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Fans and followers of maker and social media star Jimmy DiResta might feel a sense of ownership of his Black Barn workshop.
DiResta has described his dreams of building the ultimate workshop on his wildly popular YouTube channel for years. He purchased a farmhouse on 40 acres of land in Upstate New York 15 years ago with the intention of one day constructing the workshop. With the support of his 1.8 million YouTube channel subscribers and supporters on Patreon, DiResta was able to begin construction on the barn after moving full time to the farm three years ago.
“In a way, it was fan-funded in spirit,” DiResta says. “That’s maybe the nicest thing about it.” The Black Barn has in turn become a gathering space for that community, with fans able to visit for weekend workshops (pre-pandemic) and stay in his 13-bedroom farmhouse. “We host a group of people and a teacher, and we do these big weekends up at the house, and that big Black Barn has been a big part of that.”
Just as DiResta’s fan community played a role in supporting the workshop, his followers and fellow influencers such as post frame builder Kyle Stumpenhorst also played an integral role in the barn’s construction. In fact, it was at a rainy-day meet-and-greet with local fans that DiResta met Moe Hirsch, a Pomona, New York–based contractor who would help design the building’s deceptively simple, propane-boiler-fed radiant heating system.
Radiant heat on propane
DiResta’s carpenter had laid the groundwork by installing radiant tubing in the building’s concrete slab, so Hirsch pitched his services and impressed DiResta with his expertise. “Radiant heat on propane is pretty much the best thing you can have for a shop environment with concrete floors,” says Hirsch, owner of Moe’s Consulting and Mechanical Services.
One reason for that is comfort. “Because he has an open floor and you’re standing on a bare floor a lot of the day, you feel warmer because you’re getting the radiant feel and the conductive feel,” Hirsch says.
Another reason is the adaptability of the propane boiler that supplies the system. Instead of using a thermostat, Hirsch designed the heating system to run entirely off of an outdoor-temperature sensor, with heat load calculations dictating the boiler’s set point. DiResta can set the temperature to an occupied or unoccupied setting from his phone. “So his boiler basically just slides,” Hirsch says. “He’s getting the max efficiency, so he’s essentially only using the amount of propane he needs for that given moment.”
A Taco delta-T circulator helps the system’s pump respond to varying return water temperatures. The pump targets the optimal return water temperature to keep the delta-T at the sweet spot for boiler efficiency.
Comparing propane boilers with electric heat pumps
Propane boilers also have several advantages compared with electric heat pump systems, Hirsch says. “You can get a high-efficiency boiler and, even with it being a high-efficiency appliance, there are a lot less moving parts,” Hirsch says. “There’s no compressors and refrigerants and that type of stuff.” He particularly likes the Lambda Pro combustion management system used by the Viessman boiler he installed. “It’s like an oxygen sensor in the exhaust of your car,” he says. “It’s monitoring the air-to-fuel ratio and constantly varying to make sure it’s proper.”
Hirsch evaluated a geothermal system for the project but ruled it out due to the higher upfront cost and maintenance concerns. “I like looking at the life cycle costs,” he says. “What are we talking about in maintenance? What are we talking about with refrigerants? Are the refrigerants going to get phased out like everything else? And the geothermal didn’t make sense by a far margin over here.”
Standby generators have become an increasingly large part of Hirsch’s business. He generally installs propane-fueled, air-cooled Cummins generators, even for clients with homes heated by oil. For the Black Barn, Hirsch designed the electrical system so that the entire heating system can easily run on a small emergency or standby generator.
Masters of their craft
DiResta’s original workshop, a couple miles away from his house in a 5,000-square-foot pole barn, is heated by two 50-foot propane tube heaters. And DiResta uses propane directly in the art he creates with several propane-fueled forges that he uses alongside students at his workshops.
With the boiler-fed radiant heating system keeping the Black Barn efficiently warm, DiResta is looking to repeat the success on other upcoming projects. He owns a downtown commercial property in the nearest town and is planning to construct a building using a full radiant floor slab. DiResta’s farmhouse already has a propane supply to feed his vintage AGA stove, and he’s considering working with Hirsch to convert the home’s oil heating system to propane as well.
As a master craftsman, it’s only natural DiResta would rely on a contractor who takes his own craft as seriously as Hirsch does. “He’s so knowledgeable, I wouldn’t second-guess him for one second,” DiResta says.