Heat Wave: Electric Radiant Heat

By Debbie McClung | Mar 15, 2012
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For most of us, winter draws to a close around March. But impressions of cold and icy conditions still may be fresh in the minds of home- and business owners. They may be ready for warmth under foot and snow-free pavement. While Mother Nature is preparing to deliver on those desires, the installation of electric radiant heat technologies may provide cost-efficient and labor-saving alternatives to cranking up the thermostat or clearing the driveway when winter rolls around again.

Although the list of installers includes contractors as diverse as plumbing/heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) professionals to flooring contractors, many industry experts believe electrical contractors may have the best vantage point to capitalize on the multitude of electric radiant heat opportunities.

Efficient heat alternative
Electric radiant heating systems involve supplying heat directly to flooring, wall panels and interior and exterior overhead construction. The systems depend largely on the transfer of heat directly to people and objects. Rather than heating the air, radiant heat provides warmth by transferring heat from a warm surface to a cool surface through infrared radiation.

Most commonly known for employing a mesh system or coils embedded under tile flooring in kitchens and bathrooms, the technology—in the form of ceiling and wall-mounted radiant panels—is capable of supplementing existing heating systems or supplying entire homes in even in the coldest climates. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, radiant heating provides a number of advantages, including more efficiency than baseboard or forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts. The lack of moving air can also be advantageous to people with severe allergies.

Residential electric radiant heat isn’t limited to interior applications. It can be installed in driveways, walkways, roofs and gutters; embedded electrical grids, cables, woven mats and panels assist in melting any snow and ice.

Widely used in Scandinavia, electric radiant heat is often the sole source of indoor warmth. Advocates, such as Steve Bench, with Murray, Utah-based Heatizon Systems, say awareness in North America has been slower due in part to a lack of consumer education and some common misconceptions often rooted in old pricing equations between electricity and natural gas costs.

“Unlike others around the world, many American and Canadian citizens falsely believe products that operate off of electricity are more expensive to operate than similar products that operate off of a combination of natural gas, fuel oil, wood chips and electricity. While their position is correct in some cases, it is seriously flawed much of the time. When maintenance expenses are brought into the analysis, the argument for electric radiant products become even more compelling,” Bench said.

Additionally, many jurisdictions are implementing time-of-day pricing, which decreases electricity costs to overnight rates that are less than daytime rates. Taking advantage of these prices using thermal storage principals can make electric radiant heating significantly less expensive than gas or oil.

Industry anticipates growth
Although recent industry figures are not available, the Radiant Professionals Alliance (RPA), Baldwinsville, N.Y., formerly known as the Radiant Panel Association, reported that electric radiant heat sales grew by 150 percent between 2006 and 2008. In 2006, sales of electric radiant heat technologies reached 6.1 million square feet. By 2008, that number surpassed 9 million square feet.

According to Kurt Neuswanger, North American regional manager for OJ Electronics, Arlington Heights, Ill., a global manufacturer of controls for electric floor heating and ice/snow melt applications, research has shown that only 5 percent of Americans know of radiant heat’s ability to warm their floors.

“Market penetration is growing in the flooring industry with new construction increasingly offering floor heating as an option in builder designs and, in some circumstances, as an included component of construction,” Neuswanger said.

“In order for our industry to realize its potential, all participants must become better educated in the design, installation and appropriate application of electric radiant heating and snow-melting products.

Installation related problems are the No. 1 reason that electric radiant products fail to satisfy its customer’s desires and expectations,” Bench said.

While the market for radiant heat technologies slowed with the housing collapse, the demand for roof and pavement snow and ice melting and floor warming has increased over the past two years.

“The market for radiant heating and snow-melting products has not realized its potential and will ultimately increase in market share as the benefits become widely known,” Bench said.

Kathleen Mihelich, director of the RPA and International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO), Ontario, Calif., is equally optimistic, saying that an improving economy and a strategic realignment of radiant industry leaders is designed to help galvanize residential and commercial demand. The RPA officially announced that it joined the IAPMO last December.

“Contractors’ span of influence is far greater now that the RPA is with IAPMO,” she said.

Smart controls
One of the newest and most significant developments in electric radiant heat technology since 2008 has been the advent of sophisticated controls. Product offerings today include programmable and nonprogrammable electrical floor-heating controls and power modules that are UL-listed and meet Class A ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) requirements to carry 15-ampere (A) loads. Consumers can also select from programmable and nonprogrammable ice/snow melt controllers for roofing, gutters and under-pavement ice melt applications.

“The continual improvement in the quality, ease of installation, and user-friendliness of floor-warming thermostats providing ground-fault protection is a significant development. The UDG-4999 Intuit thermostat for floor warming from OJ Electronics is our thermostat of choice,” said Ed Witte, an electrical engineer for Wauconda, Ill.-based Delta-Therm Corp.

Wireless technologies are gaining a foothold as well. With wireless capability in a central controller, an entire floor-heating system can be adjusted from a single location. Wireless controls can help lower energy consumption and provide the benefit of working the system remotely from equipped mobile phones.

For homeowners or commercial customers who have an application of electric radiant heat to replace a furnace, OJ Electronics’ Neuswanger is quick to caution that the technology will typically be an add-on product to an existing forced-air system.

“The EC needs to be aware of that there are differences between a regular forced air thermostat/HVAC thermostat and a thermostat for electric radiant floor heating,” Neuswanger said.

According to Neuswanger, the electric radiant floor heating thermostat does the following:

• Typically controls floor temperature versus room temperature (comfort heating)
• Is connected to load (up to 15A and increased in 15A increments with additional power modules) versus an HVAC thermostat that is connected only to a very small load
• Is supplied by line voltage versus low voltage for HVAC thermostats
• Has built-in Class A GFCI/GFI protection versus HVAC thermostats, which have none

Positioning for future growth
While many industry experts believe electrical contractors are in a unique position to capitalize on the requirements and benefits of installing electric radiant heat technologies, the opportunities are not being readily embraced.

“I don’t believe that electric contractors are taking advantage of the opportunities and are losing opportunities. On occasion we work on projects where no one knows who is bidding the electric resistance heating products because it was written into a mechanical section. The mechanical contractor thinks it’s electric and didn’t bid it, and the [electrical] contractor completely missed it in the bid documents,” said Ada Cryer, customer support manager, Delta-Therm Corp.

Neuswanger recommended researching applications and installation methods, such as those that can be found in the RPA Radiant Flooring Guide.

Heatizon’s Bench echoed the advice and concluded, “Electrical contractors interested in branching out into electric radiant heat and snow melting would be well advised to align themselves with a manufacturer or other expert in the field who can teach them the business and assist them in proper installation and problem identification/solution techniques.”

MCCLUNG, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa. She can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

Debbie McClung, owner of Woodland Communications, is a construction writer from Iowa.

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