The Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts provides comfort system designers with a unique opportunity to design to every worse-case scenario. We can experience the -20F range of temperature in the winter months and oppressive humidity when summer rears its ugly head. This spectrum of conditions is like having an artist's canvas for every home comfort system we design.

The first step of every sale is the education of the homeowners in the basic requirements of creating a comfortable environment within their home. By this I don't mean the intricacies of the primary/secondary piping of our boilers or the injection mixing system that will keep their floors warm. We need to make sure they understand what we have grown to enshrine as "the four factors of comfort": temperature control, dehumidification, humidification, and air quality.

Temperature Control

The four "ingredients" must all be combined, in the correct amounts, with every home's interior before we experience the seamless comfort of a well-designed home conditioning system. The first factor, and by far the most important, is temperature control.

This concept is several steps beyond the conventional thermostat that some contractors hang on the wall and expect to miraculously keep their clients comfortable. The addition of variable-speed fans and weather-responsive boiler controls will vault your design, and client's satisfaction, to new heights.

We relish the thought of keeping up, rather than catching up, to the demands of the home. This process requires a slow, steady injection of BTUs into the environment to preserve the comfort. One of the best tools in our cold-climate arsenal is the use of radiant floor heating and radiant wall panels. Our ability to envelop our clients in the luxury of radiant bliss has kept a steady line of referrals knocking at our door.

It's hard to imagine a tile floor in New England without the wonder of radiant beckoning our feet to enjoy its warmth. The European wall panels that are so common in today's designs offer comparable comfort for rooms without radiant floors. When we use the weather-responsive water temperatures in these panels, the slow, steady BTU flow keeps our homeowners warm and content.

Dehumidification

The next factor is needed to minimize the latent moisture in August. The hot, humid summer days make the addition of central cooling a must in many homes. Keeping the space cool and dry makes the weather bearable but also helps eliminate mold issues that occur when the humidity is too high. The key to dehumidification is a proper design that is not oversized. The use of a variable-speed fan and two-stage exterior condensing unit helps wring the water from the air and remove a maximum amount of moisture.

Humidification

Factor three is a by-product of the cold, dry winters. Humidification is needed to raise the moisture levels of our homes to a comfortable level and help keep our floors and furnishings from self-destructing from seasonal moisture swings. This factor often tends to be the most neglected. The lack of moisture turns our bodies into "evaporative coolers" and leaves us chilled as the water is wicked away from our skin. The cold air entering our homes and heating up acts like a big sponge and sucks the moisture from our surroundings. A 70F room feels like 62F when the relative humidity is at 12%.

Air Quality

Last, but not least, is the air quality of the residence. With more people working at home, the focus on this feature is at an all-time high. We address the air quality with a battery of attachments. We start with a filter to get the larger particles from the air. We prefer high quality media filters as they require little maintenance and are easy to change.

The next phase is extreme filtration with a HEPA filter. This scrubs the tiny contaminants from the air and lowers the overall particle count. Ultraviolet air purification comes next and is used to eliminate the living organisms and even odors from the air. Even with highly filtered air, these critters float around and degrade the health of sensitive individuals. The final step is ventilation. We provide an exchange of air with the exterior using a heat recovery ventilator to ensure a supply of fresh air even after the doors and windows have been closed tight for months.

Packaging the Solution

Now you ask how we assemble all of this into one comfort system package. The answer is hydro-air.

We build the system around a water heating boiler that provides the BTU capacity for the residence's heating and domestic hot water needs. The boiler system also allows us to introduce our clients to the magic of hydronic heating. Now they have the option of radiant floors, towel warmers, pool heating, snow melting and enhanced comfort. The next step allows us to deliver factors two, three and four via a hydronic air handler. This is a blower with heating and cooling capacity that we connect to a duct system for space conditioning.

I know what you are thinking, "How can we provide the ultimate comfort system with a forced air system?" Remember the weather-responsive boiler control and variable-speed fans we mentioned earlier? Here is where they step to the plate and knock the ball over the Green Monster.

The variable-speed fan SLOWLY, and quietly, adds heat to the home and the modulating water temperatures make the system as close to constant circulation as we can come. We simply strap the humidifier and filters to the duct system, and voila, HVAC perfection 101.

As comfort experts, we owe it to the clients who ask for our assistance to broaden their horizons with a little HVAC theory. Their education will benefit you many times over as you are transformed from the "heating guy" to a "climate control specialist" in the eyes of your new salesperson (the homeowner).

By adding a little "hydronic harmony," we can satisfy the four factors of comfort and our new homeowners with one magical comfort system design.

Jim Patterson is senior vice president of Orchard Valley Technology, a contracting firm in Haydenville, MA. The company has won numerous Quality Home Comfort Awards from Contracting Business magazine.