But there are some serious challengers to hydronic heating over there in the opposite corner of the ring, and some of these opponents aren't even products. Say hello to hydronic’s current opponents:
Furnaces: You probably sell furnaces so you don’t see them as a competitor to your business, or as any cause for concern, but when it comes to hydronics, the furnace is the main competition, and he’s a tough one. Most of America heats with furnaces and we can thank the furnace’s relatively low cost, as well as air conditioning, for that. The funny thing about furnaces, though, is that if you ask any given boiler manufacturer who their main competitor is, the person you’re asking will probably name another boiler manufacturer, rather than a furnace manufacturer. And this is another reason why there are so many furnaces out there. The hydronics community loves to punch itself in the face – over and over again.
Warm glass: Engineers have been heating airplane windows so pilots can see where they’re going since the days of World War II, but now a similar technology is emerging in dwelling windows. I saw these recently at a show and was astonished at the amount of heat that was flowing off the glass. The best part of this was that the outer glass – the part that faces the cold weather – was cool to the touch. Only the side by the people got warm. And there were no visible wires inside the glass. It looked just like, well, a window. But it got nice and warm. So a house that has these windows might not need radiators, or a boiler, or pipes, valves and fittings. Keep your eyes on this. It could be one serious competitor to hydronics. Interesting stuff.
Electric radiant: Electrically warmed mats that go under ceramic tile and other floor coverings have been around for years, and they do challenge hydronic radiant systems because the mats are less expensive to buy and easy to install. Some folks will continue to get antsy when it comes to stepping all wet and dripping out of a shower onto a floor that contains a heating pad, though, so time will tell with this competitor.
Electric space heaters: You won’t have to step on these with your bare, wet feet, and that makes them more appealing to some. Actually, they seem to be appealing to a lot of people these days. I recently emailed with a homeowner who was proud of his old steam-heating system from the turn of the 20th Century. He told me the antique boiler once burned coal, but someone had converted it to oil many years ago – so long ago, in fact, that the burner manufacturer was but a memory. This homeowner was creative, though, and he had parts manufactured in a machine shop so that he could keep his old system humming along at about 60-percent efficiency. He took great pride in this. I asked him how he could afford to run something so inefficient nowadays, with fuel prices being what they are, and he explained that he rarely ran the steam system, and opted instead for electric space heaters. He said, “You know, Dan, with fuel costing what it does, electricity is starting to look like a pretty good deal.”
Super insulation: Where I live on the Isle of Long, most people heat with oil and it now costs a thousand bucks to fill a 275-gallon heating-oil tank. And in a poorly insulated house, the owners are going to be filling that tank several times each heating season. This is why I think insulation is going to be more popular than ever in the coming years, and new houses are going to be super insulated. It just makes sense; you only have to buy insulation once. And when a house is super insulated, it needs less of a heating system. Consider that floor-heating systems can no longer justify their relatively high initial cost (compared to a furnace) when the overall fuel usage of the house is next to nothing because the house is well insulated. And this is where those warm windows begin to make lots of sense. With hydronics, we place the radiators under the windows. Why? Because the windows are cold. But suppose the windows are the radiators, and they didn’t need much power to operate because the house is so well insulated. What will that do to boiler sales? Stay tuned.
Air-to-air heat pumps: How much of a competitor to hydronics these devices are depends on how cold it gets outside because most air-to-air heat pumps need electric resistance heaters as a supplement. And that can get expensive. But then again, as the guy with the old steam system noted, with fuel prices being what they are, electricity is starting to look like a bargain.
I stayed in a Holiday Inn one frigid night in some horrible northern town and was miserable with their air-to-air heat pump because the stinking management had disconnected the electric resistance coils to save money. That cursed unit blew cold air on me all night long. To fight back, I ran the hair dryer that was permanently affixed to the bathroom wall all night long, and I kept the hot shower running to gather its Btus. So there!
The price of these heat pumps sure is attractive by comparison to hydronics, though, so I’ll place them on a stool on the other side of the ring and we’ll watch what happens as the price of oil and gas rises.
Ground-source heat pumps: A wholly different animal, this one, and I think we’re going to be seeing more and more wells going deep into the ground – down there where the earth is a constant temperature and there is “free” heat to be had. While certainly more expensive than hydronics to install, ground-source heat pumps do deliver comfort at a low price once they’re up and running, and the green movement loves to tout them as being friendly to the earth, so probably sooner than later, ground-source heat pumps will impact the boiler business. It’s a good time to learn more about them.
Passive solar: Sunlight streaming though windows plays very well with a well-built, super-insulated house. I’m reading a lot about this, and again, much of it is coming from the green builders. Watch how they site these new homes to take full advantage of the free heat that arrives most days from the sun. They’ll study the land, like Tiger Woods lining up a putt, and then they’ll position the house just so. The glass (perhaps the heated glass?) will pass the warmth onto the stone floors or walls, which, once warmed, hold the heat and radiate the warmth back within that super-insulated house to keep the people cozy, and for not a lot of money. So who needs hydronics?
Product failure: It’s hard to go to market with two black eyes. In Seattle, the news media buzzes over a number of open radiant systems in a certain housing development. These systems have failed miserably, resulting in a class-action lawsuit that has made the legal profession salivate. These open radiant systems ran at high temperature, and they leaked like a litter of nervous puppies. And in the age of the Internet, lots of people are learning that radiant hydronics, when done poorly, can cause quite a mess, and cost plenty to fix. So next time, maybe they’ll opt for that furnace.
The housing crisis: I saved what might be the toughest competitor of all for last. In that corner, all big, muscular, and ugly, we have the American housing crisis. With fewer homes being built, and with lot of people out of work, there are going to be fewer heating systems of all sorts going in. And if ever there was a time to think, and to plan your next move, it’s now.