Dream Home Boiler and Designer Pipe Rooms Avanti Group
Last month, Peter and Sara Starr gave dinner guests a tour of their new Bayside, Calif., home. There's the designer kitchen fitted with free-standing ergonomic furniture. And the valley views complete with majestic redwoods. But the pièce de résistance sits just off the living room—a 100-square-foot nook otherwise known as the boiler room.
As more homeowners invest in renewable energy and other high-efficiency appliances, they're spiffing up the dank mechanical room and turning new iPod-inspired designs into showpieces. WSJ's Gwendolyn Bounds reports on six signs you might be a "boiler room junkie."
Inside hums the heart of about $70,000 in state-of-the-art heating and electrical equipment. A sleek hot-water tank is fed by rooftop solar panels; so is an array of batteries storing electricity and feeding excess power back to the grid. Hanging nearby, a petite, black boiler provides radiant heat while hundreds of feet of copper piping snake outward, delivering warmth and water to the 1,800-square-foot house.
"It looks like the Star Trek Enterprise," 61-year-old Peter Starr says. "It's really a little focal point, and a sign of pride."
Say goodbye to the scary room, that dank, dark spot where boilers and water heaters work among the spiders, with human visits taking place only when something—"Honey, there's no hot water!"—goes wrong. As a vanguard of homeowners invests in renewable energy and other high-efficiency equipment, they're spiffing up the mechanical room and, in some cases, trying to make the air conditioner a showpiece.
Producers of this stuff are touting style. Take the LG Electronics "Art Cool" duct-free air-conditioning units, which hang directly on interior walls and can frame works of art. Last year, Nortek Inc. launched a line of Maytag gas furnaces with "fingerprint-less" faux stainless doors. General Electric Co. GE -0.55% recently rolled out its futuristic $1,600 "GeoSpring" hot-water heater that looks like it might share DNA with the Jetsons' cartoon robot maid, Rosie.
Such gadgets are the latest means for leaving the Joneses in the dust. "The mechanical room is now like the wine room or the library," says Stephen Bohner, owner of Alchemy Construction Inc. in Bayside's Northern California neighbor, Arcata. He installed some of the Starrs' equipment. Mr. Bohner says all of his new construction projects include renewable-energy equipment, such as solar. "If you are spending money on that stuff, you want to show it off."
Vince Kimbel recently installed a GeoSpring hot-water heater in his Louisville, Ky., home. The unit combines energy-efficient heat-pump technology with an electric heating element, pulling warmth from surrounding air and transferring it into the tank. Says Mr. Kimbel, a builder: "The look translates into people saying, 'This is different.' If it was a traditional water heater, they wouldn't give it a second look."
Of course, as with any trend, there are downsides to jumping on the bandwagon. Appliance styles can fall out of fashion, and updates cost money. Sears Holdings Corp. has phased out its Pacific Blue and Sedona orange-hued washers and dryers, replacing them with the more au courant Ginger and Chili Pepper.
And like a stunning pair of stiletto heels, what's fashionable might not be all that practical. Three years ago, Dirt Devil launched two cordless vacuum models called Kurv and Kone. Now those models, resembling a scepter and small megaphone, are being discontinued. "They were great looking, but from a utilitarian standpoint, they didn't meet customers' expectations," says Dirt Devil general manager Dave Chaney.
Payback time on investments such as solar panels can be 10 to 15 years in some cases, and as in electronics, something new and better is always on the horizon. While 70% of future home buyers said they'd be inclined to buy a green house in a down market, according to a McGraw-Hill Construction survey, the struggling housing market means sellers might not recoup what they've put into mechanical upgrades.
Perhaps inevitably, some designers are trying to tap into the mania for the design flourishes of Apple's iPhones and iPods. American Hometec Inc. of Wilmington, Del., in May introduced the Everun tankless water heater, which heats hot water only as needed. The units, which cost $200 to $1,200, resemble brushed chrome-and-white wine coolers, have slide-touch controls and an optional shelf to hide wires (or hold a vase of flowers).
"It's designed to be like the iPod of water heaters," says Dave Millilo, American Hometec's vice president of marketing.
Others seek their muse in high art. Sears recently launched an in-room air-cleaner called the Kenmore PlasmaWave that takes inspiration from a Richard Serra minimalist sculpture.
"People don't want to look at things that are unpleasant," says Ellen Glassman, a Sears vice president overseeing design.
It's unclear how the interest in pricey energy-efficient appliances will hold up once certain tax credits and rebates begin to dry up at the end of 2010. Earlier this year, Sean and Grace Cunnane of Rock Tavern, N.Y., installed a Viessmann boiler and new royal blue Buderus hot-water tank. The project, which cost $17,000, was partially offset by a $1,500 federal tax credit for the boiler. "It helped," says the 45-year-old Sean Cunnane.
The retired police officer has been showing off his new stuff to family and neighbors, but he says there's more behind his latest splurge than bragging rights. With the weak housing market, he expects that he and his wife will be in the house living with—and looking at—their purchases "for a while."
Dream Home Boiler and Designer Pipe Rooms Avanti Group