In an era of sophisticated controls and highly efficient boilers, snowmelt systems don’t have to be limited to luxury resorts and high-end projects.

That’s good news for architects and designers who want to mitigate risk for their clients, because snowmelt systems can be a vital safety amenity for many facilities, says Kolyn Marshall, systems engineering manager for Watts, which manufactures a variety of hydronic and electric products used for radiant heating and snowmelt systems and controls.

“Hospital access ramps, geriatric facilities, helipads, car wash entrances and exits, parking garages — all those [snowmelt applications] are centered on safety and trying to minimize insurance casualties,” Marshall says. “They don’t have to worry about waking the maintenance guy at 3 a.m. to get out there for snow and ice removal. Whenever you put somebody physically in that environment to deal with snow and ice, you’re increasing risk to them and the property.”

A snowmelt system works by gently warming upper surfaces. Typically, just a few degrees above freezing is sufficient to do the job. Photo courtesy Watts.

Beyond safety, snowmelt systems have wide-ranging benefits, from reduced maintenance costs to regulatory compliance, less chemical runoff, and less damage to driveways and floors from salt and snow-removal equipment. But the perception of snowmelt as an unnecessary luxury can get it value engineered out of projects. Here are 7 creative ways architects and designers can incorporate snowmelt into their projects while alleviating common client concerns.

1. Select a smaller-footprint heating source.

Until recent years, efficiency was the No. 1 factor guiding decision making about snowmelt heating sources. But with boiler manufacturers today achieving high efficiency levels across the board, convenience and the size of the unit are playing a bigger role, Marshall says. “On the natural gas and propane side, you can get some nice wall-mount units,” he says. “Smaller, highly efficient modulating-condensing boilers definitely have become more popular in the last 5–10 years.”

2. Use a zoned system to help downsize the heating source.

Almost every facility has areas that require snow melting more urgently than others because they freeze or melt more quickly, or are used more. “So you may have a half-a-million-Btu snowmelt system and break it up into four or five sections, and you only need a 100,000-Btu boiler because it’s just melting one section at a time,” Marshall says.

3. Consider a fuel source that adds resilience.

Propane is commonly used to fuel boilers for snowmelt in areas without access to natural gas, but Marshall sees some projects with critical energy needs incorporating propane as a backup to other primary energy sources. “They can store the fuel on site, off grid, and not have to worry about it,” he says.

4. Get creative with heating sources.

If your building has a cooling tower or a compressor for a large cooler or freezer section, consider capturing that waste heat to make the snowmelt more efficient. Another opportunity to capture waste heat is with propane combined heat and power systems, which can provide stable power from an engine or turbine and use the waste heat for water heating and snowmelt. Upfront planning can help identify systems that can be dual-use in order to reduce the upfront equipment cost, Marshall says, such as a building steam system or pool heaters that aren’t needed in the winter.

5. Incorporate renewable energy.

Thanks to improvements in digital controls, it’s never been easier to combine solar thermal heating or solar-photovoltaic-powered heat sources with gas or propane boilers, says Tom Secondino, technical sales support specialist for U.S. Boiler Company. “You don’t need a whole bank of stuff trying to tell everything what to do and how to integrate it,” he says. “You can have one central control source doing a lot of stuff.”

These hybrid renewable energy systems make the most of both types of equipment. While solar-based systems can gather free heat or power from the sun, they’re limited in terms of capacity, so they can’t run a large snowmelt system. When the system calls for additional heat, it can seamlessly transition to a propane or gas boiler backup system capable of meeting larger demands.

Modern boilers such as U.S. Boiler Company’s Alpine condensing boilers pictured at a Seth Energy installation at Millennium Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, can be easily adjusted with onboard controls. Photo courtesy U.S. Boiler.

6. Utilize onboard controls for better performance.

Many designers and installers aren’t aware just how adjustable boilers can be with onboard controls, Secondino says. If a boiler is solely dedicated to low-temperature heating such as radiant or snowmelt systems, the boiler can be easily set to run at 110 or 120 degrees Fahrenheit, rather than running the boiler to 180 degrees and bringing the temperature back down with a mixing valve.

The onboard controls can also be used to link multiple boilers together (up to eight in the case of U.S. Boiler) without the need for external controls. Using multiple smaller boilers instead of a single larger boiler can provide much greater turndown ratios, redundancy, and more flexibility in heating capacity.

7. Design for longevity.

To improve the lifespan of a building’s boiler system, Secondino is a proponent of using heat exchangers to separate the boiler’s interior piping from boiler loops using glycol. Glycol can damage the system fittings, but Secondino has seen many projects pipe the glycol directly into the boiler — often using a higher proportion of glycol than is needed.

Protecting the life of the boilers is important because a snowmelt system can provide payback in the form of risk mitigation, reduction of snow-removal maintenance and chemicals, and labor savings over periods of 15, 20, even 30 years, not to mention the aesthetic improvement to the property during winter, Marshall says: “You’re getting way more out of the system in the long run than what you’ll ever pay to put it in.”

Top photo: Snowmelt installers review the circulation layout for hydronic tubing as they complete their work prior to a concrete pour at York Hospital in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy Watts.