Water Heaters in Space Heating and “The Codes”
I heard, years ago, that a Northern Minnesota College made a major addition to the campus and, instead of pouring sidewalks, they planted grass between all of the buildings. After a year, the architect looked at the paths worn in the grass and determined that was where the sidewalks ought to go. I thought it was brilliant. Rather than confine passers-by to the directions of a single “traffic engineer”, they allowed the natural course of things to develop.
I had the pleasure of speaking to a good many attendees at the Radiant Panel Association Conference in Denver during my break out session on “Water Heaters In Radiant Panel Systems”. Like me, many of them have been using storage water heaters as heat plants for a long time and with very good success. These devices are extremely reliable and surprisingly efficient. For many contractors, using a low cost storage water heater has made the competitive difference between a system sale, or losing out to forced air.
These contractors are sending a message to everyone in the industry. They're like a patch of grass worn away alongside a sidewalk that was too small or just didn’t match the will of the people who travel it. The message is that radiant panel heating can compete with forced air, and is not just for the “Rich and Famous”. The radiant panel heating industry is ready to move beyond the novelty stage into tract homes and multi-family units of all sizes. There is room to sell among the second and third tiers of customers, not as interested in “perceived value” as much as they are about common horse sense values. They prefer a Bic ® pen over a solid gold “writing instrument”.
We Americans love our freedom and don’t much care for rules. I believe that the major difference between an expert in Europe and an expert in North America is that the European knows and can abide by more rules than the common man, and the North American expert is one for which there are no rules. This is certainly evident in business. Europeans are overwhelmed with rules and regulations. These rules and regulations are there to “control the masses” and in doing so restrict freedom.
Guys who put water heaters in their radiant panel heating systems often need to confront the rules. Sometimes the rules are interpreted against the use of water heaters in space heating applications. There is nothing technically wrong with using a storage type water heater as a heat plant. In many and most of the applications, the unit experiences far less stress than in a typical domestic water system. Water heaters are arguably the safest appliances in the home. They are safe and durable because they are simple, understandable, and they make them by the tens of millions. Making safe and durable water heaters is profitable. Making unsafe water heaters is not. Economics rule!
It may be time to start building more efficient sidewalks to handle the increasing traffic. Codes and Standards that recognize the water heater as a heat plant and which streamline the approval process, will undoubtedly grow the radiant heating industry. Drafting and gaining approval for such concepts could be frustrating and difficult because there are lines drawn between the Plumbing and Mechanical industries. There are lines drawn within the codes, and within the structure of businesses. Plumbing and mechanical issues are handled separately by entirely different groups of people. Using a water heater in a space heating application crosses those lines a lot. Crossing the line is sometimes difficult as well as politically dangerous.
Most code officials and executives try to control things. They can be like traffic managers that connect the dots between A, B, and C according to their own ideas of how things ought to be. They fence in the grass so that no one can walk contrary to their plans. Once in a while though, like that architect in Minnesota, a guy comes along with a better approach, and the world is a little bit saner place.
Copyright Tesmar Application Technology 1996
Tom Tesmar is an industry consultant specializing in the field of emerging technology for plumbing and heating systems. Tesmar Application Technology, 595 Tower Road * Hudson, Wisconsin 54016 (715) 381-2967 FAX 715 381 2965 or firstname.lastname@example.org.