Selling Underfloor Heat
September 1st, 2011

Radiant heat is hardly a new product. Most likely invented by the ancient Romans, the concept of heating a room from the ground up continues to appeal to architects and consumers. The warmth generated from coils or mats beneath the tile radiates through the clay body, and into the air above the floor—efficiently heating the entire space. For those lucky enough to have underfloor heat, the feeling is one of luxurious comfort. Having one’s feet warmed in this way can be best described as the feeling one gets holding a warm mug of hot chocolate on a snowy day. Naturally, the technology has improved since Roman times, but that does not necessarily mean that the customers walking into your showroom know much about it. In fact, even some distributors may not know about all of the options available, or be able to explain exactly how efficient a heat source it is.

Uneven Familiarity
According to Christy Fabros, Public Relations Specialist at NuHeat, “In North America underfloor heating is not as widely known, but in Europe and Asia, especially in Korea, it is used as a standard way to heat interior spaces. In North America, people just aren’t as aware of the efficiency of radiant heat. It is just as good as baseboard heat, and designers like it because it doesn’t interfere with floor space.” “Radiant heat feels warmer than forced-air, just as the sun shining on your faces feels warm, when your skin touches warmth it is perceived as being warmer. When something is heated directly, it warms the object,” explains Fabros.

As one might expect, clients in colder climates tend to be more knowledgeable about underfloor heating options. So, Canadian customers might walk into a showroom asking for radiant heat. Interestingly, in some of the warmest areas in North America, underfl oor heating is used frequently. According to Fabros, the least common place to fi nd it is in the temperate central regions of North America. For dealers in this area, there is a lot of room for growth, since radiant heat is perfect for taking the chill out of a mild evening or brisk morning. In general, most distributors are familiar with underfloor heat, says Ben Shoemaker, Canadian Sales Manager for Emerson. “There seems to be a reasonable amount of knowledge about underfloor heating, but with turnover in personnel, there may be gaps in understanding. Also, there may be some things that new distributors don’t realize.” “I like to tell people that this is a nice feature to have for when the temperature drops for a few days in winter.

Even in Florida and California, places where people use air conditioning, underfloor heating is gaining in popularity. It’s nice to take the chill off for when you step out of the shower,” says Shoemaker. Romi Sheynis of Emerson Industrial Automation agrees, “In Arizona and Florida, people have more ceramic tile. It’s their top choice not just in the kitchen and bath. It’s easier to maintain, it’s durable, and it’s a relief when it’s hot. Because of air conditioning, the tile gets cold fast, but radiant heat makes it feel warm underneath your feet to compensate, especially in the winter and at night,” he says. “It is those people who live in warm areas who are acclimated to heat, they are used to having a warm floor,” adds Shoemaker. Sheynis adds that, “It is not considered a luxury, it’s more of a trend. There’s a lot of flexibility in how you want to run it. It is very energy efficient to use as supplemental heat.”

Selling point: affordable luxury
Many people think of underfloor heat as a luxury item, but Fabros calls it an upgrade. She says that it is now affordable enough to think about it at many price points. “In a standard bathroom, it adds approximately $1000,” she says. “Some tile dealers aren’t as familiar with radiant heat, and they may sell it as an added luxury,” says Fabros. “But they should know that it can be a source of heat. People these days are concerned with energy efficiency and they should know about it as an option.” Shoemaker agrees, saying that it’s an affordable luxury adding only $300 to $350 to install for a 20 to 30 square foot bathroom using thermal cable. As for the amount of energy used to power the system, “You can equate it to the cost of running about three lightbulbs- -depending on the size of the room– from 150 to 300 watts. Plus, if you use a programmable thermostat, you don’t run the system very many hours.” “Because your feet stay warm,” he explains, “you feel warmer at a cooler temperature. So, you can keep the room a little cooler and still feel warm. There’s a lot of benefit for very little expense.”

Explains Fabros, “Radiant heat is a good way to heat a home. On a typical day, a person might get up, go to the bathroom to shower, go to the kitchen to make breakfast and get the kids ready for school and then leave. With programmable thermostats, you can track the heat into only the rooms that you’ll be using on those typical days. It also works underneath engineered hardwoods. We are noticing radiant heat being used in basements more as well.” “You are putting heat into a space that you would have supplied heat to anyway—and possibly at a higher cost—so you’re just offsetting a heating mode you’d otherwise use,” says Shoemaker. “The system uses only twelve watts per square foot, and you get very well distributed warmth. The thermometer cycles on and off to even the temperature, so it is very effective.”

According to Sheynis, Emerson has been in the underfloor heat market for 35 years. The company manufactures cable mats for the flooring industry across North America. “Emerson was the first company to standardize the product, making it a day-to-day shelf-product, whereas it used to be custom to have underfloor heat. It would add four to five thousand dollars to the cost of a bathroom. Now it is off the shelf—a luxury that the average person can afford. ”

Height is an issue
“These days, the product is more standard, so you no longer need the thick mud base, which used to add a one and a half inch thickness to the floor,” Sheynis explains. This thickness required the building to have a drop-down in the rooms where it would be used and this added significantly to the cost of installation. The mat itself is also much thinner than it used to be. That’s another trend, says Shoemaker, “Height reduction. Right now, one-eighth of an inch is typical, although Emerson has a new product in development which would reduce even that insignificant height by 30%,” he says.

Three price points
According to Shoemaker, the systems that are available from the least expensive to the most expensive are:

1. Cable systems—The new cables manufactured by Emerson are only ⅛” thick so they can be installed without changing the height of the floor.
2. Stock roll mats—The mats themselves come in standard sizes, so instead of one custom mat, a set of standard parallel mats can be connected together, and most rooms only require two mats. Cable sets allow distributors to have them available on the shelf. They can be adapted to any space, and by using multiple mats, you can accommodate the shapes to the room. Mats are 20” wide and the carrier can be cut back, but not the cables, obviously. They work best in rectangular shaped rooms, where you can fill in 20” wide swaths.
3. Fully Custom—Shoemaker says that custom mats are designed like a cookie cutter for a particular room, and these can be used in single family dwellings. Whereas the cost of custom engineering one mat would be much higher, Shoemaker finds that the biggest custom market is in the hospitality industry. “We can create 50 identical hotel rooms using the same template and that lowers the cost per room.” Nuheat has a prebuilt custom manufactured system that comes in more than 60 standard sizes (basic squares and rectangles) that will fit a majority of rooms, says Fabros. “But if someone wants to heat an oddly shaped room, Nuheat can build tile, stone and laminate, or engineered wood floors,” she says. “Typically, our products are used in bathroom and kitchen remodels,” says Fabros. “Our electronic radiant heat is a three-step process. The installer will put down a layer of thinset, roll out a mat, and then use more thinset on top. All tile installers can do this and it is really easy for them. Installers are familiar with how to use those products. “One of our newer thermostats is the harmony, which has dual voltage. From a distributor standpoint, it makes purchasing easier, because they only have to stock one product without having to think about whether the client needs 120 volt or 240 volt. When you only have to stock one, the process is much more streamlined, which works well for contractors.

Voltage Requirements
According to Shoemaker, 120 volts is usually standard for 50 square feet and under, and 240 volt systems for 60 square feet and up. You can have 120 volts in a larger room, but then that will need a dedicated circuit, he says. “The programmable thermostats were new about 12 to 13 years ago. You simply set them to go off while you’re at work, and then they go on in the evenings right before you come home.” While programmable thermostats aren’t new, what’s new is the ability for people to regulate the temperature. “This is the major breakthrough in the past few years,” says Sheynis. “People have more ability to control the temperature throughout the day. The systems are more user-friendly; there are more options, such as occupancy sensors, allowing the user to regulate the thermostat, which will find the optimal mode. Also, the interface is now more user-friendly.” In addition, you’ll want to be able to explain to your customers how long the mats are expected to last and what kinds of warranties the manufacturers offer distributors may not know about all of the options available, or be able to explain exactly how efficient a heat source it is.

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