I admit it; I am “old school”.  In fact, I am so “old school” that I remember when “old school” was “new school”.  We were taught that computers and automated machinery where going to do most of the work for us and that our biggest challenge would be dealing with all of our free time.  We all know how that turned out.

Back then a workingman could support a family on a single income.  Mothers could dedicate their time to raising their kids instead of sending them off to daycare.  Weekends were truly time off because stores were closed on Sundays.   We could leave work at the office and take time to relax.  Well, enough of that.

When it comes to hydronics and radiant heat, “old school” was copper and black iron pipes, cast iron boilers and zone valves.  Then came “new school”; first rubber tube and then plastic pipe.  “Old school” resisted these new intruders until “new school” condensing boilers came along.   A feeding frenzy began, which has resulted in a proliferation of high-tech boilers, controls, valves, mixing devices and more.

The “old school” in me longs for the simplicity and reliability of those old school cast iron systems.  Notice that I said I longed for the “simplicity” and “reliability”, not necessarily the cast iron systems.  How many sophisticated modulating, condensing, boilers with self regulating pumps, indoor/outdoor reset, remote controlled systems do you think you can install today and come back in twenty years to find them still running with almost no maintenance?

All of this technology frenzy is done under the guise of energy efficiency.  Squeezing that last BTU out of a cubic foot of natural gas will save the consumer money, not to mention the planet.  And then there is the never-ending quest for the ultimate comfort factor.  Never mind that my thermal comfort requirements are completely different than my wife’s.

I know I am spitting in the wind here, but does anyone ever consider all the infrastructures required to support this techno-craze?  I’m not just talking about hydronic heating here.  I wonder about the recycling bin my wife makes me put out every other week.  I see the extra truck, the toll it takes on the pavement in front of my house, the gas it drinks, the employees and their requirements, the sorting and processing facility, and the untold expenses hidden in handling those few cans, bottles and newspapers I set out.  I have to ask myself, “Is this really saving the planet?”

One thing life has taught me is that it is far more difficult to design something simple than to make it complicated.  Hydronic heating is a prime example of that.  Like so many things in life, society seems to think that complicated technology will solve all our problems.  Just throw a few more microchips at the problem and it will be solved.  Add another control, incorporate a smart computer, give us a few more buttons to push and digital readouts and we can control our environment.

Somewhere I read that the ultimate personal thermal comfort device is a sweater.  Interestingly enough, even in my radiantly heated home, the sweater is still the final solution to keeping me comfortable when my wife turns down the thermostat to suit her.  It really does beg the question, “how much control do we really need?”

The hydronic industry has historically snubbed the simple solutions.  They are cast in a light of doubt and suspicion and labeled cheap, and even dangerous.  There is an underlying ego within the world of wet heads that wants complexity.  There is an overwhelming desire to be recognized as a sophisticated, technologically advanced industry.  After all, hydronic systems can provide a higher level of comfort and lower utility bills than the conventional HVAC system, albeit at a considerably higher cost.  So what has the industry done?  It has added even more complexity, increasing the cost, in an effort to justify the price discrepancy; like a dog chasing its tail.

Hydronics has been steadily loosing ground for several decades.  It’s market share, particularly residential, has been shrinking for years.  There is the old quote from Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The industry has a tremendous amount of effort, capital and infrastructure invested in supporting its current tact so I doubt that there will be any significant change forthcoming; at least not in the foreseeable future.  What the new generation will do with it will be interesting.  I have coined a new term for my 30+ year-old daughter and her friends.  “Techno-hippies”.  A techno-hippie is someone who rejects many of the modern conventions like fast food, television, gas-guzzlers, supermarkets and shopping malls, but prefers health foods, bicycles, expired food outlets, and second hand stores.  All the while they entertain their kids with games on their iPhones and iPads, share their lives on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.  They shop online and expect overnight delivery.

So how does “old school” simplicity and reliability marry up with “new school” techno-savvy?  I think the Nest thermostat is a great example.  While wildly expensive, the Nest provides that techno-feel of an iPhone or iPad, with a similar underlying intelligence that says to the user, “you are networking with your heating system.”  What goes on beyond the thermostat is a complete mystery to most homeowners.  I imagine that if I were to hook up a Nest thermostat to the simplicity and reliability of an old school heating system, the customer would perceive their heating system as being modern and technologically advanced.

I am not opposed to the use of complex technology, just to its misguided application.  So here is my challenge to the industry.  Return to simple thinking and simple design in the mechanical room and put a techno face on the heating system where it interfaces with the customer.  Try something different and you just might get different results.

By Lawrence Drake

November 16, 2013


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