Long-time Napa firm rides heating trends
Warm Floors employs water heaters, solar thermal for homes, pools
[caption id="attachment_18857" align="alignright" width="277" caption="High-end plastic pipe is laid into a concrete floor. | Warm Floors also heats pools using solar thermal technology. | Warm Floors developed its own compact control module to disperse hydronic radiant heat"][/caption]
NAPA – Warm Floors started as a solar thermal heating systems provider, long before solar heating became as familiar as the sun to Californians, and solar thermal is becoming a bigger part of the business again.
But Ra Energy, as it was called initially, found its market cooling precipitously in the late 1970s, when a chilly attitude toward solar incentives prevailed in Washington.
That's when its owner and founder Michael Luttrell switched his main focus to hydronic radiant heating, enabled by advances in PEX, or cross-linked polyethylene pipe.
The pipe's flexibility – and Mr. Luttrell's – allowed the company to flourish supplying warm floors to high-end residents, private schools and college dorms.
"PEX pipe is so strong it's warranted for 25 years," said John Myers, Warm Floors vice president and operations manager.
But unlike copper or the plastic piping that runs irrigation systems, it can withstand hot water. And it's easy to install, making retrofits possible.
So why install radiant heating in your floors?
"For one thing, it's much healthier," said Mr. Myers.
"There's no dust blowing around," he said. "It's much more efficient than hot-air heat, which blows from a duct and heats the ceiling first and the floor, where you really need heat, last. And the new, super high-efficiency water heaters have a 96 percent heat retention rate."
Another advantage is the ability to easily create zones, each with its own thermostat, and only heat the areas of the home or building that are being used.
Warm Floors has developed a compact control module to replace the warren of pipes and valves that accompanied the first popular radiant floor heating systems, made popular by California home designer Joseph Eichler.
"We prefabricate the system here in Napa on a two-by-three-foot plywood panel that can be installed next to the water heater," Mr. Myers said.
One drawback to radiant floor heating, in this age of incentivized energy-efficiency upgrades, is that PG&E doesn’t recognize the efficacy of switching to radiant heat because forced-air heat is cheaper.
"They consider it a luxury item, like heating a swimming pool with solar," said Mr. Myers, adding that the Radiant Heating Association is engaged in heavy lobbying efforts.
So Warm Floors is getting back into the thermal solar business, using its control module and PEX piping to heat homes and pools.
But solar thermal is just one more arrow in its quiver.
"We also can use water from a water heater to heat a driveway, walkway or even a tennis court," he said.
The company developed something it calls "Warm Snow" for harsh winter climates. The system senses the presence of moisture on pavement and directs hot water below the surface to clear it of snow and ice.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area uses Warm Snow on its paths and driveways, and the company installs a number of systems in the Lake Tahoe area and other skiing regions, said Mr. Myers.
But the East Coast has been cool to company products.
"We thought Warm Snow and Warm Floors would be popular on the East Coast, but we found although East Coasters do like hot water heat, they prefer radiators and a boiler to floor heating running off a water heater," he said.
Warm Floor systems start at $3,000 for self installation and can cost as much as $138,000 for those with lots of disposable income.
The company tried out the San Diego market, where it encountered lots of disposable income, but a climate ill-suited to radiant heating. A pilot office in Northern Oregon was closed for the exact opposite reason
But Warm Floors continues to thrive in Napa, where its 22 employees own 30 percent of the company.
When Mr. Luttrell retires they'll own 100 percent, according to Mr. Myers.
For more information, call 707-257-0880 or visit www.warmfloors.com.