The Emperor’s new (graphene-based nano-particle clad) clothes
Over the last two decades one thing has remained pretty consistent in the world of electric underfloor heating; once or twice a year ‘radical new heating systems’ will hit the market. With an amazing fanfare of publicity and incredible claims on how it will revolutionise the UK or world underfloor heating market it will promote itself as the original and best, before slowly disappearing from view, usually never to be seen again.
At Heat Mat we are often approached to take these products out into the marketplace on behalf of the manufacturers or (more commonly) the business who has secured the potentially expensive UK rights to the range. I have been approached to test amorphous metal heating ribbons with their unique super-cooled non-crystalline structure, numerous graphene based nano-particle paints and additives, low-Voltage plasticised carbon underfloor ladder-heating and even one product that guaranteed that it was made with 100% pure carbon nanotubes, or was it carbon buckyballs, it’s so hard to remember. Every time I have been told this is the next big thing.
Even taking the claims made of the materials construction at face value, my initial question is always “But how is that better than conventional mains-Voltage underfloor heating?” What are the benefits over the tried and trusted systems? Does it have a longer service life (unlikely when we already offer a Lifetime Warranty on most Heat Mat products), is it truly more energy efficient than a conventional system, is the whole life cost any better for the user?
Many claims come back, often using the semi-scientific sounding language you would more commonly associate with a Goop promotion or a hair conditioner commercial.
- “It was designed as part of the Israeli military program and is based on top secret technology” that’s as maybe, but how does that help make it a more efficient heating system.
- “It was created in Germany/China/Russia/Spain by an incredible maverick scientist and no one believed he could make it work” OK, great, but in what way is it better than our current systems?
- “The health benefits are incredible I tell you! This specific type of new heating helps rid the body of toxins! This is achieved by vibrating water molecules at just the right rate and helping them to break down…” Stunning medical claims, I hope those can be backed up by peer-reviewed scientific studies? And surely all the body processes breaking down water are hydrolase enzyme like processes, and not related to vibrating water molecules, or have you discovered new science?
- “This system heats rooms at more than a 60% energy saving compared to conventional underfloor heating mats…” wow, really. In which case you appear to have just solved our worlds energy and global warming crisis and also demonstrated the laws of thermodynamics can be broken. No doubt this heating system is the only game in town.
To me these ‘new’ systems, be they anything from low-Voltage graphene nano-technology to carbon nanotube based heating wires, all seem to suffer from the same problem; they are a solution looking for a problem. This cluster of unconventionally designed heating products while undoubtedly interesting don’t seem to offer any real tangible benefits over the conventional electric underfloor heating systems Heat Mat and our competitors offer. If the claims seem to be too good to be true they probably are, and with most of these systems the claims are incredible.
One regular feature of these systems is that they are low-Voltage, usually 12V or 24V, which rather handily means that they do not need to comply with many electrical regulations and allows them to be a DIY installation. This does undoubtedly bring some benefits such as being able to place the heater in a wall or ceiling and then still drill/cut through it, but surely these are only edge cases; in the vast majority of rooms underfloor heating will be far more efficient than ceiling or wall heating whatever form the actual heater takes.
One of the downsides of being a low-Voltage system is that the bulky and often costly transformers need to be housed somewhere, preferably out of the way as many of them emit a low hum, but also somewhere where the heat they generate can dissipate. This excess heat is one of the Achilles heels of the energy efficiency claims of these low-Voltage systems. The transformers by definition waste energy (roughly 3% based on one test we carried out) as when converting mains-Voltage down to low-Voltage you have wasted heat in the transformer as well as waste electromagnetic radiation. This means the low-Voltage system will always end up transferring less of the energy it consumes to the floor than a mains-Voltage system would. It’s not just me saying that, the Laws of Thermodynamics are pretty clear on it too.
Tim Minchin has a lovely quote which I think is rather apt “You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? – Medicine.”
Just think how these fantastical systems would be advertised if any of them truly had incontrovertible proof of the benefits attributed to them; they would not need to be promoted with the whiff of pseudoscience. Rather than picking sciency sounding marketing terms extoling carbon nano-technology, amorphous metal, graphene and graphite powders or phenomenal health benefits they would simply state in clear and simple terms why they are better. Perhaps how they are more energy efficient in the real world than conventional systems, how the life expectancy and warranties of the product are superior, or maybe how the whole life cost of the products is improved.
At Heat Mat we are constantly looking to innovate our ranges to offer new products and satisfy new applications. We want to hear about new cutting edge technology, particularly if it can increase energy efficiency in heating homes, reduce the whole life environmental impact of the system or can bring down the whole life costs to the installers and consumers.
If you do have some amazing unconventional underfloor heating system to offer please do get in touch as I would love to hear from you, but before approaching Heat Mat please first of all consider how you will provide answers to me simple questions:
- What is the longevity of the system? Does it have a lifetime warranty, if it is low-Voltage is that warranty also on the transformers? Most importantly, is that warranty backed by an independent insurance policy?
- How is the system more energy efficient than a conventional electric underfloor heating system? Not faster to heat up and cool down in a very specific type of installation, not offering a slightly more even spread of heat on the floor, but how can it possibly use less energy in a real world scenario and please can you provide the evidence.
- If it is a low-Voltage system how can it be more energy efficient than a mains-Voltage system, as the transformers alone have an inefficiency that ensures the system will output less heat into the floor than a mains-Voltage system for each kW of electricity. Please explain.
- Finally, how does it offer true benefits to the environment, installers and users of the system?