Home Improvement

Published on Thu, Sep 18, 2008
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Home Improvement

Infrared radiant heat is cost-efficient and clean

By Tara Nelson

The detailed physics of the infrared radiant heating panel may be difficult to envision since it primarily deals with electromagnetic wavelengths that are invisible to the naked eye. The basic premise, however, is simple: using conventional heating systems to heat air, rather than objects, is inefficient.

In the United States, the most common forms of residential heating systems are based on convection, in which air is used as a medium to transfer heat to objects.

These systems often require extensive wiring and costly forced-air ventilation systems. In addition, forced air heating travels throughout the structure’s interior, collecting dust, mold and allergens along the way.

Infrared radiant heating, on the other hand, is a system of panels that, when installed, emit heat waves similar to those of the sun and warm objects in the room, as opposed to conventional forced air and convection systems that require heating all the air in a room or house before reaching the desired temperature.

The panels achieve this by using an electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength longer than that of visible light, but shorter than a radio wave.

When the radiation hits the surface of the body or an object, it heats it through a process called conversion.

“The air is really secondary in this process of radiant heating,” said Jeff Caldwell, owner of Heating Green in Bellingham.

Once the infrared energy is absorbed into the objects, people and floors, those objects re-radiate that heat and warm the surrounding air.

Cost efficiency

When compared to other heating technologies, infrared radiant heating panels are relatively inexpensive, even when compared to other green technologies such as radiant floor heating. Because panels are attached to ceilings, there is no need for ducted furnaces, fans, heat pumps or in-floor electrical or hydrolic systems that require expensive installation.

In a 2001 report by the U.S. Department of Energy, the agency found that infrared radiant heating can reduce heating costs by more than 50 percent when compared with baseboard electric heating systems  and by more than 30 percent when compared with conventional heat pump heating or forced air heating.

In 2000, that translated into 1.45 trillion BTU of energy savings nationwide and more than 97,000 tons of CO2 emissions avoided.

Panels range in cost from approximately $200 to $600 with installation and can save 20 to 50 percent in heating costs, depending on a home’s insulation, leaky windows, outside temperature, total square footage and lifestyle.

“It’s definitely affordable,” Caldwell said. “For materials, the average price is between $3.50 to $4 per square foot of just heated space. So if you have a home that’s 2,000 square feet, I’m going to look at and measure the square footage of the rooms and subtract the hallways, which we typically don’t need to heat, as well as the thickness of the walls and the closets.

“The smallest job I’ve ever done was a one by two foot panel that was 125 watts and provided supplemental heat to a massage treatment room. That was a little less than $300.”

To demonstrate the panel’s effectiveness, Caldwell showed me to his office – a 110-square foot space inside a warehouse in Bellingham’s industrial area. It was a warm, sunny day with an inside and outside temperature of 72 degrees. He switched on the 750-watt panel attached to the ceiling over his desk and after just two minutes, the surface of the ceiling panel reached 120 degrees. After five minutes, it reached a whopping 290 degrees, although because of a special textured acrylic coating, its surface remained relatively cool to the touch.

Measuring the temperature of the objects in the room after just five minutes showed a 4-point increase from 72 to 76 degrees.

“The big thing is how people are going to use their thermostats, and one of the slogans of the manufacturer we use is to treat your heater like your lights, meaning to turn them down when you’re not in the room because the recovery time on the panels is really quick, meaning the room is going heat up in a short amount of time,” he said. “One of the beautiful things about it is you don’t have to heat the rooms that you’re not occupying.

“In addition, we’re achieving greater comfort and so we can usually set the thermostat six to 10 degrees lower than something that uses air as a medium because that’s measuring air temperature, but the radiant temperature is always going to be warmer than that.”

What people are saying

Some of Caldwell’s most recent clients are the Red Cedar Zen Center, Running Shoes.com and 20/20 Engineering, a sustainable engineering company in Bellingham.

Jessie Buehrer, an office manager at 20/20, said because infrared heating panels have no emissions or off-gassing, they were a perfect fit for their company. Buehrer said the company installed a series of ceiling and under-the-desk panels to be primarily used as a supplement to a gas heating system.

“As a sustainable engineering company, we do low-impact development so we are very interested in efficient use of power and we’re trying to practice what we preach,” she said. “But in addition, they’re simple and cost effective, you’re not recirculating dusty, contaminated air, and they heat you very quickly. It just makes all kinds of sense. For the amount of the upfront cost, it’s a very inexpensive source of heat.”

Green rating

The panel itself is made with pre- and post-consumer aluminum with the exception of the wiring inside. Caldwell said the insulation has a rating of R-6, which falls into the Department of Energy’s green energy standards. Neither does it contain any volatile chemicals or toxic elements that are harmful to the environment.

Green economics

Green building represents $7 billion market in the United States, according to a study by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and that number is expected to grow quickly.

Many government programs have long offered tax incentives for energy efficiency, but now banks and other lending institutions are recognizing the value of green.

A 2000 survey by Professional Builder magazine found that 56 percent of consumers are willing to pay between $2,500 and $5,000 for improvements that would make their homes more environmentally-friendly or healthier to themselves.

Developer Rob Staveland of Aiki Homes in Bellingham agreed.
“With energy prices going up, energy efficiency is about to become extremely desirable,” he said. The biggest problem, he said is educating the public on the kinds of choices they have. It’s partly just marketing but we’re working on that.”

Heating Green is located at 1825 Franklin Street in Bellingham and can be reached by calling 360/715-4328. Their website is located at www.heatinggreen.com.