Post-frame building isn't just for boxy workshops and garages anymore. Here's what builders need to know about heating this increasingly popular home type.
When you're building your dream home, you need space for your toys.
Today's upscale rural buyer frequently has in tow a small armada of four-wheelers, Kubotas, collector cars, boats, or tractors, says Scott Patton, owner of Angola, Indiana–based Indiana Warm Floors. The need for storage space for these vehicles has given rise to a growing trend in the Midwest: the pole barn home.
"We need a fairly big garage or barn to store their toys in," Patton says. "Once you start looking into it, a pole barn is very low cost per square foot compared with a residential home. So a lot of people are building a pole barn and then creating a full house inside one end of the barn and making it their living quarters as well."
Patton has become an expert in heating pole barns after 30 years in the radiant floor heating business. Also known as post-frame buildings, pole barns use large wood posts or columns embedded in the soil and spaced much further out than traditional stud-wall construction. They're affordable to build because they save on materials and labor costs, and they can offer large, flexible interior spaces, as well as large doors and windows, to accommodate uses like garages, shops, or storage.
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How to heat a pole barn
Those distinctive features also mean that pole barns have unique heating needs, Patton says. "A lot of these mega-shops with big bi-fold doors, they have 25- or 30-foot ceilings," he says. Radiant floor heating is an ideal fit for these projects, because it localizes the heat to the occupants rather than spreading it through the expansive interior space. "As everybody knows, hot air rises," he says. "With floor heat, the heat stays on the floor."
Patton's typical pole barn customer is building on a large piece of land in a rural area that lacks access to natural gas. So Patton often powers these systems with propane boilers, either individually or in combination with geothermal.
The hybrid propane/geothermal approach was an excellent fit for a recent project Patton worked on, a 5,000-square-foot pole barn on a wooded 100-acre lot in Knox, Indiana. A ground-source heat pump provides primary heating and domestic hot water, as well as chilled water for three cooling zones. A propane combination boiler provides backup heating at the coldest temperatures. The boiler also kicks in to rapidly bring domestic hot water to set-point temperature when the home's recirculation system is activated.
Beyond delivering backup heat, propane also provides a highly resilient energy source for this home equipped with a storm shelter and safe room for emergency scenarios. "He wanted an onsite source of fuel so he could run his 20-kW generator to provide his own electricity," Patton says of his customer. Propane also fuels the home's cooking and clothes-drying appliances.
The comfort of warm floors
For this project, like most of the residences Patton works on, comfort was the driving factor in the decision to choose radiant floor heating. The homeowner had radiant heating in his previous home and knew he had to have it in his dream home. "[Homeowners] like it for the comfort and the warmth," Patton says. "When we're surrounded by warm surfaces, our heat doesn't radiate away from us as quickly."
Radiant heating is also more controllable than forced-air heat, Patton says. With the ability to add zones for different areas, rooms that are not in use can be set to a cooler temperature for added savings. The basement is a popular zone because it's traditionally cool and damp. "Ninety percent of the time, we'll do five to eight zones on a residence," Patton says.
Garages are a particularly good application, he adds. Using forced-air ductwork in the garage may be prohibited or inadvisable due to the possibility of car exhaust entering the living space. Radiant heating has no such issues. "When you come in, it'll melt the snow or ice off your car and dry off the floor," he says. "Once you get in to take off the next day, your car is already up to temperature."
On the Knox project, Patton installed 15 zones. On the main level of the building, the man cave, garage, front entry, and shop are all on different zones. The 2,400-square-foot living area, built on a second level, has zones for all of the rooms, as well as heated towel bars in the bathroom.
Homeowners have become more knowledgeable about radiant floor heating in recent years as more people experience it at a friend's house or a previous residence, Patton says. That means builders would be well-served to become proficient with the technology and find contractors experienced in floor heating installations.
"The builders that have keyed in on it and partnered up with a guy like myself, they're actually going to market and saying, ‘We've got floor heat,'" Patton says. "We've got jobs that they weren't getting before because they're promoting it as a green item." For prospective clients who have their hearts set on floor heat, it pays to make sure you're prepared to discuss this heating option — or your homeowner might find another pro who is.