If you have ever stepped on heated flooring in cold winter, you’d agree that no other heating system comes near in comfort. Radiant floor heating beats its competitors in performance, comfort, and many other metrics. But, like anything else, it also comes with limitations.
So, is radiant floor heating the right choice for you? Let’s weigh the pros and cons of radiant floor heating to find out!
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What is Radiant Floor Heating?
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Radiant floor heating or heated floors is a system where the heating source is installed underneath the floor to create warmth. The heat is usually generated by electric wires (electric radiant floor heating system) or hot water pipes (hydronic radiant floor heating system). To put it simply, it turns your entire floor into a large-area radiator. The heat is distributed evenly throughout the area compared to forced-air heating or radiators, where the warm air rises at the top, and the floor remains cold where the cool air settles.
Types of Radiant Floor Heating
There are two main types of radiant floor heating — electric and hydronic.
Electric Radiant Floor Heating System
Electric radiant heating uses zigzagging loops of resistance cables to heat rooms. It is usually used as a supplemental heating source and retrofitted into a single room. Electric heating is not suitable for the entire house but is ideal for kitchens or bathrooms. The cables are installed and embedded over the subfloor in a thin layer of mortar.
Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating System
A hydronic radiant floor heating system circulates hot water from a boiler or a water heater to heat the entire house. This system uses one or two inches of thick flexible polyethene tubing to circulate the water. The tube can be installed in several ways. They can be embedded in poured concrete, stapled under subflooring, installed over the existing cement slabs, or fitted inside channels of subfloor panels designed specifically for running the pipes.
Pros of Radiant Floor Heating
The biggest benefit of radiant floor heating is it uniformly warms up the floor and the room. Forced-air heating systems blow hot air to warm up the room. As expected, the area around the vent feels warmer; the further you move away, the colder it gets. Another problem with air-based heating is the warm air rises to the top of the room while the cold air settles at the bottom.
Underfloor heating evenly distributes the heat across the floor because it warms up solids instead of air. As the temperature rises slowly, the warm air at the bottom floats at the mid-level, which feels like a blanket of warmth. You will also not experience any cold drafts, making the lower ambient temperature feel more comfortable.
Does the annoying whooshing and clanking of radiators keep waking you up in the middle of the night? With radiant heating, you have none of that. The boiler for hydronic radiant heating is placed in the basement, and only the hot liquid is carried silently into the living areas through the pipes. So, you won’t hear a loud furnace kicking on every time the heating turns on. Unlike baseboard radiators, there is little to no expansion and contraction creaking.
No visible ducts or grills
If you have a forced air heating system, it doesn’t take much time to notice them. The unsightly metal grille of an air vent is anything but pleasant to the eyes. In fact, forced air heating has been around for so long that most people assumed the heating system had to look like an eyesore until radiant heating revolutionized the idea. Underfloor heating systems are built to be the most discreet compared to the other heating options. It is invisible to the eyes, and you won’t feel its presence apart from the blanket of warmth when you walk into the room. Its invisibility makes it the most preferred choice for living spaces.
Improved air quality and non-allergenic
Radiators or other air-based heating systems reach very high temperatures (165 degrees Fahrenheit) that reduce the indoor oxygen level. Also, the warm air shoots up as the room gets heated, and cold air settles on the ground. This also moves the dust and allergen around the room. Radiant floor heating does not need to reach very high temperatures (only 84 degrees Fahrenheit) to heat a room. It also does not steer the air around and circulate dust and allergen.
Traditional radiators can be heated as high as 165 degrees Fahrenheit just to raise the temperature level of the room to 70 degrees. The radiant heating system only needs to go up to 84 degrees Fahrenheit to warm the entire space. It is 20-25% more energy-efficient than a forced-air heating system. Its efficiency can be further improved by insulating the duct to prevent heat from escaping below the subfloor.
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Apart from mechanical efficiency, you can regulate temperature remotely or automatically through a programmable thermostat. It further saves energy and lowers your electric bill.
Adds value to the home
Installing heated floors is a great way to add resale value to your home. Its superior comfort will make any buyer look twice at your listing with the words “heated floors” in it. Radiant flooring requires replacing the flooring. So, consider investing in-floor heating if you plan to replace your house’s flooring. The low-operating cost and maintenance make it a great addition to drive up the value of your home if you plan to resale.
Radiant floor heating does not require any maintenance at all. In fact, once installed, you can go for at least 20 years without any significant issues. Of course, no system is beyond damage. So, you might face some unlikely problems with your underfloor heating.
So, what can go wrong with radiant floor heating? Here is a list of five common issues that can occur in your heating system –
- Overloaded circuit
- Faulty wall thermostat
- Damaged mats or cables
- Damaged zone valves
- Lack of insulation
Radiant floor heating system is composed of specialized materials that are highly durable. They easily outlast forced air heating systems, which has a life expectancy of 10-25 years. The lifespan of underfloor heating depends on the type you get and its different parts. Electric radiant floor heating can last upwards of 30-40 years. The plastic tubing carrying the heated water can last 30-50 years for the hydronic system. The boiler has an average life expectancy of 15-20 years, which comes down to 10 in the case of the pump.
Cons of Radiant Floor Heating
Difficult to retrofit
Radiant floor heating system sits underneath the floor — meaning you need to pull your floor apart to install it. If you have porcelain tiles, you have no other way but to rip them apart completely to install radiant heating. Therefore, it’s an excellent addition if you’re already renovating your floors rather than taking your flooring apart only to retrofit it.
Even though the radiant heating system is very efficient and can save you on electric bills in the long haul, you need to consider the upfront installation cost. Hydronic radiant heated flooring costs $6 to $20 per square foot for installation, while electric-based radiant floor heating costs $8 to $15 per square foot.
Slightly elevates the floor height
The added height from the radiant floor heating system varies with manufacturers. Some heating systems add no height to the floor, while others can add close to an inch to your floor. Also, you might need to add insulation that contributes further to the floor height. So, you might need to consult a professional to ensure that the space between the existing floor and doors and fixtures is sufficient to accommodate the radiant floor heating system.
Not an ideal cooler
If you are looking for a heating system with dual heating and cooling functions, then radiant heating is not the right choice. Although radiant cooling does exist, it’s usually installed on the ceiling, which is an entirely different system altogether.
Doesn’t work well with some flooring options
Not all flooring options work well with an underfloor heating system. Ideally, the flooring material should be a good conductor of heat and be able to retain heat. Ceramic tiles, polished concrete and natural stones work best with radiant floor heating systems. Laminate, vinyl and hardwood floors are also acceptable choices. However, thick carpets, rubber, and any floors with glued-down installation are not suitable for underfloor heating.
Click here to learn more about the best flooring for radiant floor heating systems.