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The general consensus since our last heating season preview seems to reflect the industry’s continued slow but steady transition to comfort systems. These systems feature designs that have allowed for a tighter grasp over enhanced humidity controls and air quality. What’s more, some of the new modes of remote temperature control and weather interfacing have been proven to be more economically sound, not to mention, safer for the people who have to use them every day. What’s pushing these capabilities into the forefront? The availability of designs to manufacturers and expansive training for contractors.
Trends and forecast
Overall, many say we lucked out with a relatively mild winter last year, but are currently cranking up the efficient boilers in preparation for a cold winter. Boilers, for one, have continued to push the molds of design around comfort and efficiency.
For example, the new fire-tube design of modulating condensing boilers — which has been around for a while — has become more accessible to manufacturers due to the original design’s patent expiration. This design has proven to sustain efficiency at lower inputs, which is why manufacturers have incorporated it into their products.
“The nice thing about this particular product is that it has a higher turndown ratio,” said Mark Eatherton, technical director of Radiant Professionals Alliance (RPA). “They now have turn down ratios 10 to 1 as opposed to originally having turndown ratios of 20 to 1. So, they are able to sustain high efficiency at lower inputs than previously possible.”
“Around here, we see people looking for energy efficiency, including radiant and boilers. With some of the systems we’ve been using, you can get up to 40 percent savings, which is huge. I think there is an urgency, because of the drop in oil prices, which is still substantial enough,” said Derek Moore, president of Reissmann Plumbing & Heating Inc.
As was iterated through correspondence with some of the industry’s leading voices, it seems that the Wi-Fi connected systems, including boilers, have been kicking into higher gear.
“Love them or hate them, Wi-Fi enabled smart thermostats still have the ‘wow factor’ for system owners,” said Bob Rohr, PHC News columnist and training and education manager at Caleffi. “Let’s face it, we live in a digital age. Manufacturers of HVAC need to keep that in the forefront of any control design.”
Wi-Fi capability is projected to extend beyond the breach of boilers as the functionality applies to a whole host of heating system management. Also, systems currently being used can always be more fine-tuned the more they are put to use in the field.
Eatherton said, “The Wi-Fi connection to these boilers is bringing about the opportunity of knowing about a problem before it becomes a major issue in residential operations, and also commercial operations. I think we will see a change in trends in the near future to include more Wi-Fi active heating sources. Whether it’s a boiler, a ground source heat pump, etc., it’s just proliferation of a technology that has been around for a long time that is just now being adapted to those situations.”
Folks are also seeing an extension of PC-based home and building energy management systems, which have been transforming into controls that are more available for everyone.
“Again, this not something that is new, but it’s slowly boiling its way to the surface and has finally taken a good shape in the form of commercially-available control logics that are PC-based and internet-active, and that also have the ability to notify the contractor or the homeowner if there are any problems to the components in the field,” Eatherton said.
Finally, there seems to be more room to grow in the area of savvy control logics that are interfaced to the National Weather Service so that drastic changes in the environment can be detected and addressed earlier. Currently, the majority of controls on the market do not address drastic weather change.
“The [weather interfacing] basically allows the controls to work in a proactive mode, as opposed to working only in a reactive mode. The majority of controls that are on the market are a reactive type of control, which means they can’t anticipate anything coming down the road,” Eatherton said. “New controls that are interfaced into the National Weather Service have the ability to anticipate major changes and can start making them prior to actual physical change occurring on site.”
On the commercial side, designers and installers are noticing a trend towards thermally-activated slab systems and dedicated outdoor air system (DOAS) technology, which have demonstrated tremendous savings through field-testing.
Eatherton commented: “Within this realm, the control of relative humidity is extremely important. ASHRAE and a number of manufacturers have already proven that it is technically and economically viable. There is confirmed energy savings of between 30 and 50 percent in field studies. That reduction is the cost of operation of a full forced air system versus a combination radiant cooling/downsize airbase system.”
In the retrofitting and remodeling sectors, building owners seem to be pushing for more options when it comes to radiant and hydronic systems that allow for efficiency, comfort and cost savings.
“Building owners are open to new technologies and different distribution options. Radiant and hydronics should come up in every conversation when redoing systems,” Rohr said.
Heating education gone mainstream
Though methods of installation in retrofitting and remodeling have been very similar for many years, what has changed the most is the training and accessibility of learning the ins and outs of new systems.
“[There are] competent installers and people who want to learn. This is a good thing for our industry. There are more classes available for new techs,” Moore said. “It is encouraging that actual learning has become more mainstream.”
RPA, for example, provides training through internet-based learning opportunities and will shortly offer ASSE-certification training programs in a live classroom setting. The ASSE Standard 19210 certification program is to certify installers of hydronic heating and cooling systems.
“It is a 24-hour face-to-face course, and eventually we hope to pair it down to 16 hours of face-to-face training with eight hours of online training as a prerequisite. And we are doing that to avoid taking up too much of the contractor’s time,” Eatherton said.
This certification is good for three years until recertification. Certified contractors will be able to demonstrate and apply what they learn from ASSE-certified installations of hydronic and cooling systems, which include radiant and more.
Eatherton explained, “This is an important distinction to make because most previous programs focused on strictly radiant heating applications. This new certification is hydronic certification for heating and cooling, which includes radiant and convective.”
There are many outlets of education for contractors in this industry, and it’s important that contractors not feel limited.
“They should pursue as much education as their brains can handle! Look around at the various design and glossy home magazines; see what is trending and being installed. Figure out what customers are spending money on. Then learn it, become an expert and create distance from competitors,” Rohr said.
It was interesting to see what heating industry experts thought about some of the recent heating projects they admired and thought were successful and cutting-edge, which include everything from solar to radiant.
“I most admire jobs that include RE components. Solar, even as simple as some passive, should be included in every proposal,” Rohr said.
Moore, a leading explorer of radiant capabilities, discussed a recent radiant floor installation that particularly stuck with him.
He explained, “Recently we looked at a job where the radiant floor in a long glass hallway was installed incorrectly and without taking up the floor (only a 1-inch space under it). It was only noticeable when the temps reached below 40 degrees. I worked out the heat loss of the space, and I was able to calculate the amount of heat missing. We added low profile radiant baseboard panels, which will be blended into the molding to make up the difference. It will look like it never happened once it is finished. We will put it in as a second stage for colder days.”
Challenges and opportunities ahead
One of the challenges ahead is service providers making energy upgrades. Weather and fuel tend to be the main driver of this decision.
“Buyers tend to put off energy upgrades and equipment replacement when fuel costs are low. It is a catch-22. We all like low cost energy, but it does affect HVAC customers, installers and manufacturers’ projections and the bottom line,” Rohr said.
In the heating world, opportunities are available to those who are thinking critically about the systems they design and install.
“I think that training of contractors is really critical. There are a lot of people out there installing radiant that do not understand hydronics,” Eatherton said. “As our industry friend John Siegenthaler said, ‘Trying to do radiant without understanding hydronics is similar to trying to do calculus without understanding basic mathematics.’”
Moore added, “Don’t touch the job until you understand it. You have to keep your eyes open; there are opportunities under every rock.”