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How the commercial sector is making the most of UFH

Despite an uncertain economic climate, the underfloor heating industry continues to provide innovative solutions, offering the commercial sector a number of advantages. Neil Young discusses some of the key considerations
Underfloor heating has long been popular in mainland Europe and interest in this technology is clearly growing in the UK. Equally popular among UK architects, specifiers and installers, the rise of the desirability of UFH among businesses suggests that demand is likely to remain high.

Despite an uncertain economic climate causing a slowdown in the construction of new commercial properties, the UFH market continues to remain buoyant.

UFH is already being used for a variety of applications and there are real opportunities to use it to build added value into large-scale commercial property developments.

Wet and wire systems options
The UFH options on the market which are being applied as part of commercial use include hot water or so-called wet systems and electric mat or 'wire' systems.

UFH provides a number of advantages over other types of heating system. First, it provides a high level of comfort, offering a consistent heat level across a room and is less prone to cold spots which might be experienced with other heating emitter types. It also benefits from lower convection rates than for example a traditional radiator, and therefore less draughts.

With the correct levels of insulation, UFH has the potential to provide a heating solution that saves end users more energy and money, longer term. It is for this reason that it has been included in the Green Deal.

UFH is ideal for new builds, but it is also becoming more popular for renovations thanks to new product innovations in this area. It is also increasingly being viewed as attractive in applications such as hotels, spas, offices and schools.

Its low temperature requirement also makes it a strong match for renewable heating systems such as ground and air source heat pumps, which are increasingly being used in residential developments that are off mains gas and seeking sustainable alternatives. Mainstream technologies such as condensing boilers can also benefit from the low return water temperatures providing the optimum condition for its efficient condensing mode to take place. Added to this, the technology can be installed in a single room or across a whole development offering additional flexibility in larger developments. Perhaps less known is the fact that UFH has been linked to health benefits, with the radiant energy generated by UFH resulting in less dust, and therefore dust mites, being circulated than with traditional radiators. This offers real potential for medical applications and developments.

Existing commercial stock can benefit from underfloor heating too. The traditional method of installing UFH pipes onto an insulation base and covering with screed can be used however, this can become a disruptive and time consuming installation. Other systems exist that can avoid this such as overlay systems, which can be laid directly onto existing floors in a much quicker timeframe and do not require a screed finish.

No return visits needed
Crucially, if UFH is installed with auto-balancing technology there is also the added advantage of not having to set flow rates and make return visits as the system automatically adjusts itself.

Although UFH is considered to be a relatively expensive heating technology on initial purchase, the costs can be covered under the Government's Green Deal scheme, potentially opening up this technology to a wider range of businesses.
Arguably concerns remain, particularly in relation to how much of a role the Government scheme will - and can - play further increasing UFH's popularity.

For example, unless there are adequate insulation levels and the technology is installed correctly, it's uncertain that UFH will meet the Green Deal's Golden Rule. Nevertheless, installers geared towards fitting and supporting this technology could stand to benefit from an increasing demand for UFH.

Despite frustrations that the 'new-build' market is slowing and funds for redevelopment are at a low level, opportunities available through government schemes such as the Green Deal could further increase consumer and commercial interest in UFH.

With more specifiers, architects and installers looking for simpler, flexible and energy efficient options for installations of all types and sizes, UFH offers a genuinely useful solution. Most importantly, from a contractor's perspective, there are clearly opportunities to branch out into this area for installation work, offering a valuable additional income stream as part of a wider project.

Contractors interested in becoming skilled in UFH installation should train in UFH installation. Additionally, seeking out a Green Deal Provider and Assessor could open up a number of associated business opportunities.

Taking advantage of an auto-balancing act
Underfloor heating is often controlled with manually balanced manifolds. However, auto-balancing replaces the need for the manual balancing of the loops. The 'Auto-Balance' technology, developed by Uponor, addresses this issue and removes later problems as a result.

Instead of balancing the system for one peak load, the system 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. In turn, this gives more even floor temperatures and faster system reactions with lower energy consumption than any standard on/off system.

The benefits of an auto-balanced system are evenly heated rooms across the whole property with no over or under heating issues. What's more, our research suggests that an auto-balanced system is 12 per cent more efficient than an unbalanced or manifold balanced system, a clear advantage to the customer in terms of energy cost savings.

For the installer, the benefit is that an auto-balanced system takes the variables out of any underfloor heating installation. It is no longer necessary to calculate the impact of room size or whether a room is north or south facing. Furthermore, happy customers, with underfloor heating systems performing in line with their pre-installation expectations, become more of the norm. Crucially, the installer no longer has to make repeat visits to a property to adjust the manifold, a cost which is rarely factored into the cost of a job.

//The author is indoor climate expert at Uponor UK //
13 May 2013

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