How to get your “foot in the door.”

Let’s be honest: More than a few customers have champagne tastes but exist on a beer budget. I’ve encountered it on multiple sales calls — where a potential customer has read about the outstanding comfort and health benefits of radiant heat — and it’s all sunshine and roses until you lay out the costs.

“We had no idea radiant heating would be so expensive and we only have an $18,000.00 budget for the HVAC. We definitely need to have AC, so that leaves us with a furnace as the only affordable heat option.”

Bummer, right?

Well, all is not lost my friends and I’m going to reveal how to jam a radiant “foot-in-the-door” just like door-to-door sales folks quite literally did decades ago. Back then, the vacuum cleaner salesman would toss some dirt onto the foyer floor and offer to clean it up using the vacuum cleaner they’re holding!

Sixty-years ago, door-to-door salesmen often visited our home. My mother was so ruthless in dispatching them that this 8-year-old lad, feeling sorry for them, would lead them around the house to our back door and invite them in. That resulted in both of us being dispatched with no mercy!

Start small

Although we all were disappointed the whole home was not going to be radiant, there is a great way to get that radiant foot in the door by suggesting we treat the master bathroom floor with inexpensive electric radiant heat. If they’re having a custom ceramic tile shower built on site, that floor can also be treated with electric radiant heat per some manufacturer’s ratings.

One of the four ways we lose heat from our bodies is by conduction — direct flesh contact with an object. So why does the ceramic tile floor “feel” cold when it’s the same temperature as the hardwood or carpeting? It feels cold because it is a high mass material and your bare feet are quite sensitive to being cold. If they feel cold, you don’t feel comfortable. By adding electric radiant heating or floor conditioning, you have provided a little slice of heaven that can be manually or automatically controlled and has a relatively fast response time.

We discovered the customers loved it so much they continued using the floor conditioning radiant system through the summer months, too. On the hydronic side, we have also had customers who want their master bathroom radiant floor on 24/7/365 and who am I to argue? Best to know if that is their desire because you’ll need to increase the AC delivery for the master bathroom! That said, for the average master bathroom in an average not-a-mansion-home with electric radiant floor conditioning, the usage is intermittent and there is not normally a need to adjust the AC system.

While you’re tossing out the notion of providing the ultimate in comfort for their naked wet toes in the master bathroom, you might as well suggest electric radiant towel warmers. Depending on the size and height, you can incorporate bathrobe hooks too. You effectively have upsold the job and increased your profits.

What I know from experience is that once the owners experience a radiant floor instead of cold ceramic tile, the doorway opens up to incorporating radiant heating in a retrofit application one area at a time if that’s all the budget will allow.

Proceeding to bigger jobs

So, let’s assume you want to plan for the future possibility of retrofitting hydronic radiant heating at a later date. How should you, the mechanical contractor proceed?

Communication first and foremost:

  • You need to have the electrician drop in a line to connect to your electric radiant floor system. Depending on codes in your area, you may be allowed to make the final connection or you may need the electrician to do the final connection;
  • You will need to budget time to meet with the ceramic tile contractor (built into your proposed installed price) to go over the manufacturer’s instructions regarding your radiant floor strips or mats;
  • The builder or job site supervisor should be included in these conversations to ensure everyone is on the same page;
  • In order to properly prepare for future retrofit radiant, the flooring contractor needs to make a slight adjustment regarding their installation of hardwood flooring: Do not penetrate the air space below the subflooring with nails!

Nails in air do not increase pullout strength and will be a huge PITA if you decide to attempt installing hydronic radiant at a later date. You can’t snip them off because no matter how careful you are, that still leaves a nail-point that will prevent you from using aluminum heat transfer plates.

The only remedy is using a dremel tool with cutoff wheel and that turns the tiny spikes into red-hot pins-of-pain that will inevitably find their way into your shirt sleeves or inside your collar that will make you holler! Trust me, been there, done that — and never, ever again.

If you do encounter a virtual forest of nail points on a hydronic radiant retrofit, the only product that has been easy to work with is Watts Onix tubing. You can read several stories in my eBook series in which we handily resolved the issue of retrofitting hydronic radiant where we dealt with nail-point-forests; and

  • Follow up with the homeowners during the mid-winter season to solicit feedback on how much they love having a radiant floor. Gently remind them you’re ready to rock-n-roll when they want to move forward with some added radiant comfort. The kitchen is a great spot especially if that includes a breakfast nook. Radiant heat in the morning with their morning coffee or tea equals pure comfort bliss.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

In one case, the owners did not go for adding more radiant, but when they built their forever home, they asked for a cost to incorporate radiant heating (in addition to central AC) upfront so they could build that into the home’s mortgage.

In other cases, we ended up retrofitting the first floor with hydronic radiant because the basement was unfinished or else had a drop ceiling so the underside of the first floor was accessible. In some cases, it was when they built an addition.

New boiler or existing water heater? There’s an age-old controversy!

When it comes to water heaters as an energy source for radiant heating, the primary issue is bacterial amplification if you don’t maintain physical separation between the hydronic and potable waters (see Figure 1). This is easily accomplished, and provides you and them peace of mind. You can feel comfortable knowing you exercised due care: to protect their health and to CYA (Cover Your Ass-sets).

Walking through our local big box store — not in uniform — I spied electric radiant floor mats and controls in the flooring sales area.

As I stood there reading the pamphlet, the sales guy came over to say: “Don’t bother with that stuff. It’s too expensive and doesn’t work well.”

I wanted to hug him and thank him for doing such a great job.

You stick to nuts and bolts there, Skippy, let the pros handle the radiant heating.

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