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Heating up the commercial market

Over the past five years or so, underfloor heating has increased in popularity within the domestic market and is now becoming recognised as a superior heat emitter for commercial properties too. However, in order to maximise the potential of a commercial underfloor heating system, there are a few common pitfalls that need to be avoided. Neil Young explains more
UNDERFLOOR HEATING was once viewed as an affordable luxury for the domestic market but now perceptions are changing. While the technology is now more accessible and affordable for the commercial market too, it is crucial that it is viewed in terms of its 'total life cost', rather than just the initial cost price.

There are many business owners or facilities managers who have invested large sums of money in retrofitting or even commissioning and building a new commercial property and, having understood the benefits of installing underfloor heating, want to have it fitted throughout.

Yet, a large number of those looking to have underfloor heating installed are only prepared to either fit the cheapest system they can get their hands on or fit one that has been designed to reduce as much material cost as possible instead of selecting a more energy efficient design.

While any business needs to carefully monitor its expenditure in order to maintain a healthy profit margin, failing to properly understand the long-term benefits of installing the right underfloor heating system may ultimately prove detrimental to the business.

Underfloor heating should not be viewed as a one-off purchase and it is important that the key decision makers are aware of this from the outset.

A cheap underfloor heating system may reduce the overall cost of a refurbishment or new-build project, but it is highly likely that such a system will not offer the levels of energy efficiency, and therefore reduced energy bills, as a more efficient system which may be more expensive to install. Importantly, the price differences here are on a relatively small scale.

The 'total cost of ownership' of a system which offers greater energy efficiency will far outweigh that of a cheaper and less efficient system.

Government support
As price is such a critical factor when picking an underfloor heating system, it is also important for key decision makers to be aware of government initiatives which have the potential to facilitate the installation of energy efficient technologies, such as underfloor heating, which do not break the bank.

The Green Deal is the Government's flagship energy project and offers both homeowners and businesses opportunities to purchase and install energy efficient products and systems through a government loan which covers the cost of the products and the installation. As many will be aware, the loan is then paid back through small additions to energy bills.

However, those additions will theoretically be outweighed by the savings made through decreased energy consumption which is referred to as the 'golden rule'.

Underfloor heating is covered by the Green Deal and provided the property is insulated to a sufficient level there should be no reason why the energy saving benefits from using a UFH system cannot be achieved.

Getting the balance right
Given the size and scale of many commercial properties, one further point to note is that anyone considering an underfloor heating system needs to be aware of the importance of using energy efficient climate controls.

On large projects any weak point in a system's efficiency can easily result in unnecessarily high energy bills, and after going through the installation process, falling at this final hurdle is something that many businesses would no doubt rather avoid.

Balancing is a vital part of the commissioning process but unfortunately not all business owners or facilities managers are familiar with it and the process is also often overlooked by installers.

If a property's underfloor heating system is not properly balanced it will operate on a uniform flow rate meaning that all rooms - regardless of size or orientation - will receive the same level of output so some rooms will be over-heated and others will be under-heated.

A manually balanced system is set based upon a combination of the calculated theoretical design case criteria and an installer's perceived requirements during the installation. For example, a larger room with a longer loop length will require a greater amount of flow rate or energy in order to balance it and achieve the desired heating level.

The downside to a manually balanced system is that the installer makes the initial setting based upon their own preferences or perception of how the rooms in a property will be used. Of course these will vary as we all use different rooms in different ways.

One solution is to install 'auto-balancing' controls to the manifold, such as Uponor's Auto-Balance Technology, which replaces the need for the manual balancing of the loops.

Instead of balancing the system for one peak load, the 'auto-balancing' technology calculates the actual energy needs of the individual rooms over the heating season and adapts to those needs, balancing the system through the changing seasons and throughout the property's changing usage patterns.

Crucially, this gives more even floor temperatures and faster system reactions with lower energy consumption, and therefore energy bills, than any standard on/off system.

Delivering excellence
Ultimately, an underfloor heating system can offer noticeably improved energy efficiency for commercial property owners.

However, installing such a system requires full commitment to quality and control in order to achieve the benefits over an extended period of time.
It is important to install a system which, even though it may have a higher initial cost price, will offer the most effective 'total life cost'.

The Government's Green Deal gives business owners with a limited budget an opportunity to access the technology.

However it is important that such systems are installed within an adequately insulated environment so as to maximise energy efficiency.
What is clear though, is that through taking the right approach, underfloor heating can provide critical savings and ensure the right fit for a range of commercial applications.

// The author is an expert in indoor climate control for Uponor //
8 July 2013

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