Winter’s snowfall brings inconvenience and injury risk for many across North America. Slipping on snow or icy surfaces can cause hip dislocations, wrist fractures or even head injuries. From private residences to commercial storefronts, snow and ice removal is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. A snowmelt heating system effectively tackles that responsibility with benefits beyond merely melting snow. By significantly reducing or potentially eliminating the need for deicers and shoveling, a pavement heating system can also help preserve the beauty and longevity of pavers while reducing liability.
While the cost to install a pavement heating system may qualify it as a luxury item, the return on investment comes from saving hours of shoveling and deicer costs. When considering the savings season after season, particularly in heavy snowfall regions, the investment yields valuable returns.
HYDRONIC OR ELECTRIC?
There are two types of pavement heating systems: electric and hydronic. Electric systems conduct heat through wires or cables, whereas hydronic systems pump and recirculate a mix of glycol and water through a loop of flexible polymer or synthetic rubber tubing. Generally, an electric system is cheaper to install but costs more to operate over time because the current draws continuously while the system is on. A hydronic system is more expensive to install due to the additional components required such as a dedicated boiler, pumps and manifolds, often installed by a plumber. Hydronic systems have lower operating costs because they reheat and recirculate the fluid. With more parts, hydronic systems may require more maintenance over time than electric systems.
THE INSULATION FACTOR
Another key factor to determine at the outset is whether or not an insulation layer is required by local building codes. Places like Aspen, CO, or Sun Valley, ID, for example, require an insulation layer for pavement heating systems to maximize energy efficiency. This adds costs and can cause the pavement to fail if not correctly installed.
“I’ve seen a 70-foot driveway where the pavers slid six inches and left a gap at the top,” said Marc Larsen of Mountain West Paver Specialists. The insulation material often used is squishy, like bubble-wrap, explained Larsen, and installers mistakenly place it on top of the base. “You have to remove the flexibility of that insulation material by putting it under the rigid base of a concrete slab.”
If there is no building code requirement to use insulation, it can be presented to the customer as an efficiency option but it’s not necessary for the system to function optimally, according to Larsen. The ICPI construction guidelines in ICPI Tech Spec 12 – Snow Melting Systems for Interlocking Concrete Pavements do not recommend insulation below the bedding sand in residential driveways. However, insulation below the bedding sand is acceptable for pedestrian-only applications such as a patio or sidewalk. For roads or crosswalks, concrete or asphalt bases are recommended.
The design and performance of a snowmelt system depends on three environmental factors: the rate of snowfall, the temperature of the snow and wind conditions. Snowmelt rates will vary with the application. For example, melting 1 in. (25 mm) of snow per hour is usually acceptable for a residence but may be unacceptable for a sidewalk in front of a store. Most manufacturers of hydronic and electric snowmelt systems provide design guidelines and/or software to calculate the BTUs per square foot (watts/m2) required to melt a range of snowfalls for a given region.
The design methods work through a series of calculations that consider the snow temperature (density), air temperature, exposure of the pavement to wind, and unusual site conditions. The calculations indicate the size and spacing of cables or tubing required, as well as the temperature of the fluid, its flow rate, or the electricity required. The Radiant Panel Association (radiantpanelassociation.org) provides design guidelines for liquid snow melt systems.
LAYOUT AND CONSTRUCTION
With electric and hydronic systems, the best performance comes from a heat source placed as close to the pavers as possible, nestled into the bedding sand. The recommended depth for bedding sand is normally 1 inch. However, the wires or tubing need a ½ inch of sand over them for protection from abrasion and possible rupture. Therefore, the diameter of the wires or tubing may increase the bedding sand thickness to a maximum of two inches before compaction.
Once the base is installed and compacted to the proper depth and density per ICPI Tech Spec 2 – Construction of Interlocking Concrete Pavements, a galvanized wire mesh is placed over the surface of the base and secured to the base with stakes. The wires or tubing for the heating system are then fastened to the wire mesh with plastic zip ties. Installation of wires or tubing should be done by an electrician or plumbing contractor experienced with these systems. Before placing sand or pavers over the system, it should be tested for leaks.
Some contractors install the wires or tubing into the top inch of the base to forego the wire mesh and facilitate easier sand screeding. In this case, base material is added around the wires or tubing and then compacted to bring the level of the base to its final grade. The wires or tubing are exposed flush with the compacted surface of the base.
While the above guidance is suitable for pedestrian and residential driveway applications, areas subject to constant vehicular traffic such as crosswalks or roads require wires or tubing placed within a concrete slab or asphalt, rather than on top of the base. This protects the heating system from tire damage. Check with the wire or tubing manufacturer to be sure materials can withstand hot asphalt and its compaction. When an asphalt or concrete base is used, 2-inch diameter weep holes should be added at the lowest elevations for drainage, filled with washed pea gravel, and covered with geotextile to prevent bedding sand loss.
For permeable interlocking concrete pavements, wire or tube spacing will most likely be reduced to account for heat loss to the air voids within the permeable aggregate bedding layer. The manufacturer of the heating system should be consulted on durability of the wires or tubing when placed against bedding aggregate and then subjected to vehicular tire loads.
ICPI Tech Spec 12 – Snow Melting Systems for Interlocking Concrete Pavements provides detailed installation guidance and is available for download from the resource library page of ICPI’s website: icpi.org/resource-library. ICPI also offers courses that provide instruction and certification. Visit icpi.org/education-certification to learn more and to register.