Hydronic Snow and Ice Melting Systems are a growing resource for buildings owners who want to eliminate the time and cost of snow removal, and potential liability of falls on their properties. Mike East from REHAU shares some important things to consider with these innovative solutions in a conversation with BUILDINGS’ senior staff writer Janelle Penny.
Janelle: Hi, everyone, this is Janelle Penny, senior writer for BUILDINGS, back with another BUILDINGS Podcast. My guest today is Mike East. Mike is an account manager with the Building Solutions Division of REHAU, and he’s supported many commercial facilities with radiant heating, snow and ice melting and pre-insulated distribution piping systems.
But today, we’re going to focus on the snow and ice melting aspect.
Mike, what is hydronic snow and ice melting, exactly?
Mike: Good question. Hydronic snow melting systems are basically a network of pipes that we’re going to put in the surface that we want to be snow melted, and that’s embedded inside of that surface and heated fluid is going to circulate through that piping system when there’s a demand for snow melting situation. And it’s going to keep that area free of snow and ice before, during and following any kind of snow event.
Janelle: So how does it work exactly?
Mike: This piping system is going to be connected to a heat source somewhere in the building. Typically, that’s going to be a gas-fired boiler most commonly. But it could also be an older building or older area where steam heating is used where we’re connecting through a heat exchanger or a ground source heat pump. But an appliance that’s going to heat the fluid is connected to this network of piping.
Then there’s a circulator involved and a control system that can automatically detect when the conditions are right for a snow event. So, it’s going to look at air temperature, moisture and the slab temperature itself and if all of those conditions are suitable for potential snow.
Then the system will initiate, and the heated fluid will circulate through those pipes from the boiler back out the piping system, and it’ll maintain a surface that’s warm enough that the snow will never really be allowed to accumulate.
Janelle: Well, that sounds like a benefit for sure. Are there other reasons why someone would want to buy one of these?
Mike: Yeah. For the building owner, there’s a lot of reasons why you would want to have a snow melting system. Accidental falls are the No. 1 cause of injury in the United States by a long shot. So, just having this system that’s going to automatically stay ahead of snow and ice on public surfaces, where people may be coming in and out of a building, is going to potentially reduce a lot of potential liability.
This is the kind of enhancement to the building owner’s life that’s going to give them that peace of mind. They’re not going to have to worry about someone getting injured coming in and out of their property.
And it’s going to protect their property because they’re not going to have to use alternative means—chemicals, salts, things of that nature—on their surfaces that will ultimately damage them and wear them down over time. And so, it’ll help protect their investment and their property over time as well.
The convenience is going to be a benefit for anyone that has this system—just to know that they’re not going to have to be out there, either with their own maintenance staff removing snow, or having to arrange to get snow removal services on the site to take care of that situation. It just happens automatically.
Janelle: Absolutely. So, do you find that there are trends in the areas where these are installed, or even the type of building that would typically install hydronic snow and ice melting?
Mike: Yeah, we do. Traditionally, you could imagine the places where these systems would be optimized, areas that have a critical need for access, no matter what the weather. So, you’re thinking about a hospital, a helipad at a hospital or an emergency room entry, where those vehicles need to be able to get in and out safely at all times. So, that’s some of the traditional areas where these systems would be applied.
But we’re seeing more and more typical spaces having the application for snow and ice melt systems going in. We’re seeing them now in schools, in businesses, multi-use living and commercial type facilities.
We’re involved in a project in downtown Denver right now, where it’s a mixed-used, high-rise building. It’s going to have commercial space on the lower end and an open plaza and residential units up above. They’ll snow melt that entire plaza to give the guests easy access in and out of the building and for the commercial patrons who’ll come into those businesses.
We’re seeing it really in any area where you’re going to have public traffic coming in and out of a building, and there’s a chance that you’ll have snow during your winter months. These systems are going in, and even residentially, in people’s driveways and walkways.
Janelle: I’m sure it beats shoveling a driveway for sure.
Mike: Absolutely. I had the opportunity to have my driveway resurfaced and I took that opportunity to put snow melt system in at that time. And I can tell you firsthand, it is nice to not have to deal with that.
Janelle: Nice. So, what about materials? We talked about building types, but is it more common to put it in concrete? Or can you put it in any surface?
[On topic: What You Need to Know About SIMS]
Mike: Well, yeah. Just about any surface that you would have in an exterior of a building. Concrete is going to be the most common and it’s easy to apply those pipes into that construction method, pipes are laid down before the concrete is poured and the pipes are simply embedded in the concrete during that installation.
But other surfaces that are common, especially in resort areas, a paver system—we can absolutely snow melt underneath a paver system. Typically at that time, the pipe is put out on the subgrade and then a bed of sand is laid over the top of the pipe and then the pavers sit in that bed of sand. And we can effectively melt snow in that installation.
It’s even possible to install this piping system in an asphalt surface. Some precautions have to be made during the installation to circulate chilled fluid through the piping system when they’re pouring the hot asphalt, but we do something similar. The pipes are in a sand bed and the asphalt is poured on top. We chill the pipes as the asphalt is going down, due to its heat. But then after that, we can have an effective snow melting system even under asphalt.
So, virtually any surface that you might have exterior to a building is a potential surface to apply a snow melt system.
Janelle: The comment about resurfacing your driveway made me wonder, can you install this as a retrofit? Or does it usually have to be new construction? Let’s say I’m going to redo a parking lot at a commercial building. How tough would it be to retrofit something like this?
Mike: The most cost-effective time is certainly going to be on a new build situation. For instance, when you’re pouring the concrete in the driveway for a new building and you want to put snow melt in there, the cost is just essentially the pipe itself and nothing else really needs to change about your installation method and your building process.
That’s going to be the lowest possible cost. Now, if you have an existing slab, I’ve been involved in a project that was the pull through self-wash car wash stations where there’s always moisture there, there’s always ice.
The owner wanted to keep that a safe environment for customers to come in and out, so they wanted a snow melt system in there. In that situation, we were able to lay the pipe down and pour a relatively thin topping slab over the top of an existing slab and sort of retrofit an existing slab with a topping slab.
Now, not every site would allow the opportunity to have the space or the elevations to add a topping slab. But it certainly can be done. But the key thing is that the pipe will need to be somewhere in the thermal mass.
So, either a topping slab if it’s a retrofit situation or they would actually have to want to remove existing concrete and at that time, take the opportunity to put the piping system in before the pour came in after the fact.
[Read also: 5 Ways to Prepare Buildings for Extreme Cold Temperatures]
Janelle: Are there any last things that people should keep in mind or special considerations to take into account regarding a hydronic snow and ice melting system if someone is thinking about installing something like this?
Mike: Yes, absolutely. There's a fair bit that goes into these systems logistically. And this is the type of system that is perfectly suited for what REHAU’s all about as a company, and that’s a design-engineered system that can help enhance our customers’ lives. It also can offer them a better performing building, reduce their exposure to liability and create a better experience for the building owner.
REHAU can help advise and think about other considerations as well. In other words: how does that piping grid need to be installed? Does it need to be broken up into zones? There are manifolds that are going to have to feed it. Where is the heat source located in the building? And how are we going to get from that heat source inside a building out to the exterior area that we want to snow melt?
All of those concerns and issues, there are solutions for, but it’s helpful to involve someone who can help think through all of those potential issues. Someone who can help make sure that the building is suitable and there is a realistic way to employ one of these systems in a building.
We’ve often seen building designs come out where a set of plans has a shaded area saying, “We want snow melt here.” But little else was considered as far as the practicality of actually getting that piping network to that area and getting the heated fluid from the source to that space.
So, getting someone involved who is an expert in understanding what all it takes to put these systems together is probably the most important advice I’d give to anyone who’s thinking they might have an application that would be appropriate for a snow melt system.
Janelle: Mike, where can we learn more?
Mike: You can learn more by visiting us at our website at www.na.rehau.com/sim.
Janelle: Great. Mike, thanks so much for joining me today and thanks to you out there for listening. Check out buildings.com to hear some of our past podcasts.
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