Taking the Chill Away: Shop Heating Systems - BodyShop Business

Taking the Chill Away: Shop Heating Systems

Before winter has your employees donning parkas and dubbing the shop "the igloo", be sure your heating system is the right one for the job.

By this time, most shop owners — especially those in colder areas where winter air has already moved in — have taken inventory of their shop heating systems, given them a once-over and performed any minor maintenance that may be necessary. This is an important task. As any technician can tell you, it’s vital to productivity that climate controls in the shop be adequate for the space being heated and be in good working order. Uncomfortable working conditions for techs and improper temperatures for product use can cause more problems in the shop than Old Man Winter can outside.

How can you be sure the heating system installed in your facility is the right one? A thorough understanding of your shop’s workflow and your building infrastructure, as well as the available heating options, will help you determine the best system for you and your technicians.

How to Heat
Choosing the right heating system should be both a personal decision and one based on shop layout, workflow and building design. Smaller shops may prefer propane-fired and electric space heaters. Larger facilities, however, may prefer radiant heat since the amount of space and cavernous drying and painting areas could be expensive to heat with another system.

One Nebraska shop owner I spoke with recently started converting to gas-fired heating radiant-element loops. He noted that when the work load is highest and the shop is full, the inside temperature is at about the T-shirt level of comfort since this system’s design works to heat objects in the shop that then radiate heat from themselves. When the work level is slow, the shop is a bit more brisk. Activity in the work area is also sparse, so it’s sort of self-governing, he says.

But that doesn’t mean that type of heating is the right choice for every shop. Let’s take a look at some other heating alternatives:

• Infrared radiant heat — If your shop is to be heated using low-intensity infrared unitary heaters, then ceiling height, flue connection, gas connection, electrical equipment ratings, tube diameter and the style of the ignition system are elements that must be considered.

Other things to remember: Radiant heating with liquid petroleum requires a high-flow valve and safety shut-off. Horizontal reflectors work well when the objective is to heat floors and keep them warm and dry, while canted or tilt reflectors can be used to sustain heat in cold areas of the construction. Clearances to combustibles vary by the type and specific configuration of the building and special tube sections and reflectors.

The obvious advantages of this design is that since no blower or active air movement is involved, dust and dirt don’t get blown around the shop. Also, since infrared heat is designed to heat objects, the system can be set at a consistent low-heat setting and very little attention is required, especially if the system is displaced in two or three zones. Each zone can have its own burner box, with 40,000- to 170,000-btu models available.

• Waste-oil heaters — These heaters have their niche carved out in much of the nation, with some shops running two and three separate units to supply heat and hot water.

This “free heat,” as it’s been called, comes with a good measure of technology behind it. Early waste oil-fired units were bulky, clumsy and required so much maintenance that they rarely made a season without some problem, requiring the shop to go on back-up for awhile. Newer units, however, meter the oil after it’s been heated and, in most cases, automatic controls used to maintain a consistent viscosity keep operators from making continuous oil-flow adjustments. Many of the plumbing, electrical wiring and tank hook-up problems have also been eliminated. The target, or flame shield, which is consumable on waste oil-fired units, lasts three to four times as long as previous early designs.

Although most systems use a balanced flue design, spiral downdrafts and other short-term glitches seem to have a few shop owners complaining about light ash residue that collects on flat surfaces of the shop areas. Trying to confine the dispersal of this ash can be tricky and, as you’re well aware, paint and foreign debris don’t go well together.

Fan output on any selected unit should be large enough to move the heat throughout the work space. If ducting is installed, then the fan unit might be smaller and an auxiliary blower can be controlled by a main or zone thermostat. Air requirements are critical and may range from 2,000 cubic feet of free air to more than 6,000 cubic feet on a ducted system. An 8 or 10-inch flue is required for satisfactory system performance; local codes may require other ventilating fail-safe features as well. Smaller units have fans, blowers, compressors and heaters that run off standard 115-volt power. Large units and many ducted set-ups use 230/single-phase equipment.

Waste-oil heater manufacturers now offer longer more inclusive warranties, and service on the units is much better than 10 years ago.

• Hot-water heat and element-style heating — These heating systems, often installed when floors are poured during construction, are another choice for new facility owners but are seldom done as a conversion. Problems with system failure is rare, but one vocational school in my area did have its floors broken up to restore an electrical link for heating elements after the system was in service for only three years.

• Externally installed wood or pellet heaters — These heaters are made shop ready by several companies. Wood is an equitable commodity in the Midwest states, which can make this heating system an economical choice. There is, however, a constant amount of cleaning and adjusting that’s necessary for system maintenance.

Shop owners with systems in use claim that, as far as cost goes, wood stacks up only slightly behind the clean gases for maximum efficiency vs. overall system cost and fuel consumed.

The ability to remote mount the heating unit, which can be installed outside the shop with heat being convected or conducted into the shop interior, can also make this choice desirable for shops wanting the extra floor space. Soot, smoke and mess will also be confined to the outer shop area. The duct systems and blower network is similar to gas- or oil-fired systems, and many shops prefer to use two or three zones in order to increase efficiency and save fuel.

Control Your Climate
Heating systems come in a variety of designs and constructions, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Your job, as the shop owner, is to decide exactly which of those systems is best for your shop. What will work best for you may not work for the shop down the street. Likewise, if you’re running more than one facility, each one may require a different type of heating system.

The best part of any system is its reliability. Factory support should be high on the list when checking into any system as well. Also be sure to find out how difficult retro-fit and add-on units might be to install, in the event you expand your shop and the remodel requires a larger, more detailed system.

Changing or upgrading the current heating system your shop operates could make a big difference in your bottom line. Granted, the changes will cost you in the beginning, but with more comfortable employees and increased productivity, you’ll see the long-term benefits as your profits heat up.

Safety First
The following are typical clearances to combustibles for low-intensity infrared heating systems:

Reflector Type




Standard Reflector 20-36 in. 4 in. 48-60 in.
w/ 1 Side Extension 20-42 in. 4 in. 56-60 in.
w/ 2 Side Extensions 12 in. 4 in. 56-60 in.
1-feet wide w/ Grille 12 -18 in. 4 in. 48-56 in.
2-feet wide w/ Grille 12-18 in. 4 in. 48-56 in.

Note: These are examples only and may vary depending on the type of system installed.

Contributing editor Bob Leone, a retired shop owner, is ASE Three-Way Master Certified and is completing qualifications as a post-secondary automotive instructor in the vocational school system in Missouri.

Alternate Heat Sources
Geo-thermal heat extraction is becoming more popular as a primary heat source in many areas of the United States. The primary idea behind it is to couple a more traditional heat system with a system that pulls heat from well below the frost line and then convects warm air into the primary heating system. Natural-gas space heaters, electric furnaces or heat pumps can all be fed by this warmer air. The result: It will take less calories of heat to raise the temperature to the chosen setting than if surface or room-temperature air was used.

Another option is to combine a geo-thermal transfer system with an active solar-panel array for a total energy efficiency gain. Though the expense of such a project could get quite pricey, the long-term savings should offset the investment in a few years. For example, many newly built shops have insulating properties and construction features incorporated into their designs that allow them to utilize the lower angle of the winter sun rays while blocking out the higher sun in the summer.

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