Understanding Radiant Floor Heating

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Home Improvement

A photograph of a newly-built home with a hydronic radiant floor heating system.
Miguel Salmeron/Getty Images

Imagine waking up on a cold winter morning to find snowflakes falling outside your bedroom window. You don’t want to leave the warmth of your cozy bed, but you need to make your morning coffee. As soon as you step out of bed, your bare feet touch a warm hardwood floor, and as you walk towards the bathroom, you feel the warmth of heated ceramic tiles underfoot. In the kitchen, your feet touch a warm tiled floor. This is the comfort of radiant floor heating.

Radiant floor heating (RFH) involves installing electric heating coils or water-heated tubing beneath your home’s floors. This system warms everything it touches and radiates heat throughout the room from the ground up. This is similar to how the sun’s heat works. If you step from a shaded area into the sun, you will feel warmer even though the air temperature is the same. Radiant floor heating works in the same way. The temperature throughout the room remains more constant compared to a standard forced-air system where the air rises, cools and then falls to the floor.

In addition to enjoying consistent warmth from the floor to the ceiling, some people opt for RFH systems for the savings they provide. These systems are more cost-effective than furnaces, and can reduce heating costs by 25 to 50 percent [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. New homes are ideally suited for whole-house RFH systems, but existing homes can also be retrofitted successfully. Some people with older homes choose to have a single-room installation, such as in a kitchen or bathroom, instead of a whole-house system.

The idea of RFH is not new. Ancient Romans used hot water pipes to warm their floors, and it has been the preferred heating system in Europe since the 1970s. In addition to the long-term cost benefits, radiant floor heating is silent, with no loud air ducts or furnaces to deal with. It is also better for people with allergies, as eliminating blown air can reduce dust mites by up to 80 percent [source: Warmly Yours].

RFH systems fall into two categories: electric and hydronic. In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons, costs, and installation methods of radiant floor heating.


Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating Systems

These gentlemen believe that radiant floor heating is an excellent idea.
Ben Schnall/Getty Images

When it comes to selecting an RFH system, you have the choice between electric and hydronic. The energy cost of heating an entire house with an electric RFH system is not cost-effective, so if you’re heating your entire house, hydronic is the way to go. If you’re building a new house or renovating an older one, a hydronic system is probably your best option. You can install hydronic systems in an existing home, but it requires tearing up the flooring, which is both expensive and labor-intensive.

If you have decided on using a hydronic RFH system, it is important to know that it will cost more upfront than a standard furnace unit. A forced-air system for a 2,000 square foot home will cost between $3,800 and $4,500, while a hydronic radiant floor heating unit with a boiler will cost between $7,000 and $13,000. However, the RFH system is more efficient and lasts longer, up to 40 years, compared to standard furnaces which last between 10 and 25 years. Another benefit of a hydronic system is that you can use a variety of sources to heat the water, such as an oil-fired boiler, gas-fired boiler, or kerosene, gas or solar water heater. Your choice of heat source depends on the size of your home and the climate of where you live. The installation process involves either a wet or dry installation, with wet installs taking longer to heat up and requiring longer running times. Maintenance for a hydronic system is minimal, but in case of a breakdown, it can be complicated and expensive. However, an RFH specialist can guide you through the different options available.

Electric Radiant Floor Heating

A plastic mat containing copper or nichrome resistance wires is used in electric radiant floor heating (RFH) to warm up the floor. These wires are zigzagged through a mat and then connected to electricity. Although it is expensive to heat an entire house through electric RFH, it is cost-effective to use it for individual rooms. To save money, users can charge the heating elements overnight during off-peak hours when electricity is cheaper. Ceramic tiles are the best option for electric RFH, but it can be used with other types of flooring, including hardwood and carpet. The padding on carpet can be flat or ribbed and should be selected carefully to increase the amount of heat. An electric RFH system can be controlled by a switch or a thermostat, and it takes about 30 minutes to an hour to heat up a room. Installing an electric RFH system in a bathroom, sunroom, or kitchen during renovation is ideal. Once the mats are laid and tile is placed over them, no regular maintenance is required. Electric systems are rarely problematic, and troubleshooting and repairs can be done by homeowners. To learn more about home heating and construction, visit the links on the following page.

Don’t want to shovel snow? Consider installing hydronic radiant heating tubes for your driveway and sidewalk. This will eliminate the need for snow shoveling and leave you with a clear and clean path. In addition to the convenience, this could also potentially save your life, as many people die each year from heart attacks or accidents while shoveling snow. For more information, check out the related articles and sources listed below.


1. What is radiant floor heating?

Radiant floor heating is a heating system that is installed beneath the floor of a building. It heats a room by emitting heat through the floor surface, which then radiates warmth into the air. It is an efficient and comfortable way to heat a space, as the heat rises from the floor and warms the entire room evenly.

2. How does radiant floor heating work?

A radiant floor heating system works by using either electric wires or hot water pipes that are installed beneath the flooring. When the heating system is turned on, the electric wires or hot water pipes heat up and transfer heat to the flooring material. The heat is then radiated upwards and warms the room from the bottom up.

3. What are the benefits of radiant floor heating?

Radiant floor heating provides a number of benefits, including energy efficiency, comfort, and design flexibility. It is more energy-efficient than traditional heating systems because it heats the entire room from the floor up, which means you can set the thermostat at a lower temperature. It also provides a more comfortable heat because it doesn’t produce any drafts or noise. Finally, it offers design flexibility because it doesn’t require any ductwork or radiators, which can be unsightly.

4. What types of flooring are compatible with radiant floor heating?

Radiant floor heating is compatible with a wide variety of flooring materials, including tile, stone, hardwood, and even carpet. However, some materials are better conductors of heat than others. For example, tile and stone are excellent conductors of heat, while carpet and some types of hardwood can limit the amount of heat that radiates through the floor.

5. Is radiant floor heating expensive to install?

The cost of installing a radiant floor heating system will depend on a number of factors, including the size of the space, the type of system you choose, and the flooring material. However, in general, radiant floor heating can be more expensive to install than traditional heating systems because it requires specialized equipment and skilled labor. However, over time, the energy savings from using a more efficient heating system can offset the installation costs.

6. Can radiant floor heating be used for cooling as well?

Yes, radiant floor heating systems can also be used for cooling. By circulating cool water through the pipes instead of hot water, the system can provide a cooling effect. This is known as radiant cooling, and it is an efficient way to cool a space because it doesn’t require any noisy or unsightly equipment. However, it is important to note that radiant cooling is not as effective as traditional air conditioning in very hot and humid climates.

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