Function & Form: Evolving a flexible organizational principle for hydronic mechanical rooms
By Hoyt Corbett
Part of my early training was as an artist and I have always approached mechanical systems from a very visual organizational perspective. I first started installing hydronic heating in the early 1990s as a young mechanical contractor. I visualized the in-floor tubing of a radiant floor heating system as an inverse energy drawing, designed to offset the heat loss of a home. In my early days I relied on drawings from suppliers on how mechanical rooms should be installed and tried to replicate the sequence of components as a series of parts on a mechanical room wall: each part followed another in a linear sequence, like a flowing drawing, but made with pipe and hydronic components. So again, I conceived of them very visually.
My mechanical rooms of that era were relatively intimidating. They took up a lot of space and were often hard for a customer to understand. Boilers then were mostly freestanding, and we would pipe as fast as we could from them to a strut on the wall and begin mounting the components, in order, with pipe connecting the parts. These were always one-of-a-kind “artisan” mechanical rooms.
The Evolution Begins
Later I ran a company that was a major national brand of radiant heating, and we began experimenting with how to organize a mechanical room more consistently with pre-made mechanical modules. We began making modules that used primary and secondary piping, often with variable speed injection. But we always had problems with whether the customer was going to pump left or right or up or down or on which side of the boiler. It was hard to make enough variants to address all the variants a customer might want. So you would pick a few designs that cover as much ground as possible and call it a day. And as mechanical room space got more expensive, mechanical rooms became smaller and boilers began to be wall hung. This compounded the problem of limited or predictable wall space to mount components.
Later I began designing compact primary/secondary near-boiler piping modules using closely spaced “Tees” for Precision Hydronic Products. These were very compact for what they were, but lacked organizational flexibility. About this time, the now better publicized benefits of hydraulic separators began to be more widely understood; the uncoupling of the flow between the primary and secondary loops. But what was overlooked in the discussion of hydraulic separators was that they provided a simply fabulous and flexible organizing principle for a mechanical room. They are reversible in the sense that either side can be primary or secondary, and they can be mounted wherever it’s convenient to centrally focus the organization of a mechanical room.
Multifunctional, like smart phones
Like our new multifunction cell phones, hydraulic separators can be built as multifunction devices: they can be designed to eliminate air, drain off sediment, they can be the attachment point for fill valves, expansion tanks and temperature sensors. As such, they become the heart of the hydronic system and a simplifiying elegant organizer of the mechanical room. I now visualize hydraulic separators as the center of the system and work outward from them to incorporate all aspects of the system. Since their placement is flexible, they are easily adaptable to the unique space of each mechanical room, allowing you to create a coherent layout in most any mechanical room.
Mechanical contractor David Mayo of Mayo Mechanical in Laguna, California now routinely uses hydraulic separators to organize his mechanical rooms. It has given him a competatve leg up, functionally and visually. Says Mayo, “We impress people with our knowledge of hydronics, and our systems work like magic.”
Precision Hydronic Products, Taco, Caleffi and others now provide hydraulic separators with different configurations of components. While the hydraulic separators provide large organizational and technical advantages for a hydronic system, their challenge — particularly in residential systems — is that they still can take up a lot of space. For more compact organization, at least two companies have solved this space problem by making the hydraulic separator even more multifunctional by building hydraulic separators that also internally incorporate secondary loop manifolding. Products that do this may have an unconventional look. that has slowed their adopron. But products such as the such as the Caleffi Hydrolink and the patented Precision Hydronic Product Allcan are highly functional. These products have the organizational advantages of conventional hydraulic separators, but they also save space, materials and cost when properly applied. They have a good future in residential systems, but will not likely be built in sizes to be used in larger mechanical rooms where the simple central organizing function and elegance of a hydraulic separator still make for disciplined, coherent and highly functional mechanical rooms.
Hoyt Corbett is an independent product development consultant. He can be reached at 206-369-1458 or email@example.com