MISSOULA, MONT. — When it comes to absolute comfort in the Rocky Mountain states, it’s tough to argue a case against radiant floor heat. But in certain applications, in-floor technology lacks flexibility and a competitive up-front cost. Sometimes, hybrid systems can capture everything radiant has to offer, while blending in the advantages of other technologies to provide the best comfort, value and efficiency.

 

In rustic mansions that dot ski-friendly parts of the country, the cost of installing radiant tubing in every square foot of lavish living space isn’t often a sticking point, but for a small business — with a bottom line to keep in the black — it might not be feasible.

In 2013, Cash 1 Pawn, in Missoula Montana, was started by three ambitious young men looking for a compelling, profitable alternative to the mundane pawn shop model that seems so popular in the great American West. 

“The pawn industry seemed like fun, and every day brings something new,” said Jack McGillis, owner of Cash 1 Pawn. “So, we jumped in with both feet.”

Their business plan included construction of a new shop with a fresh look at all facets of the business — even the shop’s space conditioning. After consulting with a local HVACP shop, it looked like blending radiant and ductless equipment would be just the ticket. 

Value package

“The guys at Cash 1 Pawn needed a system that could efficiently and comfortably handle our harsh winters, but at the same time not break the bank with an enormous initial cost,” said Don Skillicorn, HVAC manager for Garden City Plumbing & Heating.  “That’s when we came up with the idea of a hybrid design.” 

At 7,200-sq.ft., the pawn shop consists of one large display room and an office downstairs, and two small offices upstairs. Given the high ceiling in the display room and the ability to add in-floor tubing before the slab was poured, the design called for a simple, three-zone radiant system to handle the brunt of the heating load.

To keep the hydronic system affordable, the designers opted not to heat the upstairs areas with radiant. Also, they wanted to use a system that could supply air conditioning as well as heat to the offices, since those are the only rooms that require cooling. 

While Missoula can see a few days each year over 100°F, it’s not common, and summer humidity in western Montana is almost non-existent. To kill two birds with one stone, pawn shop managers decided that hi-efficiency ductless split systems would be installed to heat and cool the offices.

Helping hand

Garden City serves much of Northwest Montana. With 55 employees, they tackle a variety of residential and light commercial work, from furnaces and air conditioning to geothermal and solar-thermal installations. For some designs, they look to distributors for an outside perspective.

“The folks at MDM Supply’s Missoula branch helped us design the system for Cash 1 Pawn,” said Skillicorn. “Apart from helping with the radiant tubing layout, they selected the ductless systems for the offices.”

Garden City has been installing mini-splits for the past seven years. When MDM Supply started carrying Fujitsu’s broad line of Hybrid Flex Inverter systems, Garden City standardized on the brand.

“We use the Fujitsu units for spot heating and cooling, houses with tight access,” said Skillicorn. “The price is right, and with efficiencies as high as 27.5 SEER, they’re not a hard sale for end-users who frequently want to know about system efficiency.”

At the pawn shop, a three-ton outdoor unit provides heating and cooling to the offices via two, 12,000 BTU wall-mounted evaporators and one ceiling cassette where a drop-ceiling was installed. It was a simple, cost effective way to provide AC to the rooms, and a good alternative to adding a level of complexity to the radiant system.

Throughout the main portion of the building, a 210 MBH condensing boiler provides water to 7,000 lineal feet of oxygen barrier Zurn PE-RT tubing at 12-in. centers. Domestic hot water is supplied by a 50-gal. Bradford White electric water heater so that the boiler can shut down over the summer months. 

The main sales floor, or zone one, is the farthest from the boiler, and uses five-eighths-inch tubing with a supply temperature of 137°F. Zone two, for the restrooms, uses half-inch PE-RT and a supply temperature of 128°F, while the warehouse and storeroom have a supply temp of 93°F, all to meet a -10°F outdoor design temp.

Western Montana winters can be harsh, but not so much that some air to air heat pumps can’t operate. Fujitsu’s XLTH (Extra Low Temp Heating) operate in outdoor ambient temperatures as low as -15°F.

Variety is spice of life

“In Montana, we have a widely-mixed demographic; everything from mountain men to retired university eclectics and A-list actors,” explained McGillis. “As a result, the pawn items we see vary greatly. Guns, tools and jewelry are typical. Taxidermy, chainsaws, and electronics come on occasion, and every once in a while something absurd will show up. I once turned away a casket. Frankly, I was just curious, but the lady wouldn’t say if it had been used or not. Another time, a guy tried to sell me a pending patent for $80,000.”

The diversity among Missoulians is evident to the professionals at Garden City as well.  Employees might be in a 10,000-sq.ft. log home one day, and plumbing an off-grid cabin the next. 

“I’m never quite sure what I’ll get into,” said Skillicorn. “Montana is different, and we love it that way. Each day brings something new. We’ve noticed that photovoltaic installations have picked up in recent years, which is surprising because Missoula sits in a bowl between the Mission and Bitteroot mountain ranges. This cuts into our morning and evening sun, but also holds clouds and haze over the area.”

Forest fires can be a real threat in late summer, and smoke can be so severe that it actually reduces solar power generation. But for Garden City the smoke also means changing lots of filters on air conditioning equipment. 

“That’s another reason we love ductless systems,” said Skillicorn. “Not only do they install easily, but servicing the units is a snap. Split systems are a great tool in our arsenal of products we can offer to our customers. And when you’re in Missoula, you need to have a big bag of tricks.”

“We love the heating and air conditioning system,” said McGillis. “We’re very comfortable, and we love the little utility bill at the end of the month. I couldn’t have asked Garden City to do a better job.”