Heating in Brave New Places

New technology has increased heating options for old houses.

Flat panel radiators like these from Runtal North America tuck almost out of sight under a shelf along a wall.  

Peter Vanderwarker

The recession and the energy crunch are bringing about innovations in the way Americans heat their homes.

Thanks to technical advances that make them easier to install, radiant heating systems are an increasingly popular choice for retrofits in existing—that is, old—houses.

Solar is also making a comeback (not surprising, since the heat source is free!) despite the aesthetic problem of what to do about those intrusive, high-tech panels. And several companies are introducing new ways to exploit heat sources already in the home.

Radiant heat isn’t really a new technology: old-fashioned steam or hot-water radiators fueled by boilers produce radiant heat. It’s how the heat is delivered that’s different: under-the-floor hot-water tubing systems produce even heat that rises through and warms the air without the intrusion of radiators. There are better, less bulky radiators, too: While you can still get traditional-looking units (some with less pronounced profiles for a sleeker look) there are also low-profile, flat-panel radiator fins that install almost anywhere, in curved spaces, along a stair railing, even under a kitchen island. If you’re looking for an energy boost for an existing steam or radiant system, you may be able to give it a “solar assist” by tying the boiler into energy produced by solar panels on the roof.

Masonry heaters, like this one from M. Teixeira Soapstone, store and release energy slowly for even, radiant heat.

Masonry fireplaces and wood stoves, clad in soapstone or another conductive material, are another form of radiant heat. These behemoths not only take center stage in your home, but can even heat the entire house. Because they are so massive (M. Teixeira’s wood stoves contain 1,700 pounds of soapstone), they store heat and release it slowly over a period of up to 24 hours, making them highly fuel-efficient. (The stone helps regulate temperatures in summer, too.)

Another potential energy source that can help heat your house is an on-demand (tankless) water heater. Rinnai has just introduced a system that marries the tankless heater with a hydronic air handler to gently heat the air in a home. The air handler does not require venting, and the company claims the system is less dry than forced-air systems.

Heatizon’s ZMesh installs safely outdoors and melts snow quickly on driveways.

Electric radiant systems have been tweaked so much that they can go almost anywhere. Made of easy-to-lay mesh embedded with a heating element in the form of a thin wire, these systems fit under almost any kind of floor.

A mere 1⁄16″ thick, Heatizon’s ZMesh goes indoors and out, installing under driveways to speed snow melt, or under the roof to prevent icicle build up and ice dams. The system adjusts with the touch of a thermostat.

Depending on the orientation and angle of your roof, you may be able to hide solar panels in plain sight. 

Courtesy of Spring Lake Inn

Solar-panel technology has improved, too. While solar panels do have to be placed so they’re in sunlight for several hours a day, it’s not always necessary to put them on the house—they can be located on a garage or another building, or mounted on the ground. Depending on the angle of your roof (or if you are fortunate enough to have shed roofs with the proper solar orientation), you may be able to install the panels less obtrusively. The owner of the historic Spring Lake Inn in Spring Lake, New Jersey, hid solar panels in plain sight by installing them on the sloping roof of a wrap-around veranda.

Developed by Drexel Metals for its standing-seam roofs, solar film is far less obtrusive than typical solar panels.

There’s also hope on the aesthetics front: Drexel Metals has come up with a solar laminate in the form of a thin film that coats a portion of its standing-seam roofing. The peel-and-stick adhesive can withstand wind loads up to 160 miles per hour. Using one of oldest roofing materials available, the look is no more intrusive than an ice dam barrier. Now that’s progress.


For a list of heating and cooling suppliers, visit Heating & Cooling in the Products & Services Directory.

Tags: heating Mary Ellen Polson OHI January/February 2010 Old-House Interiors radiant heat Radiators

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