Is There a Future for Hydronics?

Consolidation, new products, and improved efficiency are reshaping the hydronics segment, says Mike McDonnell.

“Is There a Future for Hydronics?” was the title of a talk McDonnell gave to the Heating, Air-Conditioning, Refrigeration Distributors International, a trade group of wholesaler distributors. And he talked further on the subject in a recent phone call.

“Many people in the industry look at hydronics as being a secondary line,” and many also have the view that hydronics “are going away because of all the things that are happening on the electric side, but plenty is happening,” McDonnell says. “There has been a lot of consolidation which, quite honestly, has been very good for the industry, because having a lot of small players really wasn’t going to help the overall growth of hydronics.”

The involvement of bigger companies through acquisitions over the past eight to ten years “spurred technical development,” including more product and more features, says McDonnell, who is vice president of special projects for Peerless Boilers, manufactured by PB Heat. “There is a lot of research going on,” he adds, and new hydronics product. There are close to 100 brands in the segment by McDonnell’s count. Heating oil dealers have kept up with the corresponding demand for technical know-how, and “have done very, very well in training their people,” McDonnell says.

A fact that bodes well for hydronics is that the traditional cast-iron market has a strong base, he says, especially certain urban markets. The Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, areas are examples. Of those markets, McDonnell says, “There is a strong hydronics presence there just because they’re older, urban areas. They really aren’t candidates for the newer equipment.”

Neighborhoods with rowhouses can pose a challenge to installation of newer, condensing equipment, according to McDonnell. “Imagine trying to find a way to sidewall vent one of those,” he says. “You’d have to go [through] the front or the back of the building. There’s usually not a lot of space there, so you end up with this plume of condensate coming up in front of your picture window.”

The chimney-through-the-roof option is often the most viable in such circumstances, McDonnell says. With annual fuel utilization efficiency of 84%, some cast-iron equipment can be “a much better application than trying to shoehorn a condensing unit in there,” McDonnell says, adding, “Cast-iron can last twenty-five, thirty years-plus.”

McDonnell is a big fan of information in a report based on the American Housing Survey Report, titled, “Differences in Fuel Usage in the United States Housing Stock.” He used some of the data to make the points in his presentation. The report is available here and is reproduced in the July 2020 issue of Fuel Oil News.

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