In the winter months when a warm home is enveloped by biting cold like a hot water bottle in an ice chest, indoor heat is rarely spread universally throughout a house. Walls near windows and doorways are cool to the touch. Meanwhile, thick socks or slippers often become a necessity as cold creeps from below your house and cools the floors a few degrees below everything else in your home.
It doesn’t need to be this way. With radiant floor heating, which operates differently than furnaces, you can have warm floors that can balance the heat in your home.
Radiant heat can be less expensive than traditional furnaces in some cases because it operates without any loss of heat through ducts. Some people compare radiant heat to holding your hands several inches above a hot stove or a space heater. That’s the basic principal behind radiant heat, but on a scale large enough to heat an entire home.
Radiant floor heat comes in three flavors: electric radiant floors, hot water radiant floors, and radiant air floors, in which natural air convection moves heat. Within each variety are two additional installation options: wet installation, which makes use of a concrete slab under the floor and above a sub-floor, and dry installations, which feature radiant floor tubes set in-between plywood layers under the floor or sub-floor.
Each variety has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Electric Radiant Floors
What it is: Electric radiant floors generally rely on a series of electric cables installed in the floor, but in some cases make use of conductive mats underneath the floor.
Advantages: Electric radiant floors can save on heat compared to traditional furnaces if your floor includes solid concrete and the local electric company offers lower energy rates in off-peak hours. For example, some electric companies offer drastically reduced rates from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. During these hours you can store heat within the concrete, which can warm an entire home, from warm floors to a cozy interior, for ten hours without any other energy usage.
Disadvantages: Flip the advantages and you’ll find that homes without floors that include solid concrete slabs and in areas without lower off-peak electricity rates, electric radiant floors will likely be more expensive than traditional furnaces due to the high cost of electricity. Prices are comparable, however, to electric heat such as baseboard, which uses the same source of heat (electricity) but does not effectively warm floors.
Hot Water Radiant Floors:
What it is: Hot water radiant floors, also known as hydronic radiant floors, rely on a system of tubes underneath the floor that channel hot water from a boiler. Temperature is controlled by the amount of water flowing through the tubes and can be set differently for individual zones a house.
Advantages: Hot water radiant floors cost little to operate because the heat comes directly from a boiler. Heating costs are comparable to those of a traditional boiler. For most locations, especially northern U.S. climates, hot water radiant floors are the least expensive radiant heating option.
Disadvantages: Installation can be expensive. Price fluctuates widely, however, depending on location, floor materials, home size, and more.
Air-Heated Radiant Floors:
What it is: Air heated radiant floors employ a furnace or another heating element underneath the floor and relies on air to naturally carry the heat upward. In nearly every situation, this is the most expensive radiant floor heating option on the market. Why? Because air is a poor conductor of heat. Sometimes, air-heated radiant floors are combined with solar heat to curb costs, that only lowers costs in the day, when the temperature is generally warmer. In nighttime hours, inefficient heat overtakes the savings you get from solar power.
Air-heated radiant floors can be useful in buildings such as offices where heat is not needed at night. Solar panels used to gather energy the day can carry most of the energy load.
Disadvantages: Air-heated radiant floors are, in almost all cases, more expensive to operate in homes than other heating options because they are among the least efficient methods of heating a home. You get warm floors, but the cost is far higher than needs to be.