Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating Systems | Pros and Cons | Types | Advantages

A review of hydronic radiant floor heating systems for homes. Can the radiant heat save you money? Where can it be used? Types, advantages, and installation tips. Electric vs. hydronic floor heating.

In radiant floor heating, wires or pipes are embedded into the concrete floor, or underneath the plywood floor. If the heating medium is hot water, the PEX tubing is utilized for water transfer as it is producing stable temperature and higher comfort than any other system.

The PEX tubing is mainly used in hydronic radiant floor heating systems where the boiler or water heater heats up the incoming cold water, and the pump circulates the warm water through the tubes.

Tube heaters, installed underneath the flooring, are conducting the heat to the surface of the floor, objects, and people inside the room, rather than heating the air directly.

What is the radiant heat?

An example of the radiant heat: When the Sun, during the day, heats the concrete floor or water inside the big barrel, the floor/water will, then, radiate the heat into the room, during the night.

Radiant heating systems are using radiant energy emitted from electric coils or tube heaters to heat the floor, wall or ceiling panels.

Application

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(CC BY-SA 3.0), Photo by Chixoy

PEX tubing for hydronic floor heating can be installed in-floor or below-the-floor.

Thin slab or concrete floor radiant heating is a good example of the in-floor radiant heating which provides higher comfort inside the home.

The below-the-floor application includes the PEX tubing installed underneath, attached or stapled to the plywood floor.

Hydronic radiant floor heating system can be combined with the baseboard and boiler hot water systems and used in additions, remodeled and in new constructions.

Hydronic floor heating systems are designed for both residential and commercial applications, for domestic water and home heating or ice and snow melting on the driveway.

Advantages

The main advantages of radiant heating are the increased comfort level and the lower energy cost.

You will feel warmer inside the room where the radiant floor heating is installed versus conventional air type systems, and for the same temperature (moving hot air has the cooling effect also). Hydronic radiant floor heating systems warm the room entirely, the heat rises up from the flooring, through the furniture, people inside the room to the surrounding air.

Radiant floor heating systems are also more efficient than other types. The system is not using the big blowers to move the hot air, it uses the low-temperature water to heat the floor, object, and people, and the heat can be adjusted from one room to another.

Each room can have its own separate controller so heating for the unused rooms can be turned off and also precisely maintained.

The system also provides a better comfort level when heating the room with the higher ceiling, then the systems that heat the air first. In the radiator heating, the heat rises up, while the area above the floor surface is colder, making the room air temperature uneven. Baseboard heating system does the perimeter heating only while the center of the room is less comfortable.

Also, radiant heat doesn't dry out the air, and the noise level is lower.

No dirty filters and dust movement is very low, which keeps the air quality inside the room higher and homes healthier.

Heating pipes are out of the sight and they don't interfere with the furniture, which is the case with the radiator or baseboard heating systems.

Disadvantages

With the radiant floor heating, it takes longer to heat the room and cool the room off. It requires the higher initial cost when comparing to the traditional systems.

Radiant floor heating systems

There are two types of cost-effective radiant heating systems for floors: electric and hydronic radiant floor heating. Both systems heat the floor with coils installed infloor or underneath the floor. For those who prefer do-it-yourself projects, electric is easier, solar and geothermal are more complex.

Electric

Electric radiant floor heating systems are more efficient than traditional electric heaters but less than hydronic systems; they are also easier to install and service.

Hydronic

Hydronic radiant floor heating systems are using the liquid as the heating fluid that is heated by using any type of the fuel. The most common medium is domestic water, heated by the water heater or boiler. Hot water is moved through the pipes or tubing and then returns to the water heater or boiler for reheating. The water is retained in the system, which has to be replenished periodically, which is done automatically by the HVAC system.

In some hydronic systems, the temperature in each room is controlled by regulating the hot water flow through each tubing loop. The flow of hot water is control by the system of zoning valves, pumps, and thermostats.

The brain of the hydronic heating system is the control system, consisted of the thermostats, aquastats, and switches.

The heat source used for hydronic radiant floor heating can be a gas and oil-fired boiler, as the most common types, while solar and geothermal radiant heating are getting in popularity. Hydronic radiant floor heating systems are the most popular in colder regions.

A good radiant floor system should last at least 20 years, but it depends on the quality of used materials, heat generator, quality of work...

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Where to install hydronic radiant floor heating system

Basement floors are the perfect place for radiant floor heating systems, as the concrete, either thick or thin slab, is an excellent thermal mass, making the floor a huge radiator. If the thermal mass in the floor is larger, the HVAC system works better. Laminate floors are better than hardwood floors while the carpet has to be properly rated for radiant floor heating, and with the proper backing material. Vinyl flooring is not recommended; tile works the best.

Other than thin slab and thick concrete installation option, you will also find two other popular terms, when talking about installing hydronic radiant floor heating systems. They are known as dry systems:

•Above-floor systems

•Below-floor systems

The above-floor systems are installed below finished flooring (hardwood flooring for example) but above the subflooring. Proper planning is important for this type of the system as this system uses a grooved wood panel, installed under the finished floor. The floor height is raised, which can cause the problem for doors or plumbing fixtures.

For the below-floor heating system, the above wood panel and second subfloor are not needed, so this system automatically requires less time, labor and material for the installation.

When the PEX tubing is installed under the plywood floor it makes the cost of installation lower. You won't find any issues with the weight which is found with the slab system, but it requires a higher temperature to provide the feeling as the above radiant home heating systems. This system is popular for retrofits.

Popular brands and manufacturers

Cost

Hydronic radiant floor heating system costs are much higher than the conventional types of heating, but as it requires a low-temperature fluid, the result is in the lower operating costs (some manufacturers claims that the reduction in cost is from 20% to 40%).

For example; radiators are using expensive copper tubing while the radiant floor heating system inexpensive and easy to install PEX tubing.

The bottom line is that the cost of installing a hydronic radiant floor heating system varies; it depends on the home size, the floor coverings, type of the installation and cost of labor. Based on the info we have found online, hydronic system, for 1500 sq. ft home can cost somewhere between $7000 and $13000 (2015).

Summary

Electric or hydronic radiant floor heating systems are gaining popularity as the cost-effective way to heat homes or offices. Yes, it is expensive, but when you take all the advantages into account, such as the unmatched comfort, you will see why it makes sense, either building a new home or remodeling an existing one.

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