BETH W. ORENSTEIN, The Morning Call
Scott and Ruth Rice's stone and stucco home in Upper Macungie Township has cathedral ceilings, palladium windows and nearly 4,300 square feet of living space, including the finished basement.
Yet the first year they lived in the dwelling, they spent only about $700 for heat and hot water.
Why were their bills so low?
Several reasons, says Tony Caciolo, president of Monogram Custom Homes in Upper Saucon Township, who built the house, the first in the upscale Pointe West development.
One reason is that he uses energy-efficient building methods, including 2-by-6 vs. 2-by-4 wood to frame the house, housewrap and extra insulation around doors and windows.
The second reason, and the real key, is the heating system, Caciolo says.
The Rices' house has a zoned hot-water baseboard system -- a small pump circulates heated water through baseboard heaters in each room.
The house has four heating zones so that the Rices can save even more energy by keeping unused rooms at cooler temperatures.
All the custom houses built by Caciolo and his partner, Lewis "Chip" Shupe, have zoned hot-water heating systems, also known as hydronic heating.
The hydronic heating system and other energy-efficient building methods Monogram uses earned the company the Lehigh Valley Builders Association's award for "excellence in energy efficiency" for the third year in a row. The award was presented at the builders association's 10th annual awards dinner in early December.
In 1998, Monogram captured the energy award in the builders' category for a 3,600-square-foot house in Pointe West in Upper Macungie that has a three-zoned, gas-fired hydronic baseboard heating system and annual heating and hot water bills of under $600 a year.
Last year, Monogram took the award for a 16,000-square-foot, $1.5 million house it built in Upper Saucon Township with a 10-zone oil- fired hydronic baseboard heating system. That dwelling's annual heating and hot water costs: under $2,000 a year.
This year, the Rices' home, which was completed in June 1998, earned the award.
Caciolo said he became interested in hydronic heating more for its comfort than its energy efficiency.
The first home he built for himself was always cold and never comfortable. "So when I built my second home I asked myself, "If cost were no object, what system would provide the best comfort?"' he says. "My research pointed to hydronics, so that's the system I chose. Once I saw how efficient it was and how much comfort it provided, I was sold."
The Rices also chose hydronic heating more for comfort than energy efficiency. As a teen, Scott Rice, a native of Macungie, lived in a home that had hot-water baseboard heat. "He remembered it being warm," and always wanted it for his home, his wife says.
A few years ago, when the Rices returned to the Lehigh Valley from Tennessee, they decided to build a home. They were scouting new developments when they happened upon Caciolo at his model home in Pointe West. When they asked Caciolo what kind of heat he uses and he answered hot-water baseboard, the Rices agreed on the spot to have him build their home.
Scott Rice, a pediatrician, and his children also have allergies and asthma. Hydronic heating is ideal for allergy sufferers because, unlike hot air duct heat, it doesn't circulate pollens and allergens through air registers. Hydronic heat is radiant heat -- the baseboard provides heat through gentle radiation and natural convection.
Scott Rice remembered the baseboard heating in his parents' home being noisy. But theirs is not, Ruth says.
Caciolo explains that today's hot-water systems are quieter and easier to maintain than the steam systems that were common in houses built in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Hydronics is not new technology, nor is it "rocket science," Caciolo says. Gino Nicolai is president of Hannabery HVAC in Upper Macungie Township, which designs the heating and cooling systems for Monogram homes. While designing the Rices' home, Nicolai compared the estimated costs of using a conventional vs. hydronic heating system. He figured that with a conventional system, the heat and hot water costs for their dwelling would be about $2,000 a year. With hydronic heat, he projected the costs to be about $1,000 a year. "They spent less than what I estimated the first year because they were conservative," he explains.
Henry Scherer, vice president of Edwin Stipe, an HVAC contractor in Forks Township, agrees that while there are other high-end, energy efficient options on the market today, hot-water baseboard is one of the most comfortable and most efficient ways of heating homes today: "If you ask me, "What is the most comfortable, most-efficient system you could put in my home?' I would say, "A zoned hydronic system."'
A hydronic system is about $3,000 to $5,000 more than a conventional system, Nicolai says. Also, builders still need to install ductwork for central air conditioning.
Caciolo says hydronic heat doesn't add to the price of his houses because he partners with manufacturers of the systems, which he uses in all his homes. Monogram Custom Homes builds 30 to 35 houses a year, with prices starting at about $300,000.
"We're buying product at a very good price, and it allows us to put in a three-zone hot water baseboard system and central air conditioning for about the same price as dual-zone hot-air system," Caciolo says.
Buyers also like that hydronic systems can easily be zoned.
"Most of the customers we found like their master bedrooms a different temperature than the rest of the bedrooms upstairs, whether it's because there is no one in those bedrooms or because they have children and they want the master bedroom a little cooler. With this system, they now have the ability to change the temperature between those two zones," Caciolo says.
The Rices have a separate zone for their son's bedroom that is over the garage and thus tends to be cooler.
Hannabery installs all the duct-based central air systems in Monogram homes while Caciolo's plumber installs the copper pipe and the baseboard needed for the hydronic system. Caciolo gets his boiler- based heating systems from Slant/Fin of Greenvale, N.Y.
Hot-water baseboard systems can be fired by gas, oil or propane, Nicolai says. Oil and natural gas cost about the same, while propane is a little more to operate, he says.
While some builders might see having to install separate heating and cooling systems as a problem, to Caciolo, it's ideal.
"What this gives us is the best of both worlds," he says. "You always want your air conditioning to come from above and drop down, because cool air drops. You always want your heat to be low because hot air rises. So we got the heat down the bottom where it's supposed to be, and we've got the cool up on the top where it's supposed to be."
Some buyers may hesitate to use hydronic heat because they fear they will have to look at ugly baseboards. Caciolo's answer is to take them on a tour of his model home in Pointe West. "Once they look through this house, they notice you don't really see the baseboard," he says. "In a 12-by-14 bedroom, there will be one 8-foot piece of baseboard. It's not like all the walls need to be covered with it."
In powder rooms, kitchens and other areas where wall space is limited, builders use toe-space heaters to provide heat. "Toe-space heaters are kind of a trick when you have hot-water baseboard and you don't have wall space," Caciolo says.
Marble flooring is standard in all of Monogram's bathrooms, yet marble has a tendency to feel cool. "With this hydronic heating system, we run a loop of hot water to a toe-space heater and it circulates warm air across the marble floor, making it feel warm," Caciolo says.
To complement the energy-efficient heating system he uses, Caciolo also uses several energy-efficient building methods:
A computerized study of the blueprints shows where heat may be gained or lost on each house. "They look at how many windows it has, what R-value we have, and other factors," Caciolo explains. [R-value is a measure of resistance to heat flow.] "That tells our heating installer how many Btus [British thermal units] of heat each room requires. For example, a master bedroom can have a high ceiling and big windows that face north, so that room will have a slightly higher requirement than a sunroom on the back of the house that faces south."
The houses are framed with 2-by-6 inch wood. The majority of dwellings are built with 2-by-4 inch wood. Wider framing allows more insulation to fit between the studs. Because 2-by-6 structures have more insulation, they have an R-value of 19 vs. an R-value of 15 found in most houses.
The houses have double-pane Pella windows with Low-E coatings and argon gas. Low-E coatings help keep the residence warmer in winter by reducing heat loss and cooler in summer by blocking heat from the sun. When argon gas fills the gap between the window panes, it helps to reduce the heat transfer between the inside and outside of the dwelling.
The houses have a super-seal insulation package. The package means that once the structure is framed, before the drywall goes up, two or three contractors spend a day or two "going through the entire house from top to bottom caulking and foaming every corner, every electrical outlet, every gap around windows," Caciolo says.
The houses are wrapped with a man-made fiber, either Typar by Reemay or Tyvek by Dupont, that serves as a wind and water barrier. The housewrap, which also allows moisture to escape, seals the dwelling and makes it tighter. Ruth Rice says the first year they were in their home they didn't know what to expect so they were careful to conserve energy. Their energy-consciousness helps explain their bills being so very low that first year.
Their utility bills have gone up since they've lived in the house, but not a lot, she says. Part of it, she explains, is that they've relaxed some seeing how efficient the heating system is and part of it is "all the laundry I do now that the children aren't babies anymore."
Copyright The Morning Call. Reproduced with permission.