The 51st International Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo), better known as "The ASHRAE Show," was stunning in its size and scope. Held in PM Engineer's home of Chicago on January 25-27, the exposition held more than 1,300 exhibitors and upwards of 400,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, shattering the old records by more than 19%. Attendance figures weren't in as of this writing, but preregistered visitors and exhibitors totaled over 48,000. Long onsite registration lines and jam-packed aisles lead me to believe a conservative crowd estimate is not in order.

Show managers noted that the exposition always sets its records in Chicago. This speaks well of the serious purpose of ASHRAE sponsors and attendees. Meeting planners whose first priority is fun and games would never book a convention for January in Chicago. Although this year's weather was decent by January-in-Chicago standards, it was nonetheless chilly enough to freak out most visitors from the Sunbelt.

One sizes up the exhibits, the crowds, the sheer spectacle of it all, along with the grandeur of Chicago's newest McCormick Place Exposition Hall, and understands that we live in an age of marvel. Our economy is humming sprightly and our heating technology has never been more invigorating. The broad stretches of McCormick Place led to tired feet and a churning mind, which sprouted these random observations.

Being & Nothingness

My vote for the best exhibit at the show goes to Taco, the hydronics company that showed absolutely nothing. "Tacoville" with its Wild West theme was a colorful outpost on the exhibition floor (photo), but without a single product on display. Instead, visitors could access every last item in Taco's catalog via interactive electronic screens positioned around the booth. Visitors could go from circulator pumps to heat exchangers to tanks to zoning controls with a mere touch of the screen. Maybe it wouldn't be appropriate for sexier wares, but when you're selling mundane hardware like pumps and tanks this seems a triumph of substance over style. To add some pizzazz, Taco broadcast live reports from the show on its Web site, including a press conference.

A company call e*specs developed the booth for Taco. They can be reached at

Twists & Turns

Another eye-opener was the Ecoflex booth, which featured performances by "The World's Most Flexible Man" at half-hour intervals throughout the show. I could feel my muscles pulling apart just watching the contortionist work himself into impossible shapes to draw attention to Ecoflex, a flexible, pre-insulated PEX pipe.

Virtually unknown a year ago in the U.S., Ecoflex, a subsidiary of the Finnish plastic pipe giant Uponor, is sparing no expense with a push into the American market. They and their U.S. distributor, Rovanco Piping Systems, also threw one of the best evening bashes at Chicago's House of Blues.

Their product has a wide range of applications led by commercial and residential heating and cooling, along with distribution piping to radiant snow melt manifolds. Labor savings, chemical- and corrosion resistance and durability are some of its touted advantages. If imaginative marketing and sheer effort means anything, they are on their way to big things in America.

Radiant Heat Comes On Strong

The show directory listed an incredible 65 companies under the "Radiant Heating Equipment" category. That's more plumbing companies that were at the Home Builders Show held a few days earlier in Dallas. (Only 16 radiant heating companies exhibited at that show. No doubt the number was held down by proximity to the more pertinent ASHRAE expo.)

Radiant heating is still a niche within a niche market (hydronics), but more and more it seems an idea whose time has come in the U.S.

The short-lived era of mix-and-match radiant components are giving way to packaged systems. This is all but inevitable with any reasonably complex technology (example: stereo systems). It may even be something that has to be done in order to win widespread market acceptance.

This year's Radiant Panel Association meeting is slated for May 13-15 in Chicago. Ought to be a humdinger. Contact RPA at 801-245-0128, or

Journey To The Center Of The Earth

That's what it felt like manning our company's well-situated booth near the main show entrance. Stopping by during my stints were people from India, Syria, Ukraine, Israel, China and of course countless of our Canadian neighbors. ASHRAE is truly an international organization.

The ISH Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, which I will be visiting in a few weeks, has an even greater international flavor, although my perspective on this is surely warped because I will be the one on foreign soil. Whether at ASHRAE or ISH, a heady feeling comes over a person standing at the crossroads of international technology and commerce. It is like being at the center of the earth where all paths converge and gravity is at its most intense.

Recently, while chatting on a drive home from the video store, my 15-year-old daughter was shocked to hear that I grew up in an era predating VCRs. Her reaction was similar to mine as a youth upon encountering elders who were raised without TV. Gasp, how did anyone manage to survive such primitive times!

Truly we live in a wondrous era. No place on earth is more than a partial day's travel from anywhere else. The Internet accesses information from an inexhaustible world library, and puts us in touch with friends and professional colleagues anywhere in the world instantaneously.

There are people still around today who were alive before the Wright brothers made their first pitiful flight, and before radio, much less television, made its way into their lives. What wonders they have seen. What wonders will you or I yet witness if we are chosen to survive so long?

I crossed paths with three industry acquaintances at the ASHRAE show who told me I had popped up unexpectedly on their TV screens. They were referring to the "Arteries of Civilization" program on plumbing history that ran on the History Channel's "Modern Marvels" series last December 17. It was a rerun of a program that had originally aired last September, in which I served as something of a color commentator. After the initial broadcast I also got calls from people who had inadvertently stumbled across the program. This got me to thinking. . .

What might be the odds of my running into an individual at ASHRAE who randomly caught my act on that program? What about three people? Discount those who purposely tuned in after reading the announcement in this magazine that the program would air. The three people I encountered at ASHRAE never knew about the program or my role in it.

The mathematical variables would include the number of attendees at ASHRAE and the number of TV viewers tuned into the Modern Marvels program-preferably broken down by educational demographics, because I suspect the History Channel's ratings are somewhat higher among the educated audience that predominates at the ASHRAE show, compared with the population at-large.

Even trickier would be to calculate the probability of two people wandering around McCormick Place running into each other within a 16-hour period, without trying to seek each other out or even knowing of each other's presence. I suppose you'd need to know the square footage of the exhibit hall and the average amount of ground traversed in a day. Perhaps there are other variables as well.

This wordsmith's math skills are nowhere near sufficient to solve this problem. For all I know, Mr. Newton's calculus may not even be up to the task.

But if any of you are up to it, I sure would love to publish any probability calculations you may fancy using educated guesswork for the variables. Fax them to me at 847-297-8371.

Be advised, however, that I wash my hands of any responsibility for sleepless nights.