Cozy Combo

January 1, 2005 By    

Hoping to capitalize on its budding relationship with the manufactured housing industry, the propane industry is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy in a $1.3 million project to develop an affordable water heater that also warms and cools the entire house.

Space/Water Heaters
Space/Water Heaters

“Combo systems” have proven successful at delivering energy benefits in more than a million conventional homes over the last 20 years. The equipment to date has not been engineered for the cost-sensitive and limited-space applications that manufactured homes demand, however.

DeLima Associates of McLean, Va. has tailored its Comboflair unit to meet those needs and make the units competitive with electricity.

“In the manufactured home sector, electric heating is the cheapest to put in, but the highest to operate,” explains company owner Henry DeLima. “Propane heating is a lot cheaper than electric. “

Typical Space and Water Heating Systems for Manufactured Homes
Typical Space and Water Heating Systems for Manufactured Homes

Manufactured housing remains the fastest-growing segment of the residential housing market. But a recent nationwide survey by the Foremost Insurance Co. points to several drawbacks of owning one, and energy-related comfort is high on the list. Many homeowners say manufactured homes with electric heat pumps are difficult to heat, and those with resistance heat have exceedingly high energy costs.

“Combination space/water heating systems have proven their ability to reduce space and energy requirements. This project will extend these benefits to the manufactured housing market, enabling owners of manufactured homes to increase the value of their investments, lower their monthly expenses, and improve the quality of their lives,” says Kate Caskin, senior vice president for the Propane Education & Research Council, which has invested $300,000 in the project.

“This initiative is another example of the propane industry’s growing commitment to – and partnership with – the manufactured housing industry.”

Combo System Schematic
Combo System Schematic

According to DeLima, combo systems require about half the space of a stand-alone gas furnace and gas water heater. Compared to an electric furnace and water heater or an electric heat pump, a gas combo system offers a lower operating cost and increased comfort due to its more effective air-delivery system.

He says his goal is to deliver a unit that costs $2,000 to $3,000. Under a conventional loan, the system would add less than $20 to the monthly mortgage payment. With a 10 percent energy savings on an average $200 in utility bills, the combo system would deliver savings that exceed its cost each month, according to PERC.

“That’s the important part,” says DeLima. “It has to be affordable or else the manufactured home builder won’t buy it; they want to sell the home.”

Estimated Increased Propane Usage
Estimated Increased Propane Usage

Targeting the South

Close to 8 percent of American housing units – more than 9 million – are manufactured homes. In 2002, 171,600 manufactured houses were moved onto home sites. The top five locations for manufactured homes are Texas, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“We’re targeting the South first because that’s where most of the manufactured homes are,” says DeLima.

If Comboflair can capture 10 percent of the 170,000 manufactured homes shipped each year, DeLima estimates propane consumption would jump 9.9 million gallons each year based on use 584 gallons per household.

“Seven manufacturers make 77 percent of the manufactured homes in the country,” he says. “I only have to contact seven manufacturers to reach most of the manufactured homes. ”

Why HUD-code Manufactured Housing?
Why HUD-code Manufactured Housing?

Unlike conventional stick homes that are subject to myriad of local building codes, manufactured homes fall under federal purview.

“There is just one national standard. We don’t have to deal with building inspectors all over the country,” notes DeLima, who serves on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development panel that oversees the regulations.

“I’m on one of the subcommittees to make sure this meets the standards,” he points out. “We’re taking care of this from all sides.”

With a manufactured home, major appliances are installed at the builder’s facility, avoiding distributor markups.

“We want the whole unit to ship with the house from the factory so there’s no onsite work,” he says. “You can test everything at the factory, too.”

DeLima and his manufacturing partners are working with builders of manufactured homes to fit Comboflair into the various floor plans, most likely in utility areas along an outside wall. That positioning would allow the units to be loaded directly off a forklift.

Test run

Dallas-based Palm Harbor Homes Inc., one of the country’s largest manufactured home builders, already is on board the welcome wagon, according to DeLima.

“We’re making them to fit their homes. In simple terms, Palm Harbor will be our first customer.”

A prototype is expected within a year. By 2006, several units will be available for a yearlong test in Palm Harbor-built houses through a full heating and cooling season.

Palm Harbor’s executives say their focus is the high-end, customized niche of the market. Four of five homes produced in its 19 manufacturing facilities from Oregon to Florida are customized with owner-selected features and sold through 136 company-owned superstores and more than 300 independent retailers.

“If you haven’t seen a manufactured home lately, then you haven’t seen a manufactured home,” says Larry Keener, president and CEO. “The customization options are limited only by your imagination. And manufactured homes aren’t limited to ‘trailer parks’ any more.”

Space-age design

Unico Inc. of St. Louis, Mo. is doing the design and fabrication through the development stages. Company President Dave Page says modifications will be made to Unico’s high-velocity, mini-duct heating and cooling system to meet the manufactured home industry’s space and cost requirements.

The Unico system works on the principle of “aspiration.” Hot and cold streams of high-velocity air enter a room, creating gentle circulation without drafts. This provides for even temperatures from floor to ceiling. In the cooling mode, the system removes up to 30 percent more moisture than conventional central air conditioning systems, making even higher temperature settings more comfortable, efficient and economical, he explains.

A prime Unico marketing point is the system’s ability to be retrofitted into tight locations unsuitable for standard-sized ductwork, such as applications in older homes being rehabilitated.

Page says the installed system is virtually invisible, as the diffusers blend into the décor. It has been installed in more than 100,000 homes and businesses across the U.S., in Canada, Europe, Asia and the Caribbean, and has also been featured on several episodes of PBS’ This Old House and Hometime, and Your New Home with Michael Holigan home improvement programs.

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