The push to "build green" and reduce energy costs is gaining mainstream appeal in residential construction, and Gary Hydock hopes to capitalize on the trend.
Hydock's company, GCS Radiant in Amherst, makes radiant floor heat panels that are designed to sharply reduce the cost of heating a home. The panels he invented and patented use recycled products and require less construction materials to install than typical systems.
Radiant heat systems work by running warm water through tubes beneath the floor. Typically the tubes run under a concrete slab which stores heat and then radiates it through the flooring laid on top of it. Makers of the systems market them as a more efficient way to heat a home.
The modular panels Hydock designed consist of a top layer made of concrete, which speeds up the installation process. The bottom of the panels contain grooves for the tubes, protecting them from damage.
Hydock said he got his idea a few years ago after looking at, of all things, a discarded shoe box lid in his garage. He immediately went to work.
"I don't think I slept for the next 30 hours straight," he said.
Now Hydock, who incorporated GCS in 2002, is coping with a challenge familiar to many inventors: converting a product idea into high-volume sales and attracting more investors. He declined to disclose his company's current sales.
Joseph Chimera, a consultant and investor in GCS, said one of the start-up company's tasks is to win over customers based on projected energy cost savings. And by its nature, a radiant heating system does its work out of sight.
"This is an invisible product," Chimera said. "Once you put a flooring over it, you don't know it exists."
GCS uses trade shows as one method of gaining exposure, he said. "We're doing what we can with our limited resources."
The movement toward "building green" might help GCS's cause. A growing number of commercial construction projects are seeking environmental stamps of approval to attract tenants, reduce energy costs and generate community goodwill. The push has also reached the residential market. The U.S. Green Building Council is developing a rating system for homes similar to one already commonly used for commercial buildings.
Bob Jacobs, an area home builder, said more customers are inquiring about building new homes with energy-saving features.
"Each of these people are going more toward the energy-efficient package, because they want to conserve energy," said Jacobs, whose West Seneca company, Energy Efficient Homes by Bob Jacobs, builds a few homes a year. Jacobs is installing Hydock's radiant heat panels in Jacobs' new home in the Town of Marilla.
Jacobs and Hydock both worked on a new home on Grand Island last year that earned the top rating of five-plus stars on a home energy rating certificate from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The certificate reported the home's annual heating costs as $621 per year, among other reduced energy expenses.
While homebuilders and contractors try to sell customers on using "green" construction features, they face a separate, significant challenge: an overall slowdown in new home construction in the United States. Nation
ally, sales of new homes dropped nearly 16 percent in May from a year ago, the National Association of Home Builders said.
The Radiant Panel Association, an industry trade group, said sales of radiant heating tubing in North America last year declined by 1.1 percent. It was the first time in the 16 years the group has tracked sales that the figure didn't increase. The group cited the decline in new-home construction nationally as the prime reason.
The group estimates that radiant heating has only a 6 or 7 percent market share in the heating industry. Despite the trend in new-home construction, the group said it hopes radiant heat systems will build market share in the homes that are being built, through heightened customer interest in energy conservation.
Peter Sigurdson, NYSERDA's regional project manager, said more homebuilders have shown interest in energy efficiency since the launch of NYSERDA's Energy Star program several years ago.
As for potential customers, Sigurdson said it might be easier to persuade a customer building mid- to high-priced homes to add a host of energy-saving features, since for them, the additional costs are "not that big of a jump."
"For a starter home, it becomes a little bit more of a price point issue," he said. For instance, he said, the customer might end up having to choose between being able to afford a deck or spending the money on an energy-saving feature.
By GCS's estimates, a GCS system installed throughout a 2,000-square-foot house would cost $11,900 in materials, based on a cost of $5.95 per square foot. That compares to between $12,800 and $15,000 in materials costs for a typical poured-floor radiant heat system, GCS estimated. Makers of radiant heat systems say that customers can recoup the cost of those systems through smaller energy bills.
GCS has received an indirect boost in its efforts to grow, thanks to a funding decision by Empire State Development Corp. The ESDC awarded nearly $113,000 to support development of equipment by Don's Welding Service in Depew and AIC Consulting Engineers, to fill GCS's panel trays with concrete.
The funds will come from ESDC's Environmental Investment Program; the project was eligible because GCS's panels use recycled glass powder, agency officials said.
Like so many entrepreneurs, Hydock is restless for a breakthrough for his invention.
"It's hard to be patient," he said.