Major Systems - 2/34 - Bob Vila

Category: Major Systems

Built 270 Years Apart, 2 Homes Share 1 Big Thing in Common

An efficient, compact, and inconspicuous HVAC system proved to be the right choice for two strikingly different properties, separated by hundreds of miles—and several centuries.

The Orrin Hoadley House, Branford, Connecticut, built in 1736. Photo:

Whether you live in a centuries-old charmer or a modern marvel, you share something in common with the owners of homes nothing like your own. In any residence, regardless of its age or style, it’s often a struggle to balance practical concerns with aesthetic ones. Compromise isn’t always possible. Take heating and cooling, for instance. In the search for effective and efficient HVAC, homeowners often learn that installing a conventional climate-control system will detract from an older home’s historical integrity, or in a new custom or contemporary home it can interfere with unique architectural designs.

The most ubiquitous type of HVAC system in America, forced-air heating and cooling, relies on a network of bulky air ducts, so it’s no easy feat to fit a forced-air system into an existing home. To do so, contractors must often open up walls, ceilings, and floors. Soffits, chases, and other special accommodations are also commonly necessary to route ductwork from room to room. In other words, retrofitting forced air requires a major remodeling effort that will no doubt deliver comfort, but may also steal square footage or sacrifice architectural integrity. Of course, it’s easier to install a forced-air system in new construction. But even then, the plans would need to be adjusted to account for the path and sheer size of the anticipated ductwork. In any case, choosing forced air often means allowing the needs of the system to dictate everything else, including the final layout, appearance, and feel of the home.

Although conventional forced air dominates the contemporary HVAC landscape, it’s by no means the only game in town. By excelling precisely where forced air falls short, many competing systems have emerged as compelling alternatives. One technology in particular manages to do what forced air never could—that is, heat and cool effectively, efficiently, and all but invisibly. This technology, known as high-velocity mini-duct HVAC, underlies the increasingly popular Unico System. As testament to its versatility, the Unico System sits at the heart of both the Orrin Hoadley House in Branford, Connecticut (pictured above), and the Resonance House in Lexington, Kentucky (pictured below). The two couldn’t be more different, yet they rely on Unico for precisely the same thing—modern comfort that does nothing to detract from the architecture or interior design of the home.

The Resonance House, Lexington, Kentucky, built in 2006. Photo:

Streamlined and compact, the Unico System installs virtually anywhere, unobtrusively, no matter what constraints may be present. In the Orrin Hoadley House, many factors would have complicated the installation of a conventional system. With portions that date back to 1736—decades before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, let alone the advent of modern HVAC—the home had no space for heating and cooling equipment.

Built in 2006, the Resonance House faced the same dilemma but for different reasons. First of all, the full-size ductwork of a conventional system would have lessened the visual impact of the soaring ceilings—specifically, the double-height central living area. Another curveball: The dramatically low-pitched roof did not offer enough clearance for a standard-size system. Ultimately, the Unico System proved uniquely suited to solve the problems faced in each circumstance.

The secret to the Unico System? For one, it exchanges full-size rigid-metal ductwork for flexible “mini” ducts that measure only two or three inches in diameter. Able to slide behind walls, beneath flooring, and around any obstructions, the ducts in the Unico System bring heating and cooling to every corner of the home, without the need for extensive remodeling. In other words, no matter the design of the home, the Unico System adapts, thanks not only to its snake-like ductwork, but also to its remarkably space-efficient air handler. Even though the unit can fit into an opening only a couple of feet tall or wide, it packs up to three times as much power as a comparable conventional air handler. All told, Unico components need less than a third of the space required by a traditional forced-air system. Its smart, streamlined design enables it to integrate seamlessly almost anywhere, ensuring a low-impact, out-of-plain-sight installation.

The Unico System takes its commitment to inconspicuous design down to even the smallest details. For instance, in the Orrin Hoadley and Resonance Houses, you see only one subtle sign of the installed system—the small outlets that feed conditioned air from the mini ducts to the living spaces. Unlike conventional HVAC vents—large and rectangular, with grilled fronts— the Unico System offers discreet circular or slotted outlets that can be installed wherever they would be least noticeable, whether that’s on the ceiling, floor, or wall. The outlets come in a wide array of standard finishes, and you can always elect to have yours custom-painted or stained to match perfectly the colors and textures that define your decorating scheme. This attention to appearance ensures that, just as installation of the Unico System requires no major remodeling, it similarly requires no sacrifice of aesthetics. A successful outcome is a system you barely see.

The Unico System delivers heating and cooling via inconspicuous, circular or slotted outlets. Photo:

In the Orrin Hoadley and Resonance Houses, the Unico System escapes notice in more ways than one. As much as you don’t see evidence of the system, you don’t hear much either. That’s because Unico doesn’t operate in the same way as a traditional forced-air system. The latter turns on and off in a cyclical pattern, calling attention to itself with each transition and creating air turbulence in the conditioned space, resulting in uncomfortably uneven temperatures. Rather than blasting warm or cool air into the living space, the Unico System leverages the principle of aspiration, introducing conditioned air to the home in such a way that it draws the ambient air into its stream, ensuring a uniform, draft-free environment. Plus, Unico manages to do so at a whisper-quiet decibel level, thanks mainly to the sound-deadening insulation that encases system components, including the ducts.

This duct insulation actually performs two roles. In addition to muffling the sound of air movement, it also enables the system to deliver best-in-class energy efficiency. To understand why, consider that standard uninsulated ductwork suffers thermal loss, often enough to compromise overall system efficiency by 25 percent or more. As well, inefficient air leaks commonly develop in ductwork, particularly at the seams where two sections join. Thanks to sheaths of dual-layer, closed-cell insulation, the ducts in the Unico System sidestep the problem completely, wasting virtually no energy in air delivery, ensuring that you get the climate control you pay for when the utility bill comes. Given that cooling and heating comprises more than half the energy costs in the average home, the efficiency built into the Unico System can help you achieve savings that add up to a significant sum over the long term.

Like so many in the Northeast, the Orrin Hoadley House faces energy costs that are already high and still rising. With this in mind, its owners selected the Unico System not only because it could be installed with minimal disturbance to this historically significant residence, but also because it would help rein in running costs. Meanwhile, at the Resonance House, Unico was able to work in conjunction with the structure’s eco-friendly materials and technologies to keep utility costs low—stunningly low, in fact. Most months, the bill comes to $125—about 65 percent less than the homeowners paid in their previous home of half the size. In recognition of its efficiency, the Resonance House became the first in its state to receive the coveted LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Taken together, though separated by hundreds of miles and hundreds of years, the Orrin Hoadley and Resonance Houses prove that you don’t have to choose between comfort and design. The Unico System delivers both.

With copper cladding and a low-pitched roof, the Resonance House captures attention from the curb. Photo:

This article has been brought to you by Unico. Its facts and opinions are those of

Solved! What to Do When There’s No Hot Water

No hot water for your shower, washing machine, or dishwasher? Follow these troubleshooting tips to restore the heat as quickly as possible.

No Hot Water for a Shower


Q: Even though my shower was perfectly toasty when I hopped in, it quickly chilled until there was no hot water left at all—even an hour later. What gives?

A: Assuming that no one else has been hogging the hot water all day, the problem probably lies within your water heater. First, confirm that your water heater is the appropriate size for your daily household needs. These units range in size from about 30 to 80 gallons, with the smaller end of the spectrum ideal for the modest needs of a single-person, half-house setup and the larger end suited for families with multiple children. Assuming the water heater is big enough for your family’s needs, how you proceed in troubleshooting your hot water problem will depend on the type of water heater you have, gas versus electric. For either type, consider the following tricks:

Bump up the thermostat. Ideal operating temperatures for a hot water heater are between 122 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. A system running below this range risks not only a hot water deficit but also the potential for growth of Legionella bacteria, which are responsible for a severe form of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease. If the water heater isn’t already set in the ideal range, adjust it. In 30 to 40 minutes, you can expect hot water to return, and within two hours the unit should reach a temperature that will prevent the growth of pathogens.

Check the forecast. A sudden cold snap in your area can impact the effectiveness of your gas- or electric-powered water heater, even causing it to conk out. This most often occurs overnight, when the heater sits unused and temperatures plunge. If your recent weather aligns with this scenario and your boiler is still running, try turning the hot water heater up to its max in order to kick it back into gear. After a half hour, turn on a kitchen or bathroom faucet to see if the water warms up after running for a few minutes. If it does heat up, return the hot water heater settings back to normal operating temperature, or even raise it a few degrees higher than usual until the cold snap ends.

Adjust the Water Heater Thermostat When No Hot Water


If yours is a gas-powered water heater

Relight the pilot light. If your gas water heater’s pilot light has been snuffed out by a downdraft in a vent pipe on a stormy day or the breeze through an open window, see if you can relight it with ease following the instructions permanently affixed to the side of your unit. In some instances—such as when a water heater‘s pilot light sits in an enclosed burner chamber—you may need to call in a plumber. If, however, you smell gas while you’re sniffing out the problem, hightail it out of the house and call the gas company!

Fix a faulty thermocouple. If you can successfully light the pilot light but the flame doesn’t stay on after you release the control knob, the thermocouple—a safety device that shuts off gas flow if it senses that the pilot light is out—may be at fault. The tip of this copper tube should be in the flame of the pilot light; if it’s out of line, it could need adjusting or replacing. Fortunately, a thermocouple costs only about $20 to replace and can be a DIY repair.

Rekindle a blue flame. Is your water not so much frigid as it is lukewarm? Does your pilot light burn yellow rather than the standard blue? These are symptoms of a gas-to-air ratio problem. First, be aware that a yellow flame could mean that the boiler is releasing carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, and toxic gas. Check for drafts or open windows that might be causing the pilot light to burn inefficiently, and remedy the breezy situation. If this doesn’t return the pilot to a crisp, blue flame, call a technician to check out the unit. In the meantime, pay attention to any signs of carbon monoxide poisoning (dizziness, faintness, or nausea), and if necessary leave the house immediately to seek medical assistance.

Inspect the gas line. If after turning the valve on you neither see a pilot light nor smell gas, the problem may lie with the fuel source. Check whether the gas valve is open or closed, and eyeball the gas line for any kinks that might be causing a roadblock. If you’ve adjusted the gas flow and nothing has improved, call the gas company to ensure that there’s service in your area and that your account isn’t in arrears. If the gas company assures you that you should have gas, yet turning the valve on still doesn’t produce gas (you’ll smell it if it’s there), then it’s probably time to contact a plumber or other professional.

If your water heater runs on electricity

Restart your water heater. A current can go awry as a result of a power surge from an electrical storm. Try turning your electric unit off for a couple of minutes and then switch it back on. If after a half hour there’s still no hot water, you’ll need to move on to another solution. Proceed cautiously: Before you attempt to repair or even inspect the water heater, make sure the unit is off. These appliances draw enough power that an accidental electrocution could be fatal, so work carefully or call in a pro.

Reset the circuit breaker. If tripped, the water heater’s dedicated breaker may not appear to be “off” but could still be just a little out of whack—not quite in line with the other “on” breakers. Flip it off, wait for 20 seconds, then flip it back on. A breaker that doesn’t hold the “on” position may have failed from age or overwork. If that’s the case, call on a professional for replacement.

Call in the professionals. Concern over safety coupled with the technical nature of a water heater repair mean that it’s best to leave the work to the professionals. If your unit is not on its own breaker—or the breaker needs replacing—call a qualified electrician. Or, if your tank leaks onto the ground or inside the heater’s compartments, bring in professionals to service your water heater before it damages the heating elements or stops thermostat function.

Bear in mind that most hot water heaters are rated for only a 10-year life span. If yours is approaching a decade of use, its elements, thermostat, or other components may soon fail and need replacement. It may be smarter to replace your water heater altogether and capitalize on the improved energy efficiency that a newer unit would offer. Energy savings alone could make this a great time to invest in a new system.

Bob Vila Radio: Is Old Wiring Putting Your Home at Risk?

According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, outdated or faulty wiring contributes to an estimated 51,000 fires each year. Worried as to what may be behind the walls in your house? Stay on the lookout for subtle signs of a serious problem.

How up to date is the electrical wiring in your home? If you’re not sure, it’d be a good idea to have a licensed contractor take a look. Here are some red flags to watch for:

Old Electrical Wiring


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Listen to BOB VILA ON OLD ELECTRICAL WIRING or read below:

Outlets and switches should be cool to the touch. If they’re not—and especially if they show scorch marks—you need to get a pro in for a look pronto.

Having to frequently reset your circuit breakers is another warning sign that your system is not up to snuff. And if you see even a tiny wisp of smoke coming from an outlet, an appliance, or from behind a baseboard, you should immediately switch off the main breaker and call for help.

If your lights dim when you turn on your microwave or AC, it may mean your wiring is carrying too big a load and needs to be upgraded. Also, watch for signs of damage from rodents—torn or flaked insulation and such. For some reason, mice and rats love to munch on electrical wiring.

Finally, make sure your breaker box is clearly marked, showing what circuits go where. That’ll make trouble-shooting a whole lot easier if the need arises.

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free!

3 Reasons Radiant Heat Has Never Been Better

Centuries of improvements have made this particular heating solution more responsive, accommodating, efficient, and even affordable than ever before.



As might be expected, the consistent comfort and high efficiency that are hallmarks of radiant heat didn’t develop overnight. But you may not know that it took centuries of innovations to get to the advanced technology we see today, one that warms homes better than any other traditional heating system and operates at least 25 percent more efficiently than forced-air systems, the most prevalent type of heating in the United States. The basic concept behind radiant heat is hardly new. It first appeared in Korea where shelters used a system called ondol, in which fireboxes and freestanding chimneys connected to smoke passages that channeled heat beneath strategically raised masonry floors. These stones absorbed the heat and slowly radiated it outward. Then, thousands of miles away, during the Roman Empire, homes of wealthy citizens adopted hypocausts—narrow chambers in the walls and floors—that were fed with warmth generated by exterior fires.

Radiant technology made its debut in the United States during the late 1930s, when famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright created homes that used hot water to heat floors. Since then, increasing numbers of consumers have been drawn to these systems. Today, radiant heating products deliver like never before, offering finely tuned, zero-maintenance warmth and providing a qualitatively different, supremely comfortable heating experience—one with three improvements that are particularly hard to ignore.



Radiant Heat is Responsive


Though the general concept of radiant heat as we know it today hasn’t changed significantly, technological advancements in materials have significantly improved responsiveness. Early designs involved tubes that circulated hot water through thick concrete under the flooring. While concrete certainly absorbs and stores a considerable quantity of heat, its density and low conductivity made the heating process very sluggish, resulting in uneven heating performance and long wait times for warmth. And, because concrete takes a while to lose heat, it is difficult for homeowners to reduce temperatures quickly when the weather changes.

Though gypsum concrete systems are still installed today, they aren’t the only options available to homeowners. In fact, radiant heat’s performance improved greatly when more-conductive materials appeared on the scene—namely aluminum, which conveys heat 232 times more efficiently than concrete slabs. This metal heats and cools much more rapidly than concrete, allowing homeowners to adjust their systems on a moment’s notice, thereby eliminating discomfort as well as wasted energy.

Beyond speed of response, today’s systems can offer an unprecedented amount of control over not only when you need heat, but where you need it. Advances in technology have made radiant heat systems uniquely well suited to zoning, with which you can maintain different temperatures in different areas of your home. Dedicated thermostats for these “zoned” systems ensure that your bedroom, for example, remains toasty at night while you reduce the heat in the unoccupied areas of your home—further shrinking the energy bill that comes at the end of the month.



Radiant Heat Has Never Been Better


In the past, reliance on bulky concrete—combined with its uneven heating output—limited radiant-heat installations to rooms with inexpensive tile, stone, or concrete flooring. But with today’s heat-conductive aluminum panels, radiant heat knows no such bounds. Once you install a network of hydronic tubes during construction, you can cover those panels with wall-to-wall carpeting, decorative tile, or even patterned hardwoods. The aluminum is so conductive that the system can circulate heated water that’s 30 degrees cooler than the water that runs through concrete and achieve a higher degree of heat output and uniform temperatures. These lower water temperatures mean that even delicate flooring materials can be safely installed over the heated panels.

The optimal time to incorporate radiant heat is during the process of designing and building a new home, because at this stage of the game you have options that could save you both labor and building material costs. Industry leader Warmboard offers panels with 1-1/8-inch-thick plywood at their base, so they can serve as both your heating system’s “backbone” and the subfloor. If, however, you’ve already bought a house, radiant heat is still a viable option if you’re planning a project where you’ll be removing and replacing floors. Ultra-thin 13/16-inch panels can slip into your intended design without creating any ledges or height differences between floors that have radiant panels beneath and floors in an adjacent room that were left untouched in the renovation.



Radiant Heat Installation 2


According to the Department of Energy, nearly half of a home’s energy usage is devoted to heating and cooling. Come winter, when homeowners tend to crank up the thermostat, you can expect that percentage (and, more generally, the energy costs) to spike. In many cases, you’ll also end up paying for more heat than you actually feel. Forced-air heat systems lose up to 25 percent of their efficiency through leaks at the seams of their lengthy ductwork, and then whatever heat does make it to the targeted space can be easily displaced through thermal energy loss. As a result, the furnace needs to work harder and longer to maintain the temperature set on the thermostat. In other words, you’re essentially paying extra every month to make up for your system’s design flaws.

Since radiant heat doesn’t rely on ductwork, this system maximizes energy savings by minimizing heat loss. Plus, by taking it easier on your furnace, you’ll likely save money on your heating bills and extend the appliance’s lifespan. Increased efficiency and consistent comfort means lower costs, and having more cash in your pocket is nearly always a good thing, especially during the holidays.


This article has been brought to you by Warmboard. Its facts and opinions are those of

Bob Vila Radio: The DIY Drain That Will Save You Thousands

Imported from Europe and popularized in Massachusetts, the French drain is a classic, low-cost solution for water pooling around your foundation or in your basement. We'll show you how to get your house back on dry land!

Runoff from rain or melted snow can cause serious damage to your foundation and basement. The best solution to lead all that water away from your home? Head to your local home improvement store for a few supplies, and dig your own French drain.



Listen to BOB VILA ON FRENCH DRAINS or read below:

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The job is a surprisingly simple. Start by digging a trench alongside the foundation where the water is pooling. It should be about a foot wide and at least two feet deep. Be sure to create a gradual slope in the direction you want the water to run. Add a few inches of crushed stone in the bottom of the trench, then lay down perforated PVC pipe. Before installing the pipe, it’s a good idea to wrap it in a layer of water-permeable landscaping fabric to keep dirt and roots from blocking the pre-drilled holes. Next, cover the pipe with gravel, stopping about three inches below the grade of your yard. Finish with a layer of sod to hide the drain.

If the excess moisture is concentrated in your basement, remember that you can also install a French drain there too— as long as you have a sump pump to remove the water. It’s a lot more work, since you’ll need to cut through the concrete slab to before breaking out your shovel, but the concept is the same.

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free!

How To: Choose a High-Efficiency Mini-Split System

Anyone who's renovating or building new has to give a lot of thought to the best way of keeping those spaces warm in the winter and cool in summer. If you're looking for a system that offers exceptional versatility and efficiency, maybe it's time to learn more about an HVAC option that you may not have considered before.

How to Choose a Mini-Split


If you live in a mild climate, consider yourself lucky. Everyone else? You know that whenever the temperature soars or plummets, you always face an impossible dilemma: Either you commit to paying more than you may feel comfortable spending on your monthly energy bill, or you make the choice to shiver or sweat in the name of cost savings. It’s a lose-lose proposition that, in the age of whisper-quiet dishwashers and self-cleaning ovens, endlessly frustrates today’s homeowners, who are accustomed to appliances that deliver a considerably higher level of satisfaction. If you’re at your wit’s end with your current HVAC system, or if you’re planning a brand new custom home, take comfort from the fact that you can choose a heating and cooling system that won’t force you to constantly make sacrifices of one kind or another.

Forced air, the dominant mode of heating and cooling for much of the last century, may have surpassed older technologies, but it also reinforced the idea that you can enjoy comfort or save money, but never both. Only now are homeowners seeing a new way forward. Thanks to a recent wave of innovation—the rise of mini-split systems, most notably—the market finally includes options that manage to combine top performance with money-saving efficiency. Already common in Europe and Asia, mini-splits are still relatively rare in the United States. But with awareness spreading about alternatives to forced air, mini-splits are rapidly gaining popularity. For more background on the technology, and for details about the features that distinguish different systems, continue reading.



How to Choose a Mini-Split - Floor Plan Drawing


At the outset of an HVAC project, it’s important to define your needs, because mini-split systems—the iSeries from Unico, for example—offer a great deal of flexibility. You can employ the technology on your terms, adapting its capabilities to provide climate control in a space of any size, be it one small room or an entire multilevel home. The versatility of the system stems from its unique, streamlined design. At its simplest, a mini-split system consists of only two components—an outdoor compressor (to condition air) and an indoor evaporator (to distribute air). Here’s the key: A single outdoor unit can typically support multiple indoor units, and for even greater capacity, there’s the option of installing an additional compressor. The technology scales up or down as needed with ease.

Homeowners who install only one indoor unit often do so to add extra comfort in an area underserved by the main HVAC system. The technology can also provide whole-home climate control by dividing the home into HVAC zones, each of which gets its own thermostat. This allows the homeowner to target temperatures on a zone-by-zone basis. That may not sound like much, but consider that zoning lets you cut back on energy costs in any room you aren’t occupying. Second, in a zoned home, family members with different temperature preferences can all be comfortable at the same time in different rooms. It’s a win for your bottom line and your family’s comfort.



How to Choose a Mini-Split - iSeries Efficiency


Mini-splits save you money in lots of little ways, but in the context of their high-efficiency performance, one innovation stands out most of all. Whereas traditional forced-air systems were designed to stop and start over and over in an energy-devouring cycle, mini-splits conserve by running continuously. That doesn’t mean the compressor operates at full capacity around the clock, but rather that it modulates itself to match the heating or cooling demand at any given time. In the process, the variable compressor driving the mini-split system goes a long way toward minimizing energy usage and maximizing savings. In fact, best-of-breed mini-splits often boast a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) high enough to qualify homeowners for any number of coveted certifications, including LEED and Net Zero Energy.

A second way in which mini-splits keep down costs: Because their installation doesn’t involve ductwork, mini-splits sidestep the air leakage and thermal energy loss for which air ducts are infamous. After replacing a traditional ducted forced-air system with a ductless mini-split, homeowners notice almost immediate reductions in their utility costs, sometimes up to 25 percent or more. The catch? Short runs of ducts often prove necessary in whole-home applications. Don’t fret, though: Just as so many other HVAC components have improved by leaps and bounds over the years, so, too, has one particular type of ductwork: a tubular, small diameter, high velocity (SDHV) system. The Unico System features small ducts encased in two layers of closed-cell insulation, effectively eliminating the risk of air leaks, energy loss, and wasted money. Plus, Unico’s iSeries outdoor unit can match up to Unico ductless and ducted systems at the same time. You can connect up to four indoor ductless units to one outdoor unit, or a combination of up to four ductless and ducted units to one outdoor unit.



How to Choose a Mini-Split - iSeries Head Unit


HVAC isn’t known for its looks. Equipment manufacturers have usually focused on performance instead. It’s a different story, however, with mini-splits, largely because the system design situates the indoor unit within the space it conditions. Years ago, there was no other option but to mount the indoor unit right on the wall, but today manufacturers typically offer at least a couple of comparatively discreet alternatives. One popular style of indoor unit sets into the ceiling, leaving only its air distribution vents exposed. Another style slots into the floor or in a soffit. There’s only one problem: Not every home—and not every room in every home—has enough clearance in its cavities to accommodate a recessed HVAC component. In other words, it may be feasible to install your choice of indoor unit, or it may not.

Are you looking to knock out both heating and cooling in one punch? Many of the best mini-split systems are capable of delivering both. To cool a space, the technology pulls heat from the home and expels it outside. For heating, the system operates in reverse, drawing heat from the air surrounding the home and sending it indoors. In fact, the Unico iSeries has been tested and verified to operate at peak efficiency even when temperatures drop as low as -35 degrees Fahrenheit. When the seasons change, or on an unseasonably warm or cold day, switching modes requires nothing more complicated than the push of a button. Indeed, while homeowners are accustomed to viewing heating and cooling as separate and distinct, mini-splits serve as evidence that HVAC has changed—dramatically, and for the better.


Excelling where forced air fell short, mini-splits may be different enough from older technologies to warrant a reevaluation of everything you once took for granted about HVAC. That said, despite the evolution of climate-control technology, one thing remains as true today as it was 20 or even 50 years ago: Homeowners devote a great deal of thought, time, and effort (and, of course, money) toward shaping their homes to reflect their style sensibilities and priorities in life. Though any mini-split system can deliver the up-to-now elusive combination of comfort and savings, only the iSeries from Unico gives homeowners the option to operate both ductless and ducted systems from the same outdoor unit. This high efficiency solution means lower energy bills and a zoned home where everyone is more comfortable.

How to Choose a Mini-Split - Unico Cutaway Diagram


This article has been brought to you by Unico. Its facts and opinions are those of

All You Need to Know About Indirect Water Heaters

If you're in the market for a new water heater, explore an option that could be just right for your needs.

Indirect Water Heaters


Because they’re typically out of sight—in the basement or a back closet for instance—water heaters are largely out of mind for many homeowners. Most simply take it for granted that whenever they turn on the shower or start the dishwasher, the hot water will be ready and waiting. But like it or not, when an existing hot water heater fails, even the most uninvolved homeowners have to shake off their inertia and familiarize themselves with the product landscape. The good news is that with manufacturers competing to come up with ever more effective solutions, the category now boasts a more diverse range of options than ever before. The bad news is that without consulting a contractor, it can be difficult to determine which of the many types of water heater would be the best for your situation. As you assess the alternatives, don’t forget to factor in one especially compelling option that often gets overlooked.

Indirect water heaters aren’t new—they’ve been around for decades. But today, with growing concern for the environment and rising energy costs, indirect units are enjoying renewed popularity. Why? For some homeowners in certain parts of the country, indirect water heating can deliver a powerful one-two punch of energy use reduction and cost savings. In fact, according to the Department of Energy, under ideal circumstances indirect water heaters are “the least expensive means of providing hot water” to the point-of-use fixtures you rely on every day, multiple times a day. Given that water heaters consume a lot more energy than most people think—more energy than most other household appliances combined—opting for a high-efficiency solution can go a long way toward improving your bottom line, especially over the long term.

Indirect Water Heaters - Product Detail Shot


To understand its ingenious design, the first thing to know is that an indirect water heater is, in essence, little more than a well-insulated storage tank that holds a coiled heat exchanger, though a less common version relies on a tank-in-tank design. But in either case, the “indirect” unit doesn’t produce its own heat; instead, it relies on the boiler. In a typical arrangement, a closed-loop water pipe connects the boiler to the indirect water heater, feeding heated water to it. Though the boiler-fired water never mixes with the water in the storage tank, it circulates through the coils in the heat exchanger, which in turn heat the water for household use. In essence, the boiler does all the work, while the indirect heater merely facilitates the transfer of heat.

If you don’t already have a boiler in your home, you can stop reading right now. According to Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with, “Indirect water heaters make sense only if you need a boiler for space heating.” With forced-air HVAC equipment dominating the market, boilers are increasingly rare. If, however, your home ranks among the relative few with hydronic baseboard, radiator, or in-floor radiant heating, when you install an indirect unit, the boiler drives both systems, heating the house and the water. Even if your boiler has been in the basement for 15 years and operates inefficiently relative to contemporary standards, O’Brian maintains that “there are obviously significant benefits associated with running only one power-devouring major appliance instead of the usual pair.”

In the summer the situation gets a little more complicated, not least because homeowners aren’t accustomed to the boiler operating when the house doesn’t need to be heated. But in a home with an indirect water heater, the boiler still needs to snap into action intermittently to meet the household demand for hot water. Another type of water-heater technology—tankless water heaters as they are commonly known—operate in a similarly on-demand way. However, the key distinction is that the efficiency of an indirect water heater equals the efficiency of the boiler, and boilers typically outperform most water heaters. If you have a brand-new high-performance boiler capable of achieving 96 percent efficiency, you’re much better off than you would be with a tankless unit that offers 80 percent efficiency or a conventional unit with a rate of efficiency in the 60 or 70 percent range.

Intrigued? Not least because of the many considerations involved, O’Brian strongly recommends discussing your plans with a contractor. At the very least, O’Brian says, “hire a pro to handle the installation.” Portions of the work are DIY-friendly, but properly sizing an indirect water heater involves a set of complex calculations best left in the hands of a trained and experienced installer. Of course, hiring a contractor isn’t cheap, and purchasing an indirect water heater isn’t cheap either. But while the up-front costs may be considerable, indirect water heaters usually don’t need expensive service or repairs. In addition, with few moving parts and utility hookups—and with no exposure to combustion—indirect water heaters often last much longer than other types. Many manufacturers even supply a lifetime guarantee.

Whether you need to replace a broken water heater or simply wish to upgrade, O’Brian concludes, “If you have a boiler or plan to put in a boiler, an indirect unit stands out as the clear choice” for reliable, cost-effective water heating. If you’re tired of dreading the arrival of your utility bills, take the next step toward investigating whether an indirect water heater would make sense for your needs, your budget, and your home. Don’t know where to begin? You can start by visiting right now to explore a broad selection of indirect water heaters and accessories from the biggest names in the category, including Buderus, Amtrol, Bradford White, and Weil-McLain. Don’t worry: If you end up having any questions along the way, customer service experts are always on hand to provide assistance.

Indirect Water Heaters - Applications Collage


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Solved! What to Do About Cloudy Water

It's easy to take clean water for granted until your tap turns cloudy. Here, what this means for the safety of your drinking water—and how you can clear up the problem!



Q. When I fill a glass of water from my faucet, it looks cloudy. What’s with all the the murkiness?  More importantly, is it safe to drink?

A. Your tap water is probably fine to drink, especially if it’s provided by your city or town. But since there’s always a small risk of contamination, it’s a good idea to stock up on a few gallons from the store while you take a few steps to track down the cause of your cloudy water.

Clear the air. When air gets into water supply lines, the pressure of the water forces the air into tiny bubbles and disperses them, making the water appear milky right out of the faucet. To see if air is the issue, fill a glass and set it on the counter. If the cloudiness disappears in a few minutes, tiny air bubbles probably are the culprit—and your tap water is safe to drink.



Try a sediment filter. Unlike air bubbles, organic particles won’t clear up after a couple minutes. The tiny specks of stone, rock, and soil are present in all tap water at low concentrations, but higher levels can make your water murky. If your water is from a municipal system, installing an inexpensive sediment filter on your faucet will probably solve your cloudy water problem. The filters use activated carbon cartridges to trap particles that improve the purity and taste of your water.

Go back to the source. If your water comes from a private well, the cloudy water could have a number of different causes. Unlike municipal systems, private well water isn’t treated for contaminants. While the problem might just be air introduced to the lines from the pump or pressure tank, it could also be harmful residue, chemicals, or contaminants inside the well. To find out what you’re dealing with, take a sample to your local county extension office. They’ll send it to a lab to determine the type and concentration of any harmful substances, and offer treatment options.

Follow the recommendations. Depending on the results that come back from the local county extension office, you may be able to clear up the issue with a sediment filter. If the cloudy water is caused by more serious contaminants, though, installing a reverse osmosis (RO) unit is probably the next step. By filtering water through a series of membranes, these systems catch up to 99 percent of contaminants, including chemicals like pesticides and chlorine. Once installed under the sink, the unit dispenses clean water right from the tap. Unfortunately, peace of mind doesn’t come cheap: Residential models start at $300 and go up from there.

Test for gas. It’s less likely, but not impossible, that methane is the culprit. The non-toxic gas is most likely to show up in water from small, rural systems or a well close to an oil or gas line. To find out, fill an empty gallon jug halfway with tap water and set it aside for an hour to allow the gas to rise. When you open the lid, light a match at the top. Because methane is flammable, you’ll see the flame flare up if it’s in your water. The only way to remove methane from your water system is to have a plumber install an aerator on the water line leading into your home. This add-on allows the gas to escape safely into the atmosphere, and you’ll see clearer water from your tap.

What Do Homeowners Like Best About Radiant Heat?

Listen up! We've got six solid reasons real-life homeowners are happy—and you could be, too—about upgrading to a radiant heat system.

Energy Savings With Radiant Heat


As the mercury continues to drop, heralding the arrival of the colder months, Mother Nature prods homeowners to think ahead. Winter is coming, and the weather’s only going to get worse. It’s time to turn your attention to the best ways to keep the inside of your house toasty warm. There are numerous options to consider, including traditional HVAC, radiators, and baseboard units as well as an army of space heaters and, less commonly, radiant heating. While each comes with its own set of pros and cons, radiant-heating systems also come with a surprisingly long track record that dates all the way back to ancient Rome. But it’s the technology’s modern advantages that are really getting people talking and making radiant heat ever more popular here in the United States. Keep reading for six important reasons that homeowners who installed a radiant heat system from industry leader Warmboard have remained warm and fuzzy about the decision—even on the coldest nights of the season.

Overall Savings
“Our winter weather can drop to 20 degrees below zero, and, in our previous home, fuel heating with propane cost us $6,000 to $7,000 a year. [With radiant heat], this past winter it cost us only a thousand.”

With traditional forced-air heating systems, warm air sneaks out through leaky ductwork on its journey from the furnace to your living space. Plus, any cold air let in through an open window or poor weather stripping will quickly replace warm air, adding to the total heat loss—all of which forces your boiler to work harder. Radiant heat, by contrast, is designed to warm your space and the things in it from the ground up—not simply the air—through panels installed beneath your flooring. No ductwork, no heat loss. Compared with forced-air systems, radiant heat operates at least 25 percent more efficiently to get heat right where you need it most, significantly lowering your energy bill month after month.


Radiant Heat Provides Even Comfort


Even Comfort
“When you walk through our main floor, there are no hot or cold spots or obvious sources of heat—just a nice comfortable warm feeling.”

No registers or space heaters to tie yourself to here! When you install radiant heat at home, hydronic tubes spread boiler-heated water throughout panels beneath the flooring so that every square foot warms evenly. In years past, these panels were typically made of concrete, a poor conductor of heat, but today’s technology has evolved and the market has expanded to include aluminum-based panels, which are up to 232 times more conductive. For the astute homeowners who choose radiant heating, that means more heat, more quickly, for less energy (and less money).


Heat Rooms With High Ceilings With Radiant Heat


Heat Where You Need It
“We built a log home with cathedral ceilings and have always felt like the lower the heat to the floor, the better. With radiant heating, it can be less than 30 degrees outside and my living room stays comfortable at 70 to 71 degrees.”

In homes with high ceilings, standard heating options tend to fall short. Because hot air rises, the gusts of warmth generated by a forced-air heating system naturally travel toward the ceiling, prompting homeowners to crank up the thermostat just to feel any heat on the main level. Radiant heat, however, doesn’t get carried away. Its thermal radiation warms what it encounters first—the floor, furniture, and people standing or sitting in the living space—keeping even a vast, open space cozy.


Better Design Selection With Radiant Heat


More Design Options
“The home has a variety of flooring types—tile, hardwood, and some carpet—so the flexibility in flooring that comes with choosing radiant heat is definitely a benefit.”

As the system runs beneath the surface and out of sight, there’s virtually no need to compromise your home’s design for your heating system. Radiant heat lets you arrange your furniture the way you want, without worrying about blocking a register or having to sacrifice square footage to a bulky, immobile radiator. Moreover, a high-efficiency radiant hydronic system allows flexibility in the types of flooring you can install over it. Panels manufactured by Warmboard, for example, are so conductive that they can generate ideal room temperatures while warming the water that runs through them to temperatures 30 degrees less than the competition—safe enough to sit below thick wool carpets, ornate tile and marble, and even patterned hardwood!


Radiant Heat Is Easier On Allergies


Fewer Allergy Flare-Ups
“The room’s a comfortable temperature, without feeling stuffy. And it doesn’t blow cat hair around the room!”

Forced air blowing through ductwork cycles allergens—and worse, cold-causing germs—through your home. As well, breathing dried-out, stale air can irritate nasal passages and lungs. Give your humidifier a rest! Ear, nose, and throat specialists and allergy doctors alike recommend radiant heat over most other systems because it won’t stir up trouble.


Quieter Evenings With Radiant Heat


Quiet Operation
“There’s no noise, no air blowing around, yet as soon as you walk inside you’re warm.”

Functioning completely out of sight, the hydronic tubes beneath your floors operate also out of earshot. Radiant-heating systems silently and stealthily distribute the constant, uniform comfort your household desires. After winters of noisy stop-and-start blasts of air interrupting conversations, and creaking radiators disrupting sleep, this whole-room heat is as soothing to the ears as it is warming to the body.


This content has been brought to you by Warmboard. Its facts and opinions are those of

All You Need to Know About Heat Pump Water Heaters

Don't wait for your water heater to give out, leaving you shivering in the shower. Instead, do your homework and learn about an energy-efficient, cost-effective option that might work for you.

Heat Pump Water Heaters


Homeowners rarely think about their water heater or its vital contribution to the convenience of modern living. Likewise, relatively few think about hot water’s surprisingly high price tag—$400 to $600 per year for an average family, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR program. How could an everyday home essential cost so much? There’s a simple explanation: conventional water heaters are notoriously inefficient, accounting for about 20 percent of total household energy consumption (and 20 percent of each utility bill). The good news is that in recent years, a flood of innovative, high-efficiency water heaters have come onto the market. Unfortunately, too many homeowners fail to capitalize on this technology, opting instead for the default solution—an energy-guzzling conventional model. To transition smoothly to a high-efficiency unit, experts recommend beginning to plan for a new water heater well before you’re faced with an emergency situation. Only then can you survey all of the options and decide which type of water heater would be best for you. There are pros and cons to each competing water heater technology, of course, but heat pump water heaters may be the most intriguing. Continue reading to find out why.



Heat Pump Water Heaters - Unit Operation


Conventional water heaters use energy—usually either gas or electricity—to generate heat. Heat pump water heaters (HPWHs) operate in an entirely different way. They, too, use energy, but not to generate heat, rather to move it from one place to another—from the air surrounding the appliance to the water held in the unit’s storage tank. It may sound like magic, but the reality is that refrigerators work in pretty much the same way. While a refrigerator expels hot air from inside its storage compartment, HPWHs accomplish the reverse, pulling heat in from the surrounding air. It’s a complex yet highly efficient process in which the heat pump successively condenses and evaporates a special refrigerant fluid, capturing heat along the way. There’s only one drawback: HPWHs take a relatively long time to heat a volume of water to the preset temperature. In order to avoid falling behind on the demand, particularly at peak times, most HPWHs are equipped to provide traditional electric-resistance water-heating as well. However, when properly installed under the right conditions, a HPWH rarely needs to revert from its primary, high-efficiency mode to its less efficient backup mode. But, because they’re capable of both, HPWHs are sometimes called “hybrid” models.



Heat Pump Water Heaters - In Closet


The popularity of HPWHs stem not from the nuances of their underlying technology, but from their remarkable efficiency—and more specifically, how inexpensive they are to operate. In fact, of the many water-heating technologies available today, HPWHs offer the lowest running costs of all, saving the homeowner every month for as long as the appliance lasts (an estimated 13 years). Those incremental savings really add up over time. According to the EPA, an ENERGY STAR certified HPWH can save the average family as much as $3,500 over the full duration of its useful lifespan. As an added benefit, ENERGY STAR HPWHs also help save the planet. EPA calculates that if an ENERGY STAR HPWH were installed in place of every electric water heater in the U.S., it would prevent approximately 140 billion pounds of annual greenhouse gas emissions—the same as taking more than 13 million vehicles off the road. While savings are achieved across households, a number of factors influence precisely how efficient a HPWH would be in your home. We’ll discuss these variables in the next section.



Heat Pump Water Heaters - Collage 2


Before purchasing a HPWH, it’s vital to confirm that your home can provide the appliance with what it needs to operate with greatest efficiency—a sufficient supply of warm air. While it’s possible to install other water-heating technologies in areas as small as a closet, HPWHs usually need at least 750 or 1,000 square feet. Any location big enough must also be stable in temperature (ideally never going below 40 degrees or above 90 degrees). Not every home contains an available space that satisfies both requirements. Plus, if the only suitable area for the HPWH happens to fall within a part of the home that you pay to heat, there’s a tricky tradeoff. After all, if your HVAC system must work harder (and consume more energy) to counteract the cooling effect of HPWHs on their immediate surroundings, the money-saving benefits of the high-efficiency water heater may be diminished, at least during colder months. Given the number of variables at play, it’s wise to consult with a contractor. Generally speaking, homeowners in cold climates are typically successful installing HPWHs in unconditioned areas with exposure to the heat of a furnace, boiler, or washer and dryer. In warm climates, garage installations are most common.


Some homeowners don’t even consider HPWHs because the technology requires a relatively large up-front investment. The purchase price of a HPWH typically runs three or four times higher than a conventional model. To fairly judge the cost-effectiveness of a water heater, however, you must consider the cost of running it as well as the cost of the equipment itself. By virtue of their unparalleled efficiency, HPWHs often cover their extra cost within a few years, and from then on any savings go right into your pocket. Another important factor to weigh in your decision: There are a number of rebates available to help mitigate some of the purchase price. For instance, if you install an ENERGY STAR HPWH unit in 2016, you qualify for a $300 federal tax credit. The utility, energy service provider, or municipal government in your area may offer additional incentives. Visit the ENERGY STAR Rebate Finder for a comprehensive list. Don’t delay. If you do your research now, as soon as your existing water heater approaches the end of its 10- to 15-year lifespan, you’ll be ready to act promptly to replace it, if not with a heat pump water heater, then with any unit boasting the ENERGY STAR label.

Heat Pump Water Heaters - In Garage


This article has been brought to you by ENERGY STAR. Its facts and opinions are those of