What Is Hydronics?

Explains what hydronics is and provides a brief history on how this invention came about. Also explains current uses of hydronics in today's society.

Hydronics is a term that was introduced in the 1940s to refer to a system of heating or cooling of an internal area using fluids in either vapor or water form. These fluids are then circulated throughout a series of pipes or tubes to produce a desired room temperature. Although this official term was established in the 1940s, the process of using hydronics or "wet" materials to first heat, then later to cool, a home has been in existence for many years, beginning with the invention of cast iron boilers.

Initially working on the principle of gravity, cast iron boilers, which were fueled by either coal or wood, forced hot fluids through the top of the boiler and into wrought iron pipes. The heat produced from these fluids was then expelled to radiators or into cast iron baseboards. Meanwhile, as heat was produced, the hot fluids were returned back to the boiler. This cycle was repeated as necessary to produce heat. To regulate the heat generated, a draft damper was used, which was operated manually via a wheel or lever in the home. Another option to regulate the heat was to adjust a valve on one of the radiators.

Although cast iron boilers were popular to use, they had many disadvantages. These included the need for someone to continuously stoke the fire and to remove any ashes produced on a daily basis. Additionally, cast iron boilers were only intended to provide heating for a home. While boilers provided basic heating in a house, many inventors pondered how to cool a home. Some pursued the concept of cooling air temperature by blowing air across ice blocks or by spraying the air with cooled water. These cooling procedures worked well and had many followers. However, it would be some time before both the heating and cooling technologies of the time would combine to produce an energy and cost efficient method of regulating the temperature within a home.

With the introduction of electricity and the use of oil as a furnace fuel, a new hydronics heating system was developed. This system relied on a pump that was controlled by a thermostat, which determined when a heating temperature should be turned on or off. While this system was being developed, air-cooling systems were also developing rapidly, with the process of forced air circulation leading the methods used to produce air conditioning systems. For the first time, both the heating and air cooling industries considered combining forces to see how the two sectors could unite to provide consumers with a single source for their home and business climate control needs.

By the mid 1940s plans were being developed for the creation of heating units other than the iron radiators and baseboards used for decades. Yet, it wasn't until the mid 1950s when the successful use of the "valance system" was implemented. By establishing a series of pipes or tubing that were suspended in a ceiling, the system produced radiant heat through the floor. However, this system could not be used for successfully cooling a home. Then, in the late 1950s, hydronic heating was combined successfully with conventional forced air-cooling systems to produce a unified climate control system for the home. In the meantime, inventors continued to work on a totally hydronic heating and cooling system that would combine hot water and cool water into one cyclical heating and cooling process.

In the early 1960s after many years of experimentation and hard work, an updated valance system was produced that could generate heat as well as air conditioning. As the popularity of using unified hydronics systems grew, in the 1970s the term hydronics came to represent a new type of technology. Many hydronic valance systems were installed in commercial buildings including in the building that housed the boiler and radiator manufacturers trade association. Because of the success of the hydronics system, in the late 1990s a non-profit association, known as The Hydronic Foundation, Inc. (THFI) was established to pursue the further study of hydronics. Additionally, its goal is to provide economically viable hydronic heating and cooling systems to the public.

While The Hydronic Foundation, Inc. continues to evaluate the future of hydronics, many other reports have been prepared by individuals and firms that propose the use of hydronics, specifically the valance system, for commercial and residential applications. These people note that the valance system is particularly well suited to establish in building that are two levels in height. This is because the first floor can be heated or cooled radiantly while the second floor can be heated or cooled via a forced air handler. Using a hydronic system this way also provides a cost effective alternative to other heating and cooling measures because consumers do not need elaborate heating and cooling appliances to be setup and thus save on equipment and usage costs.

Although hydronic systems can be economical to use, depending on the type of home that you live in and the layout of the house, a hydronics system may not fit into your home's style. But, where it does mesh cosmetically, it can offer you a wealth of benefits including running efficiency and ease of maintenance. So, if you are looking for a well-designed and developed heating and cooling system for your home, ask about hydronics. For what it is worth, the information that you may be receiving can save you valuable time and money before you purchase any sophisticated climate control system for your home.

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