing in a $500 control could optimize the system’s thermal efficiency and achieve the highest possible coefficient of performance (COP). That additional $400 is not an expense but an investment in long-term savings and system reliability.
Today’s controls are also created to be able to apply to a hybrid approach to home heating, with or without a boiler. There are versatile control systems available on the market that accommodate heating and cooling through air-to-water, water-to-water, or a combination of both with a boiler. These controls are ideal for contractors experienced with hydronic heat pumps, providing a solution that brings their applications to life.
Recent enhancements to control technology have seen some new features, including having access to external weather data, which enables contractors to ensure peak operational efficiency beyond what a simple outdoor air sensor can offer.
As we transition away from boilers, it’s vital to remember that heat pumps require different piping and control strategies to prevent issues such as high electricity bills, discomfort, and equipment failure. Heat pumps are sensitive to high return water temperatures, while boilers stop condensing, heat pumps risk compressor damage.
Simplifying complex challenges
Integrated controls within an indoor module can help simplify the complex challenge of managing a system capable of heating, cooling, providing domestic hot water, and backup heat. A packaged unit with pre-completed piping only requires connections to the outdoor unit, and indoor heating. This approach is extremely valuable for a contractor.
Within the controls sector, not all products should be thought about
the same way. Some might be better suited for solely single-home applications, but there are plenty available on the market that can be applied to a much broader range of applications, from single residential units to large-scale projects. These types of controls are designed for those who are skilled in system piping but desire a robust control that simplifies setup and can manage multiple hydronic heat pumps and backup boilers, whether electric or gas.
It’s important to acknowledge that innovation doesn’t always mean starting from scratch. Sometimes, the most effective solutions are already within our grasp, waiting to be recognized and utilized in new ways. This is exemplified by my personal experience with integrating modern technology into my own home’s heating and cooling system.
I sought a straightforward method to control an air-to-water heat pump paired with an air handler for cooling and radiant floor heating. A critical requirement was to prevent chilled water from circulating through the radiant floor slabs. The solution emerged from a creative application of priority calls and leveraging an air handler control for forced air heat pumps, which was developed over a decade ago; long before hydronic heat pumps became a focal point in the industry.
This control, which originally was not designed with today’s hydronic heat pumps in mind, proved to be remarkably adaptable. By using it to orchestrate the operation of the system, ensuring that cooling and heating demands were met without the risk of inappropriate chilled water circulation, it demonstrated that sometimes the tools we need are already at our disposal. This approach not only solved the challenge efficiently but also underscored the value of looking at existing technologies through a new lens, especially as we navigate the evolving landscape of hydronic heating and cooling.
As we venture beyond the realm of controls, we encounter equally compelling innovations in hydronic heating technology. While hydronic cooling is a staple in commercial projects, its application in residential settings is less common.
However, the importance of sophisticated control strategies becomes even more critical when introducing chilled water systems into homes. Reflecting on my previous discussion about controls, it’s clear that inadequate controls can lead to dire consequences, such as inadvertently circulating chilled water where it’s not intended.
This year has seen the emergence of some particularly interesting and straightforward products. In my own residence, I’ve installed an air-to-water heat pump, yet I haven’t incorporated hydronic heating — yet. The ductwork in my home could only be described as a disaster, leading to a staggering 15 F temperature variance across floors. To address this, I wasn’t going to rip my home apart to put in new ductwork. Instead, I ran a 3/4-inch piece of PEX into my attic and used some high-quality connectors. I’m considering three innovative products.
One of my top choices is trench convectors. Although there’s a higher initial cost for the equipment, the operation savings are significant due to its ability to produce usable heat at temperatures as low as 95 F. This efficiency translates into an impressive COP for the heat pump, reducing monthly heating and cooling costs over the equipment’s lifespan. However, we must acknowledge the premium that accompanies this advanced technology.
Another product that caught my attention was wall-mounted units, which resemble high-end panel radiators but are high-performance convectors designed for both heating and cooling. They offer an aesthetically pleasing and cost-effective retrofit option for homes transitioning from boilers to air-to-water heat pumps. Its combination of performance and affordability makes it an undeniable solution.
New to the panel market is technology that can address a few point concerns without the need for a condensation tray or drain. This technology is very versatile and can be designed not only for ceiling panels but also as a drywall panel that can be mounted on a wall, simplifying the installation of hydronic heating and cooling systems.
I’m curious about the cool technologies our readers have encountered in the field of hydronic heating and cooling. I would love to hear from you, see your photos, and learn from your experiences. Please share what’s caught your eye and what innovations you’re excited about.