Water-Powered Green: Hydronic Heating Systems

Green Remodeler Sylvain Cote; from the firm Absolute Green Homes in South Salem, N.Y., is an NAHB, Certified Green Professional and avid installer of hydronic heating systems.

January 31, 2009

Top: Climate Trak grips the company's tubing to prevent air gaps or loss of direct contact between the tubing and the snap channel.
Right: Climate Trak plates fit under the floor between floor joists in this installation to securely grip Viega's Pextron tubing without the need for messy glues or sealants.
Image and diagram courtesy of Viega

Côté heads a firm which handles a variety of projects that include additions and new green homes. But Absolute Green Homes specializes in high-end interior remodeling, such as kitchens, bathrooms, and basements as well as custom built-ins, bars, wine cellars and even furniture. When it comes to planning and executing these jobs, Côté recommends hydronic systems on most flooring situations. “Overall it can be cheaper to heat the whole house using hydronic heat than your electric-forced heat systems. We love it, and our customers love it. You can keep the thermostat down a few more degrees and still not feel any colder,” he says. It's very critical to note, says Côté, that proper insulation is required to really pull the job off well. “We use lots of spray foam insulation,” he admits.

The main advantage of hydronic systems, according to manufacturers, is that rather than blow heated air through the room, heat is emitted from surfaces that are constantly in contact with the heat source. Also, says Côté, because the air doesn't become overheated when generated hydronically, maintaining humidity at a comfortable level is easy. Simply put, a more efficient system results in lower running costs.

Côté and Absolute Green Homes use hydronic products from Viega. “We use Viega's Climate Trak panels. We go through that 5/16-inch PEX tubing system. It's not like a pour method.”

These are panels that we use under wood floors. If they want to use tiles, we'll just do a mud job over the plywood as opposed to the staple-up,” he says. With the Climate Trak, tracks (which are made in 4- or 8-foot lengths) and tubing are installed separately, so there is no struggle with the tubing while the fastening is taking place. Holes are pre-drilled, and snap-in grooves maximize contact between the aluminum and the PEX tubing for an efficient heat transfer.

The firm handles a healthy amount of staple-up flooring jobs or running tubes below the upstairs floor. Retrofitting a hydronic system on a second floor in particular (such as under the bathroom tiles or on the wood flooring in the hall) can be the exact opposite of fun. After all, you're probably not going to be able to get at the second-floor joists from below — unless you're fond of tearing apart the entire house — so the tubing must go in from above.

This, unfortunately, can add ½ inch to 1¼ inches to the floor grade. But Côté and his crews are masters at the technique. Just about any flooring will do when it comes to this method. Obviously your homeowners will feel it a bit quicker if you put in linoleum, but good, old-fashioned hardwoods such as oak or maple work well so long as the planks are narrow. This helps to prevent any problems from natural expansion and contraction. Even carpeting will work, so long as the work doesn't exceed R-3.

Both installation methods provide Côté and his firm with a valuable revenue stream. “Sometimes you have to remove some Sheetrock or whatever. When we happen to be refinishing a basement I'll ask a homeowner if they'd like some heat on the upstairs floors too,” explains Côté. “I say, for a few thousand more, I can do upstairs. And a lot of times they say 'Really?,' and then I tell them about a staple-up system.”

If you have ideas or comments, e-mail Nick Bajzek at nicholas.bajzek@reedbusiness.com.

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