What's the future of hydronics?
Growing up on the Isle of Long, I thought everyone in the world had oil-fired, hot-water heat. I thought this because my world was a boy's world and everyone in that world had hydronics. I had no need, and no desire, to look any further than my town in those days. It just was what it was. I played in the basement, where the boiler fascinated me. I fiddled with the draft regulator and liked the clanking sound it made. I used my father's screwdriver to move the small iron cover over the peephole so I could show my buddies the flame. I popped the relief valve, even though I had no idea what it was. I lived in Boy World.
My father worked for a wholesaler in New York City, and then a rep here on the Isle of Long. I went to work as his assistant in 1970, and that's when I became convinced that everyone in America had hydronic heat. I was surprised to learn that some of it fired gas rather than oil. That was different from the way it was in my little neighborhood, but so be it.
We sold steam- and hot-water equipment and I fell in love with all of it. There was a wonderful history to it, and that history grabbed me with two sweet arms and held me. I loved the boilers, the pumps, the steam traps, the air vents, all the old and the new. I couldn't get enough of it.
I lived that way for 19 years - consumed by the hydronics - and then I started this little company of ours and went out on the road to see the rest of America. I traveled New England and Pennsylvania and found much of what I knew and loved. I found it in most of the older cities of America, but when I traveled through the rest of the country, and it is a big country, I began to realize that there were furnaces in America, and not much oil heat beyond the Northeast. I wondered about this and I asked a lot of questions of the folks that I met. I began to look at the statistics in the U.S. Census, and what I learned was that hydronics plays but a tiny role in American heating. Someone told me it was about eight percent of the total - crumbs.
I could not understand this because I believed that hydronics offers superb comfort. I had grown up with steam (in NYC), and hot-water (on Long Island). We had no central air-conditioning, or even window air-conditioners. We had a floor fan. We also had drafty houses and oversized boilers and radiators. We had parents who smoked several packs a day and lousy indoor air quality, but that was just the way it was. It was normal.
Working for the rep who sold hydronic equipment, I saw furnaces as my enemy. When I started writing, I gleefully used the term "scorched air" in my columns and books, and that term caught on. I don't use it anymore because the furnace people have come a long way, and I've learned a bit. Not so bad.
I held out hope for a long time, though. I smiled at the seeming resurgence of the radiant-heating industry when it popped back up 20 years ago. This is it!, I said. I traveled to the big ISH show in Frankfurt, Germany in 1991 and saw plenty of radiant. I believed that the whole world was going that way. I talked it up. Wrote a book about it, and I waited.
But it really never happened. Sure, people bought radiant for their high-end homes, but it wasn't the revolution for which I had hoped. Before long, radiant became mainstream as contractors learned more about how it worked. Pex pipe became a commodity, like copper, and it lost its buzz.
Today, radiant is just another option in the hydronic mix. Hydronics neither grows nor shrinks. It just stays where it's been for the past 40 years, at least when it comes to American homes. It's peanuts.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development did a survey in 2009 and they found that there are 130,112,000 residential housing units in the U.S. and that 86 percent of these homes have people living in them. Sixty-eight percent of those people own their homes.
I thought these statistics were interesting: Fifty-one percent of the homes in the U.S. are in suburban areas; 29 percent are in central cities; and only 20 percent are outside the metropolitan areas.
The median age of American homes is 36 years - half are older; half are younger, and two-thirds of all American homes have furnaces.
Twelve percent have electric heat pumps.
Only 11 percent have a steam- or hot-water heating system.
After all these years of promoting hydronics in all its forms, American homeowners continue to say Ho-Huml and buy their furnaces.
You know why? It's the air-conditioning. Hydronics is the path of most resistance because it calls for two systems. I know all the arguments by heart, but homeowners just don't buy them, and neither do the builders.
So I'm watching the hydronic-equipment manufacturers as they lean further away from the residential market and move more toward the commercial market, and I think they've very smart to be doing this.
I'm watching the boilers that can heat a house, sure, but these new boilers can also link like freight cars with other boilers of the same type to meld into commercial systems that have remarkable turn-down ratios. These boilers remind me of how Google uses ordinary PCs (but tens of thousands of them, working together) to do amazing things. The modern-boiler people know what they're doing, and I think their eyes are on the commercial market and not the residential.
I'm watching the ECM pumps arrive from every pump manufacturer, but I think the focus here is also on the commercial side because that's where the money is, and that's where these smart pumps make the most sense. This is a smart move.
I'm reading articles about how more and more people are storing data in the "cloud," that place in cyberspace where we store our Google Docs and all the other things that live on servers. I'm watching social networking and how that's changing the way we deal with one another. I'm reading these articles and they're telling me about how the server facilities use a lot of energy, but also give off a huge amount of heat. In some countries, that heat is flowing into district-heating systems that heat downtowns, railroad stations, and even small homes. All of that heat is moving by way of pumps and control valves through pipes, and this is big stuff. This is hydronics.
I'm reading about large geothermal plants that are moving hot water and chilled water into district systems, and this is hydronics.
I'm watching the world change, and it's happening fast. I've come to believe that the true future of hydronics is commercial. I think that the residential business will continue to be a profitable, non-growth business - mainly one of replacement. I think that the trade will decide what gets replaced with what because the days of replacing like with like are over. Trades people are making that call these days, and if you are a manufacturer and you want to get this business, you had better get as close as you can to the trade. These folks buy from people they know and like. If you're out of touch with them, you're going to lose.
Finally, i think that if you are a hydronic manufacturer who is looking to grow, you need to look toward geothermal, solar thermal (on a large scale), and district heating, because that is where the future lies.
Time will tell, but that 11% piece of the residential heating pie hasn't gotten any larger for hydronics since the 1950s. I don't see anything coming that's going to change that.
The future of hydronics is commercial.