Radiant Hydronics in San Diego
San Diego's 'Solution' for Radiant
When you hear about radiant floor heating systems, you might think of a chateau in the Colorado Mountains or a remodelled mid-century ranch house in Seattle. But, believe it or not, radiant isn’t just for structures in the Northern sections of our country. It’s also enjoying popularity in areas with much milder, more temperate climates.
Just ask Scott Hall, owner of Radiant Solutions, Inc. of San Diego, Calif. Hall has been a radiant installer for 28 years and found that even during the challenging economic downturn that hit residential housing the hardest, homeowners in this metropolitan area were still interested in adding the comfort of radiant floor heating in specific areas of their homes or even for entire residential structures.
Before it was Cool
Born and raised in Colorado, Hall learned about radiant floor heating from his grandfather who owned a plumbing business: “At the time, they were doing coal-fired boilers with radiant baseboard for residential heating,” he said. “My grandfather decided to put radiant floor heating in a shop he was building. He made a big grid of steel pipe and ran heated water through it. The system effectively heated his entire shop — even in temperatures at 30 or 40 degrees below zero.”
That system in his grandfather’s shop intrigued Hall, so he set out to learn everything he could about radiant floor heating systems.
“I started to do some research on radiant floor heating to find the right product to put in my house when it came time to build my own home,” he said. “At that point, there was no PEX [crosslinked polyethylene] for radiant floor heating, so typical products included copper and steel.”
When Hall joined the Navy in his late teens, he was stationed in San Diego. After he was discharged, he decided to put roots down and started his own plumbing and heating business. And when it came time to build his first house in 1987, radiant was still at the top of his mind.
“At the time, there were only two of us installing radiant in the greater San Diego area,” he recalled. “Back then, it was mostly in the high-end homes. They tagged it as ‘floor warming,’ so the San Diego County Building Department didn’t require a stamped, engineered, radiant plan. In fact, I had to explain to the building inspectors what it was during construction.”
During the mid-1980s, all the homes included forced-air for air conditioning, so the radiant system was considered “floor warming” as a supplement to the forced-air heating system. But Hall always designed the systems so radiant was the first stage, so forced-air heat was rarely used.
“My house was the first in San Diego to have radiant as the sole heating system,” he explained. “I had to contact an engineer in the East to write a letter to the San Diego County Building Department to convince them you could effectively heat a house to 70 degrees with just radiant. The engineers laughed, because they did that all the time to heat houses back East.”
As time passed, Hall’s plumbing business grew and so did his radiant installations. By the late 1980s, he had several employees doing both plumbing and radiant. In fact, the radiant installs were becoming so popular, they represented about half his business.
“Back then, it was all word-of-mouth through homeowners and builders,” he said. “A lot of the bigger builders were doing small rooms in big houses, so they contacted me for the work.”
His first big, all-radiant house was in Julian, a mountain town outside of San Diego. The homeowners wanted radiant throughout the entire home with no forced-air heat.
“The owners did a lot of research on alternative-energy heating,” he said. “The house was an open floor plan, slab on grade, with high, beamed ceilings. That type of layout doesn’t lend itself well to forced-air heat. Plus, the homeowners wanted the comfort of the warm floors.”
Hall then began to venture into other radiant applications by doing exterior installs for patio warming and even snow melting for homes in the mountains outside of San Diego.
“In San Diego, everyone uses their outdoor space a lot, but some nights can get down into the 50s or 60s,” he said. “People were using those big gas heaters, but when they learned they could use radiant instead, it started to become more and more popular for outside applications.”
Hall also quickly learned radiant wasn’t just for the floor. “We’ve done shower walls, shower benches and even heated towel bars in a bathroom,” he said. “There are a lot of things you can do with radiant, if you think outside the box.”
Hall also began to branch out into solar, geothermal and boiler service, as well as troubleshooting and repair for systems installed by others. He started installing solar panels on roofs for domestic hot water.
“Unfortunately, at the time, the technology wasn’t quite there yet for the mixing controls to use solar with the radiant,” he said. “The cost for all the equipment couldn’t be justified for the short heating season.”
Not just for the high end: Through the 1990s, the radiant market continued to grow. “It was always there in the high-end market,” he said. “People would come from places like Vail, Colorado, and they wanted radiant in their San Diego homes like they were used to in their previous homes. But, by the early 2000s, radiant started to get down into the entry-level luxury homes.”
The technologies for radiant also improved, which made the systems even more attractive to energy-conscious homeowners. Manufacturers were making high-efficiency, modulating-condensing boilers that could operate much more efficiently than their predecessors.
In fact, the radiant business became so good, Hall decided to go strictly radiant and has been doing that successfully for the past 15 years. “There are still only a few of us doing radiant successfully in San Diego,” he said. “Some plumbers came in and tried to do it (unsuccessfully) and, unfortunately, it soured some builders and homeowners on the technology.”
Wayne Barton of Keyline Sales, Inc., a manufacturer’s representative in the greater San Diego area, has worked with Hall since the early 2000s. “Scott is one of a group of three long-time radiant contractors in the San Diego area,” Barton said. “He was among the first in the area who saw the value, comfort and efficiency of radiant.”
Today, there are about a dozen contractors now successfully doing radiant in San Diego, but Scott has remained one of the busiest and one of the well-regarded, according to Barton. “He didn’t have to advertise; all his radiant business was through referrals. He’s very detail-oriented, which has made him a highly sought-after contractor.”
Move to Montana
In 2008, Hall bought a home in Bozeman, Mont., to enjoy the quiet pace of life in a small town. “When I first moved there, the economy was really slow,” Hall said. “It’s a smaller town, so not as much was going on for residential building. I still traveled to San Diego for work.”
And the work kept coming with projects spanning anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 square feet in size. “I’ve even had some homes as big as 30,000 square feet,” he said. “The biggest was 37,000 square feet with radiant throughout the entire space. That was a lot of tubing.”
The most recent San Diego project Hall completed was an entertainment pavilion for a high-end client. “They like to entertain as well as host fund raisers for charities, which sometimes occur in the winter months,” he said. “The design called for radiant heat in approximately 3,600 square feet of outdoor patio and barbecue area. The client absolutely loves it.”
And the client list for radiant is continuing to grow. According to Barton, radiant sales in the greater San Diego area have increased by about 40 percent over the past five years.
“The market used to consider radiant technology ‘smoke and mirrors,’” he said. “People didn’t understand it. Fast forward to today and a market that has tripled. It’s an acceptable technology that people understand — both contractors and end users. Five years ago, we couldn’t get an appointment to discuss radiant. Now people are actually calling me because of the energy efficiency radiant provides.”
Barton said much of the increase in radiant installs has been due to Title 24, the California Energy Commission’s Building Energy Efficiency Program, which sets the standards for energy-efficient building practices for residential and commercial structures.
“We have really seen things jump up around here,” he said. “Five years ago, radiant was in residential applications almost exclusively. Now, the commercial market has really come on board, thanks mostly in part to Title 24.”
In fact, Barton said the Title 24 requirements and the awareness of radiant’s efficiencies are quickly turning this once mystifying technology into a basic part of a commercial HVAC system.
As for Hall, he is now in Montana full-time, getting into the radiant groove there. “A lot more people are installing radiant up here, so there is more competition,” he said. “Amazingly, I’ve found that I have to advertise for the first time in my career.”