Major Systems - 4/36 - Bob Vila

Category: Major Systems

How To: Breathe the Purest Possible Indoor Air

Stuffy recirculated air is certainly unpleasant, but when it's laden with dust, bacteria, and mold spores, it can also trigger allergies and spread illnesses. Read on to learn how technology can help your family enjoy the cleanest, freshest indoor air.

UV Air Purifiers


Popular taste in decor changes over time, and even types of furnishings come and go. For example, these days TVs that mount sleekly on a wall have largely eliminated bulky entertainment centers from living rooms across the country. But for the most part, today’s typical home isn’t so different from those built several decades ago, particularly with regard to construction. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, against a backdrop of rising energy costs and growing environmental concerns, our homes have become more tightly sealed, thanks in large part to advances in building materials, especially insulation and windows. Of course, as a home becomes more airtight, ventilation becomes much more important to the health and comfort of its occupants—and, according to Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with, “many homes just don’t get enough.” The result? “Stale air recirculates over and over,” O’Brian says. This forces homeowners to endure not only the discomfort of stuffy conditions, but also the potentially detrimental health effects associated with exposure to airborne toxins and impurities.

Not least because the average person spends only 5 percent of his time outside, the Environmental Protection Agency ranks indoor air pollution among the top five environmental health risks in America. At home, O’Brian says, “we’re practically surrounded by impurities.” Generally speaking, there are two types. First are particulate pollutants, which run the gamut from dust, smoke, and pet dander to mold, bacteria, and viruses. Second, there are gaseous pollutants. These materialize in the home almost without fail, because as O’Brian puts it, “everything from furniture to paint to cleaning products” contains harmful toxins, which slowly “off-gas”—emit potentially damaging gases—into the indoor air. While it may seem like our homes are conspiring against our health, the good news is that there are plenty of options for dealing with airborne contaminants. “The trick is to prevent the impurities from recirculating throughout your home, and there are many effective ways to do that,” O’Brian says.

UV Air Purifiers - Operational Diagram


Step one is to cover the basics. “There’s no substitute for adequate ventilation,” O’Brian says, and “it’s critically important to maintain and, if necessary, upgrade the HVAC filter.” A critical line of defense, the HVAC filter removes most particulates from circulation—but it doesn’t remove all particulates. For that reason, O’Brian recommends going a step further by installing an ultraviolet (UV) air purifier. Located within the HVAC system, adjacent to the blower fan, the UV purifier works by administering a high-intensity light, which, according to O’Brian, “kills the mold, bacteria, and viruses that traditional filtration typically doesn’t capture on its own.” In a sense, O’Brian continues, UV purification “closes the loophole that traditional filtration usually leaves open.” Whereas the filter catches the bigger particles—dust and pollen, for example—only UV technology scrubs air of bacteria, viruses, and mold spores, all of which are microscopic.

For decades, hospitals, water-treatment plants, and other institutions have been capitalizing on the proven germicidal effects of UV light. So, even though UV light has only recently entered the residential arena, many industry pros believe that, given the pedigree of the technology, it deserves serious consideration by homeowners who insist on high-quality indoor air. Why? “You can have perfectly good indoor air quality without a UV purifier,” O’Brian says, “but you can’t have the best.” In other words, you can’t protect against the full spectrum of indoor pollutants if you don’t use UV to eliminate the impurities that only UV can eliminate. The added bonus: UV purifiers also eliminate odors. True, that isn’t technically a health benefit, but it can “certainly make life a little more pleasant,” O’Brian notes. After all, “What’s the point of prioritizing indoor air quality if the effort doesn’t leave your home feeling fresh and clean?”

Make no mistake: Stuffy conditions don’t have to be a fact of life in the winter, and you don’t have to live with lingering doubts about the quality of the air in your home. Ventilation and HVAC filtration go a long way toward ensuring a steady supply of fresh, clean air. But while many combinations of air-quality improvement measures can deliver satisfying results, UV technology makes any of these combinations more comprehensive. Even if you’re not particularly concerned about the quality of your home’s indoor air, don’t forget that there’s a financial incentive—today’s home buyers consider home health a top priority. In fact, in a 2014 survey conducted in partnership with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), 68 percent of the responding home buyers and homeowners said they would be willing to pay more for a healthier home. That being the case, O’Brian concludes, “Clearly, there’s more than one benefit to breathing easier at home!”

UV Air Purifiers - Product Array


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The Best Way to Avoid the Discomfort of Cold Floors

Put an end to the shock of waking up to icy floors—and frigid feet—by installing a cutting-edge heating system that provides all-encompassing, "everywhere" warmth. Read on, and you'll discover that toasty tootsies are just one of the many benefits of radiant heating.

Cold Floors


You never get used to it—the discomfort you feel when you roll out of bed and set foot on an ice-cold floor. But while some homeowners merely wince, stumble toward their slippers, and get on with their day, building pros recognize cold floors as a hallmark shortcoming of traditional heating systems like forced hot air. Forced-air HVAC, which surged in popularity during the postwar era, remained the dominant mode of residential climate control for more than 50 years. Recently, however, amid a tide of innovation, a number of new options have come onto the scene, each boasting performance and efficiency advantages over older, increasingly outmoded technologies. Of all the systems in common use today, one in particular—radiant heating—stands out for its ability to guarantee warm, welcoming floors while maintaining an overall level of wintertime comfort that even the latest high-tech equipment can’t match.

Radiant floor heating isn’t anything newfangled. In fact, with roots reaching all the way back to ancient Rome, radiant-heat technology has been undergoing continual development for centuries. Today, it’s more than just a viable whole-home heating alternative—it’s the system that many industry experts consider to be the new standard-bearer. But although radiant heating has been widely adopted in Europe and Asia, it remains relatively rare in the United States. That’s all changing, though, as more and more homeowners learn that the virtually silent, dust-free, and energy-efficient performance of radiant heating surpasses that of competing technologies, including, among others, forced air. Read on for details on the benefits of a system that delivers heat from the ground up, across every inch of floor space, fostering even, encompassing, “everywhere” warmth.



Cold Floors - Radiant Heat Panel Tubing


First off, a point of clarification: Many homeowners labor under the misapprehension that radiant systems heat only the floor. That may be true of electric radiant systems, but hydronicradiant technology operates very differently. In an electric system, a network of cables installed under the floor generate on-demand supplemental heat. Such systems do a good job of making making the floor feel warm, but it’s rare for homeowners to rely exclusively on electric radiant heating for their heating system. Why? Well, electricity doesn’t come cheap. Hydronic systems, on the other hand, rely on efficiently boiler-heated water instead of costly electricity, enabling homeowners to enjoy affordable whole-home radiant heat. In a hydronic system, as hot water moves through tubes set into panels below the floor, heat radiates outward into the home, creating a qualitatively different kind of comfort.



Cold Floors - Radiant Heat vs. Forced Air


Hydronic radiant heat isn’t only a viable means of heating the whole house. Many experts argue that it’s the best means of doing so, because by delivering heat from the ground up, radiant systems don’t merely eliminate the problem of cold floors. They also deliver something forced air never could—uniform temperatures from wall to wall and from room to room. If you’re familiar with forced air, you know that it’s warmest—too warm, in fact—right near the vent, and becomes cooler the farther away you go. Plus, quite soon after entering a room, the conditioned warm air in a forced-air system flies to the ceiling, where no one can feel it. Under these circumstances, if family and guests feel totally comfortable, it’s for only a fleeting moment. In contrast, by delivering warmth across every square inch of flooring, radiant heat provides steady, “everywhere” warmth that’s concentrated not above your head, but at the level where you need it most.



Cold Floors - Radiant Heat Panel Detail


Perhaps more than any other technology, forced air has popularized the notion that in the winter you can either save money or enjoy a comfortable home, but you can’t do both. Why do forced-air systems cost so much to operate? One primary explanation: Ductwork, which is notoriously prone to leaking, especially at the seams, can lose energy, thereby compromising the overall efficiency of a forced-air system by 25 percent or more. With radiant heat, there’s no such heat loss and, as a consequence, no wasted energy. Still, bear in mind that while radiant heat always offers efficiency benefits over forced air, some radiant systems deliver greater efficiency than others. It all depends on the design of the system. Historically, radiant-heating systems relied on gypsum concrete, but that trend has been changing. Warmboard, for instance, builds panels with aluminum, a material whose exceptional conductivity allows the system to heat quickly while saving homeowners an extra 10 percent to 20 percent each month.



Cold Floors - Air Quality and Quiet Operation


Forced-air heating doesn’t tick like baseboards or hiss like radiators. But when the system clicks on and the blower begins to blow, the rush of air through the ductwork creates a sustained “whoosh” not unlike the sound of an idling jet engine. One of the most appealing characteristics of radiant heating is that it calls no attention to itself whatsoever. Besides being virtually silent, the technology also goes a long way toward supporting indoor air quality. For allergy and asthma sufferers in particular, radiant heat can be like a breath of fresh air. Unlike forced-air systems and their dust-collecting ducts, radiant heating doesn’t distribute airborne impurities throughout the home. Nor does radiant heating traffic warm, dry air through the house, reducing the moisture content of the air—a big relief for homeowners who were accustomed to spending the winter with red eyes and a scratchy throat.


Finally, radiant heating enhances not only comfort in the home, but also aesthetics. Indeed, for some, radiant impresses most not for the quality of its comfort or the efficiency of its operation, but for its complete invisibility. Whereas forced-air vents require clearance and, as a result, dictate furniture arrangement, radiant heating places no such limitations on the homeowner. True, there was a time when the technology didn’t pair well with certain types of flooring. Today, however, modern panels from the most reputable manufacturers make radiant a compelling choice in any circumstance, even if the homeowner plans to put in wall-to-wall, thick-pile carpeting. Indeed, when it comes to the benefits of a heating system beloved by builders and homeowners alike, eliminating the discomfort of cold floors isn’t the be-all and end-all—it’s only the beginning.

Cold Floors - Radiant Heat Solution


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

Give Your Home the Gift of Year-Round Climate Control

Turn to an innovative, space-smart, and energy-efficient heating and cooling option to bring your family all the comfort of the season, all year long.


Comfort and joy: That’s what the holidays are all about. If, however, your home fails to provide refuge from the wicked winter weather—if your heating system simply isn’t cutting it anymore, in other words—then you may find it challenging to embrace the festive spirit of the season. After all, the importance of reliable, effective, and efficient HVAC can’t be overstated. If you’re tired of your hit-or-miss heating system that costs a small fortune to run, the new year may be the ideal time to reassess your needs and your options. That’s especially true if your home lacks not only satisfactory heating, but also central air. Rather than shiver and sweat your way through another 12 months, consider giving your home (and everyone in it) the wonderful gift of year-round climate control.

You might think that such a gift would require a bit of shopping: The HVAC market offers a dizzying range of choices, and there are plenty of products capable of both heating and cooling. But perhaps no other technology delivers the best of modern climate control as unobtrusively as the Unico System. Engineered to be practically invisible, Unico installs easily and discreetly in any home, no matter its age, without the need for costly, disruptive remodeling—in fact, without forcing you to make sacrifices of any kind. What’s more: The innovative Unico System succeeds in avoiding the performance pitfalls of conventional systems, even while saving you significant sums on monthly utility bills. Want to learn more? For all the details on a solution that’s as popular and well suited for historic properties as for cutting-edge custom construction, continue reading below.




When you install a climate-control system, you expect it to improve the way your home feels. You don’t expect it to change the way your home looks. But that’s very often what happens, at least if you opt for a traditional forced-air system. After all, a conventional system relies on ductwork. In retrofit applications, in the course of contain and conceal the ductwork, contractors often must build special accommodations—soffits, chases, and more—that hog space and fundamentally alter the home aesthetically. Indeed, many homeowners discover that to adopt a forced-air system would mean letting the desire for year-round at-home comfort take precedence over equally important concerns—namely, square footage and architectural design integrity.

Enter the Unico System. Rather than put you in the tough position of having to choose between comfort on the one hand, and space and style on the other, Unico enables you to enjoy modern comfort without giving anything up in return. In other words, while forced air dictates the terms of its installation, the versatile Unico System adapts to almost any circumstance. By and large, it’s able to do so by virtue of its special mini ducts. Measuring no wider than four inches, Unico ducts fit in the unseen places (behind walls, above ceilings) where rigid metal full-size ductwork cannot. Plus, Unico ducts are flexible enough to bend around studs, joists, and other structural elements that would act as impediments to regular ducts. In short, Unico doesn’t thrust its needs upon you; instead, it cleverly bends to meet yours.




Another reason the Unico System stands out: It works to ensure that the temperature remains consistently comfortable throughout the home. Of course, that’s the goal of any climate-control technology, but not every system succeeds. Take forced air, for example. Designed to operate intermittently—to start and stop, start and stop, over and over again—forced-air HVAC often creates uncomfortable swings in temperature. Where forced air fails, Unico excels. How? It leverages a principle of air movement known as aspiration. That means when Unico introduces conditioned air to a room, it does so in a way that draws the ambient air into its stream. The result: From room to room and wall to wall, the temperature never strays more than a couple of degrees from the temperature you set on the thermostat.

While running, the Unico System makes almost zero noise. That’s in stark contrast to traditional HVAC systems, which, in the process of heating and cooling, tend to create a whole new problem—thought-distracting, conversation-interrupting noise. Unico, meanwhile, operates at an extremely low decibel level. How? For one thing, its signature mini ducts are encased in two layers of insulation, making the sound of air moving through the system no louder than a whisper—literally. In addition, besides being ultracompact—actually small enough to fit into a two-foot opening—the Unico air handler boasts its own sheath of closed-cell, sound-deadening insulation. In the end, with Unico heating and cooling, you get a solution that not only stays out of sight, but which also escapes notice due to its virtually silent operation.




On average, climate control accounts for about 50 percent of monthly household utility costs. Under the circumstances, with homeowners walking a fine line between livability and affordability, Unico appeals for yet another reason—energy efficiency. That is, even while delivering an uncommon degree of comfort, the Unico System succeeds in keeping HVAC energy consumption to a minimum. In part, the technology does so by removing one of the main causes of the relative inefficiency of conventional systems—duct leaks. In a home with forced air, duct leaks can reduce overall system efficiency by 25 percent or more. With Unico, however, because its mini ducts are so heavily insulated, there’s no duct leakage and no wasted energy. You get all the heating and cooling you pay for.

Another key factor that impacts the efficiency of a system, at least during the cooling months, is how it manages humidity. Compared with conventional systems, Unico removes 30 percent more moisture from the air, thanks to its high-tech cooling coil. Of course, everyone knows that in summer, reducing humidity means boosting personal comfort. But believe it or not, lower humidity can also translate into lower energy costs. Simply put: Rooms feel cooler in the absence of humidity, so in homes cooled by the Unico System, it’s possible to set the thermostat a few degrees higher than normal. Since adjusting the thermostat even one degree typically reduces household energy consumption by about three percent, the Unico System enables you to achieve substantial savings over the years.


Technological advances have improved the performance of, and lent new capabilities to, the offerings in countless product categories, including HVAC. If it’s been years since you last surveyed the market, you may be pleasantly surprised by the range of new and compelling options. That said, no matter how much has changed, the landscape remains rife with technologies that force homeowners to accept frustrating trade-offs. Trusted in more than 500,000 homes nationwide, the Unico System stands apart from the rest, because unlike conventional systems, it enables you to enjoy effective and efficient climate control on your own terms, without compromising the architectural design and aesthetic charms that made you fall in love with your home in the first place.


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

Too Hot Upstairs, Too Cold Downstairs? Here’s What to Do

Do you dream of even, all-encompassing warmth throughout your house? If so, maybe it's time to turn to a highly efficient system that can keep your family toasty warm all winter long, no matter where in the house they happen to be.


It’s the 21st century! It shouldn’t be such a struggle for owners to heat their homes evenly enough to enjoy total comfort and efficiently enough to achieve low energy costs. But still, even today, those hot and cool spots that are the hallmark of inconsistent home climate control continue to plague us. Sometimes it’s an issue of insulation. Other times the blame goes to improper window installation. But in the case of many multi-story homes, winter discomfort often stems directly from the hit-or-miss operation of an increasingly outmoded HVAC technology. Forced air—the dominant heating technology since the postwar period—certainly comes with some redeeming qualities. But in single-zone applications, its normal operation inevitably leads to an unwanted result. During system operation, while the ground floor of the home remains stubbornly chilly, the upper-level rooms become unpleasantly warm. Additionally, for homes with vaulted ceilings, much of that heat is wasted. Making matters worse, in the course of its ultimately futile attempt to normalize temperatures, forced air devours energy and drives up the utility bill. The good news? Thanks to staggering advances in technology, forced air isn’t the only option anymore.

To understand why forced air often fails to create uniform conditions, you first need to know how the system works. It all starts with the thermostat. As soon as the thermostat registers that the temperature has fallen below a certain threshold point, the system kicks on, blowing furnace-heated air through supply ducts and into the living spaces. Once the target temperature has been reached, the heat turns off. Here’s the trouble: Not only does comfort depend largely on proximity to the nearest air vent, but there’s also the pesky fact that heated air rises—at least until it hits a barrier, such as attic insulation. As the heat heads upward, temperatures in the home stratify. Soon, the thermostat senses a lower temperature downstairs, which triggers the forced-air system to snap back on. In this way, the cycle repeats over and over, never resolving the fundamental problem of uneven heating. Plus, further exacerbating homeowner discomfort, the forced-air system’s constant on-off cycling leads to dramatic temperature swings. Taken together, the shortcomings of the technology ensure that when there is comfort, it comes only to certain areas and only temporarily.

You’d think that climate control so frustratingly inconsistent would at least be economical. But perhaps no other HVAC system has done more to reinforce the perception that heating the home and saving energy dollars are mutually exclusive propositions. Why does it cost a small fortune to run a forced-air system from one winter month to the next? To a large extent, forced-air heating tends to consume more energy than strictly necessary because heat loss undermines its efficiency. Of course, heat loss isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s present in all homes, no matter their heating setup. The distinction is that in homes with forced air, heat loss occurs within the HVAC system itself—in the ductwork, most of all. Though vital to the operation of any conventional forced-air system, ducts have earned a reputation for being leaky. Even if the air leakage occurs only at the joints where two sections of ducting connect, it can be enough to compromise overall efficiency by 25 percent or more. To make up for the heat loss, the furnace must work harder and consume more energy. Essentially, homeowners must pay extra to correct a fundamental flaw of the system.


Like so many other technologies, HVAC has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years. Today, homeowners enjoy an array of options designed to deliver where conventional forced air falls short. At the top of the “most intriguing” list? Radiant heating. There’s a popular misconception that “heated floors” are nothing more than a frivolous luxury for high-end bathrooms. But while it’s true that some radiant heating products are designed to be merely supplemental, others offer a viable means of heating the whole house. Even better: With its unconventional, innovative approach, radiant technology actually manages to solve the uneven-heating issue that has frustrated homeowners for decades. How exactly? Because radiant-heat panels are installed beneath the floor, they deliver warmth silently and evenly across virtually every square inch of space, ensuring encompassing, “everywhere” comfort, no matter where you travel in your home. There are no uncomfortable temperature swings, and the in-floor technology concentrates heat not in the air above you—not near the ceiling or in the upstairs rooms—but at the level where you need it the most and can most readily feel it.

Whereas circulating air delivers the heat in a forced-air system, it’s water that does the job in a hydronic radiant setup. From the boiler, the water gets pumped through a network of tubes set into special panels under the floor. The water transfers heat to the panels, which then radiate heat to the floor and on to the people and furniture in the space. Along the way, in contrast to forced air, a radiant system undergoes minimal heat loss. For that reason, even as it creates much more comfortable conditions, radiant heat consumes much less energy. In fact, it’s at least 25 percent more efficient! That said, materials matter when it comes to the efficiency of a given radiant system. Take the Warmboard system, for instance. Its panels are made not with the more standard gypsum concrete, but with aluminum—a material that conducts heat 232 times better. That enables the Warmboard system to operate using substantially less energy than others. So, while you can save with any radiant-heating system, certain systems can save you even more, thanks to their ingenious design.


Although it’s already widespread in Europe and Asia, radiant heating hasn’t yet taken off in the United States. But that’s been changing, as homeowners learn about the technology’s many advantages. In addition to sidestepping the all-too-common issue of stratification—too little heat downstairs, too much upstairs—radiant heating also offers a range of other performance benefits. For example, while traditional heating systems very often make a racket, radiant heating runs all but silently. In addition, radiant heat helps maintain healthy indoor air quality, because the technology operates without dust- and germ-spreading ductwork. Of course, installing or upgrading an HVAC system usually entails a number of important considerations, many quite sophisticated and complex. But in the end, the appeal of radiant heating couldn’t be simpler. The technology delivers a qualitatively different climate-control experience—even, all-encompassing, “everywhere” warmth—while consuming less energy and eating up fewer energy dollars.


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

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



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:

mp3 file

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