by Jeff Alexander

Hydronic heating has experienced a surge in activity this past year. According to the Hydronics Institute Division of GAMA, cast iron boiler shipments in 2003 increased 11.3% over 2002. This was the best year for boiler shipments since statistics were first recorded by The Hydronics Institute, Inc. in 1968.

Most boiler sales continue to be for replacement applications. However, new market opportunities for hydronic heating have steadily emerged over the past 10 years. What are these market opportunities? Why are they occurring? What can the heating contractor do to take advantage of them? And, now, what is the industry doing to help you?

First, opportunities exist in the new housing and retrofit markets, where, in the past, only general contractors in certain parts of the northeast United States used boilers as original heating equipment in new homes. Now, as people become more aware of comfort, they're beginning to demand better heating systems for their new homes. In addition, many homeowners are converting existing heating systems to hydronic heating.

These new systems are of several types:

Radiant heating has grown tremendously in North America in the past 15 years. With radiant heating systems, heated water is pumped throughout the house through synthetic tubing placed in or under floors, walls, and ceilings. Radiant panels are also becoming popular for specific areas of the home. They're clean, evenly controlled, and create extremely comfortable indoor environments.

As market awareness grows, more contractors are offering these systems to customers.

Hydro-air systems are hybrid systems that combine hydronic and forced air heat. The heart of the system is a boiler that produces heat for several types of heat distributors located throughout the house. Hot water coils are placed in duct work for forced air heat.

In addition, hydronic loops can be placed in selected rooms of the home. These loops can be connected to radiant tubing, radiant panels, cast iron, or fin tube baseboard or conventional radiators. The contractor and the homeowner can determine which areas of the house are best suited to a specific type of heat distribution.

Heating for these areas can be individually zoned and controlled with separate thermostats. These systems are being retrofitted into existing homes and designed for use in new homes.

Boiler heated homes have another advantage. Domestic hot water can be provided by the boiler and an indirect fired water heater. These heaters operate like a heating zone. When the water heater calls for heat, boiler water flows from the boiler through a heat exchanger in the water heater to heat domestic water.

These water heaters are available in many sizes from about 30 to 119 gal. The first hour recovery of indirect fired water heaters is very high when compared to conventional water heaters.

As demand grows for more hot water to satisfy homeowner's use of showers as well as hot tubs, dishwashers, and washing machines, the indirect-fired water heater offers a highly efficient option for the contractor to consider.

Snow melt systems for walks and driveways are also becoming more popular. They can be used for commercial as well as domestic applications. Snow melt systems are a perfect addition to homes and businesses that use hydronic heating.

Other Opportunities

In addition to demand for homeowner comfort, new business opportunities for the heating contractor are being driven by several other factors. Interest rates are very low.

Many homeowners are replacing their heating systems because affordable money is available now. What may be a required replacement in five years is currently being contracted for now. These economic conditions also make it easier for contractors to add additional work to boiler replacements and turn them into heating system upgrades.

The U.S. government is making consumers aware of more efficient boilers through their Energy Star Program. Installations of more efficient boilers, especially condensing gas boilers, have surged in growth over the past few years.

As fuel costs continue to be unstable, homeowners are replacing older boilers, which may have 10 or more years of life remaining, but are 75% or less efficient, with new high efficient models that have AFUE's of 85% or higher. This means new business opportunities for contractors.

Another factor that has helped the hydronic heating business grow in the North American market is the European influence on our equipment. Radiant tubing, stylish radiant panels, towel warmers, sophisticated controls, and indirect-fired water heaters all started in Europe, long before they were made available in North America.

In fact, 95% or more of Europe is heated with hydronic equipment. Fuel is more expensive there, so developing more efficient heating equipment is essential. European companies design and sell condensing gas and oil-fired boilers to meet the demand for higher energy efficiency. We're really just starting to sell high efficiency, condensing gas boilers in North America.

There are plenty of new business opportunities for the contractor who is ready to meet growing demands for hydronic heating.

To help those unfamiliar with new and developing hydronic heating methods, many equipment manufacturers offer dedicated and generic training. This training is available at seminars, in workbooks, and in other materials on CD-rom. Contractors should contact heating equipment manufacturers and ask them what training materials are available.

You can also learn about hydronic heating by using Dan Holohan's Wall on his website www.heatinghelp.com. This format allows contractors to pose questions and other contractors can comment. Problems are solved and new opportunities evolve.

Trade associations offer training as well. The Radiant Panel Association offers informative materials and seminars on radiant heating, More information is available on their website at www.radiantpanelassociation.org.

The Hydronics Institute Division of GAMA has recently reintroduced its I=B=R schools to teach the fundamentals of hydronic heating, including system design and installation. These schools are generic and are offered in cities across the U.S. More information is available on its website, found at www.gamanet.org/seminars/seminars.htm.

I can't think of a better time for contractors to increase their business with the opportunities offered by the growth of the hydronics industry. The new business is there for the contractors who want it.

Jeff Alexander is vice president of PB Heat, LLC, New Berlinville, PA. He is also the current chairman of the Hydronics Institute Div. of GAMA. Jeff can be reached at alexanderj@pbheat.com.