Don't be afraid of the water. That's the message from Dave Yates, owner of F.W. Behler, York, PA, and John Barba, contractor training and trade program manager, TACO, Cranston, RI.

“The 2009 HVAC Comfortech show made me think about the whole concept of hydronics,” Barba says. “Too often, people think it's an either-or proposition. That's why calling something hydronics and calling everything else HVAC sets hydronics over there as something weird and different, and it's not. The H in HVAC stands for heating, and hydronics is just a different way of making that H.”

It's also more efficient, adds Yates.

“I can transfer 40,000 Btus through half-inch PEX tubing, and I would need a pretty big chunk of real estate to move that much heat from one area of a building to another with ductwork, Yates says. “PEX has made our work very easy when it comes to snaking tubes through a building, plus I don't cut my hands the way I do with sheet metal.”

According to Yates, hydronic radiant heating is also more comfortable and cleaner than forced air heat: you're not blowing dust and dander around the home, drafts are minimized, and the “characteristic heating curves” of radiant heating and the human body are almost an exact match.

“One of the reasons radiant heating is so comfortable is that it most closely matches the way our bodies lose heat,” Yates says. “It also keeps the warmest temperatures within six feet of the floor. Forced air systems tend to pack the warmest air up by the ceiling.”

Yates and Barba both point out that contractors who are interested in adding hydronics to their offerings don't have to jump out of the forced air business to do so. In fact, the most comfortable and efficient systems often integrate hydronics and traditional HVAC technology.

“Adding hydronics is as simple as deciding to make heat with water. The delivery system for that heat can be whatever the contractor and customer want it to be: a hot water coil and ductwork, radiators, towel warmers, in-floor or staple-up systems, or a mixture of all of them,” Barba says.

The Complete Package

Adding hydronics to a business can open the door to other technologies. According to Yates, a background in radiant lets you easily blend solar thermal, geothermal and various forms of hydronic heating sources into any system. “It gives you the ability to pull all those things together and create a complete package for your customers,” Yates says.

And the technology continues to advance. “People are going to be blown away by some of the new technologies coming out over the next few years,” Yates adds. “As one example, there's a high-efficiency mini-split just hitting the U.S. market that targets a number of needs inside the house. A single condenser provides domestic hot water, radiant floor heating, and hydroair heating and cooling via mini-splits on the walls that work with the refrigerant cycle for cooling, and can incorporate a hot water coil for heating side. It's like a small commercial chiller for residential.” (See sidebar above.)

Barba agrees, and says hydronics provides easy entry into the alternative energy market.

The government is making it very enticing for end users to look at technology such as solar and geothermal,” he says. “Geothermal done properly can be a fantastic way to heat and cool a home. Solar for domestic hot water and photovoltaics is another thing contractors should be looking into. You can design a solar system that heats domestic water and that can handle a home's heating load down to about 40F virtually for free.”

This is all available without a huge investment in new people or additional training, Yates and Barba add.

“The skill set from traditional HVAC is very transferrable,” Barba says. “There's a little bit of terminology and some hands on skills in terms of sweating pipes or putting PEX together, but it's not rocket science. If a guy is good with his hands and can put together a forced air system, he's more than capable of putting in a boiler and a hot water coil. If you can figure out cfm, you can figure out gpm. If you can figure out ductwork and fans, you can figure out piping and pumps.”

Zen and the Art of Increased Profits

What can HVAC contractors who are willing to integrate hydronics into their offering expect? More work and more profits, Yates says. “They'll be able to offer their customers a one-stop shop. They'll be able to increase their bottom line because the work they'll be doing will have a higher dollar value, and a higher dollar value typically equates to more profit, because you're still making the same margin.”

What's the first step? Barba suggests a “zen” approach. “Empty your mind of the things you already know,” he says. “Integrating hydronics is a way for HVAC contractors to broaden what they can offer to their customers, and broaden it very easily.”

Dave Yates is the owner of F.W. Behler, Inc., a 110-year-old, third-generation plumbing, heating and air conditioning firm in York, PA. He can be reached at 717/843-4920, or by e-mail at dyates@fwbehler.com.

John Barba is contractor training and trade program manager, TACO, Cranston, RI. He can be reached at 952/237-5230, or by e-mail at johbar@taco-hvac.com.

This article is based on “Integrating Hydronics Into HVAC Systems,” which Dave Yates and John Barba presented during HVAC Comfortech 2009, in Nashville, TN.

HVAC Comfortech 2010 will be presented Sept. 22-24, in Baltimore, MD. Visit www.hvacrweek.com for additional information.

RPA Membership a Plus

Contractors interested in incorporating hydronics into their business structure should consider joining the Radiant Panel Association (RPA), says Dave Yates, owner, F.W. Behler, Inc, York, PA. Yates is a member of the RPA's board of directors.

“The RPA has some absolutely outstanding technical literature, but more importantly they have good training,” Yates says. “It's an excellent resource for hydronics contractors at all levels of experience.”

Yates recommends visiting the RPA's website, www.radiantpanelassociation.org, for more information. The association's next meeting will be in Reno, NV, May 5-8, 2010.

New Air-to-Water Heat Pump an Example of Innovative Technology

Dave Yates, owner of F.W. Behler, York, PA, says the hydronics-based technology coming out in the next year or two will “blow people away.” He cited the Daikin Altherma air-to-water heat pump system as one example. He hasn't yet installed such a system; however, Jacobs Heating & Air Conditioning, Portland, OR, recently completed the first U.S. installation of the Altherma at a 1,820 sq.ft. residence in Portland.

The Altherma is an all-in-one, year-round heating, cooling and domestic hot water supply system. The system consists of a closed circuit containing R-410A refrigerant. A thermodynamic cycle is created through evaporation, condensation, compression, and expansion. A heat pump then pumps the heat from a low to a high temperature level. The heat raised is transferred to the water distribution system (under floor heating, low temperature radiators and/ or fan coil units) in the home via a heat exchanger. Depending on the model and the conditions, the Daikin Altherma air-to-water heat pump delivers between 3 and 5 kWh of usable heat for every 1 kWh of electricity it uses.

The Altherma can be configured for use in both new and refurbishment applications, and connects to standard low temperature radiators, underfloor heating systems, or fan coil units. In combination with a solar thermal set-up, the Altherma uses thermal energy from the sun to raise the temperature of domestic hot water, cutting on both CO emissions and operating costs. The unit can be configured for space heating only; space heating and domestic hot water production; space heating and domestic hot water production with solar space heating; and space cooling, space heating, space cooling, and domestic hot water production.

For the full story on the installation, visit www.jacobsheating.com/press.