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Radiant floor heating has been used for centuries. The Romans channeled hot air under the floors of their villas. The Koreans channeled hot flue gases under their floors before venting them up the chimney. In the 1930s, architect Frank Lloyd Wright piped hot water through the floors of many of his buildings. Some home builder’s surveys have shown that, if given a choice, most new home owners prefer radiant floor heat over other types of systems.
Most people who own radiant floor heating feel that the most important advantages are comfort and quiet operation. Radiant floor systems allow even heating throughout the whole floor, not just in localized spots as with wood stoves, hot air systems, and other types of radiators. The room heats from the bottom up, warming the feet and body first. Radiant floor heating also eliminates the draft and dust problems associated with forced-air heating systems.
Even heat distribution equates with lower heating bills. With radiant floor heating, you can set the thermostat several degrees lower. This is because the entire surface of the floor radiates about the same amount of heat that the human body does, making the occupant feel warm even though the air temperature might be only 65°F (18°C). It also radiates this heat for a longer period of time than a forced air system. Another advantage is that radiant systems do not increase the infiltration of outside air into the house structure as forced air systems generally do. Radiant floor heating also allows lower boiler temperatures allowing them to last longer (a 45 year life is not unusual). Radiant floors operate between 85-140°F (29-60°C), compared to other heating systems’ range of 130°-160°F (54°-71°C). Fuel saving of 15% to 20% over a forced air system is common.
To some, the greatest advantage of radiant floor heating is aesthetic. The system is “invisible.” There are no heat registers or radiators to obstruct furniture arrangements and interior design plans. Radiant floor systems also eliminate the fan noise of forced hot air systems.
There are three types of radiant floor heat: radiant air floors (air is the heat carrying medium), electric radiant floors, and hot water (hydronic) radiant floors. All three types can be further subdivided by the type of installation: those that make use of the large thermal mass of a concrete slab floor or lightweight concrete over a wooden subfloor (these are called “wet” installations); and those in which the installer “sandwiches” the radiant floor tubing between two layers of plywood, or attaches the tubing under the subfloor (dry installations).
Because air cannot hold large amounts of heat energy, radiant air floors are not cost-effective in residential applications, and are seldom installed.
Electric radiant floors are usually only cost-effective if your electric utility company offers time-of-use rates. Time-of-use rates allow you to “charge” the concrete floor with heat during off-peak hours (approximately 9 pm to 6 am). If the floor’s thermal mass is large enough, the heat stored in it will keep the house comfortable for eight to ten hours, without any further electrical input. This saves a considerable number of kilowatt-hours compared to heating at peak electric rates during the day.
Hydronic systems are the most popular and cost-effective systems for heating-dominated climates. They have been in extensive use in Europe for decades. Hydronic radiant floor systems pump heated water from a boiler through tubing laid in a pattern underneath the floor. The temperature in each room is controlled by regulating the flow of hot water through each tubing loop. This is done by a system of zoning valves or pumps and thermostats.
In a “wet” installation, the tubing is embedded in the concrete foundation slab, or in a lightweight concrete slab on top of a subfloor, or over a previously poured slab. If the new floor is not on solid earth, additional floor support may be necessary because of the added weight. You should consult a professional engineer to determine the floor’s carrying capacity.
Some “dry” installations involve suspending the tubing underneath the subfloor between the joists. This method usually requires drilling through the floor joists in order to install the tubing. Reflective insulation must also be installed under the tubes to direct the heat upward. Tubing may also be installed from above the floor, between an old and new subfloor. In these instances, the tubes are often in reflective aluminum sleeves that spread the heat to the sides, away from the tubing, and direct it upwards. The tubing and its reflectors are secured between furring strips (sleepers) which carry the weight of the new subfloor and finished floor surface.
Although ceramic tile is the most common floor covering for radiant floor heating, a variety of finished floor surfaces can be used. The choices include vinyl flooring, carpeting, and wood. Carpeting and padding, however, insulate the floor and reduces some of the benefits of radiant floor systems. If you want carpeting, use a lower nap carpet and thin, denser padding. You will also need to increase the system water temperature to compensate for the insulating properties of the floor covering. Most installers and some wood floor manufacturers also recommend using laminated wood flooring instead of solid wood. This reduces the possibility of the floor shrinking and cracking from the drying effects of the heat.
Older radiant floor systems used either copper or steel tubing embedded in the concrete floors. Unless the builder coated the tubing with a protective compound, a chemical reaction between the metal and the concrete led to corrosion of the tubing, and to eventual leaks. Major manufacturers of hydronic radiant floor systems now use cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) or rubber tubing with an oxygen diffusion barrier. This material is much more durable and slows the effects of corrosion in the system. Additives and filtration systems also help protect hydronic heating systems from corrosion.
There have been recent reports of problems with rubber tubing produced by one chemical manufacturer. Leaks develop at the metal connections or fittings, and in some cases the tubing becomes rigid and brittle. Tightening connections and clamps only temporarily fixes the leaks. This situation is currently in litigation. Remember, this problem only concerns this specific brand of rubber tubing. It does not have anything to do with the PEX tubing, which has performed very reliably for many decades.
A radiant floor that uses a concrete slab may take several hours to heat up if it is allowed to become cold. This can make the home uncomfortable as the slab heats up. Because of this, most radiant floor systems are controlled by a floor thermostat instead of a wall thermostat as in a forced air heating system. The floor thermostat usually allows the circulation pump(s) to run continuously and only controls the burner. Other, more sophisticated, types of controls sense the floor temperature, outdoor temperature, and room temperature to keep the home comfortable. Such a system can use less fuel because it adjusts the water temperature to meet the needs of the home.
Although radiant floor systems are usually heated by a boiler, they can also be heated with a geothermal heat pump. Such a system offers even greater energy savings compared to other types of heating plants.
The cost of installing a hydronic radiant floor fluctuates depending on the size of the room, the type of installation (i.e., concrete slab or wood floor), the floor covering, remoteness of the site, and the cost of labor. For additional information contact:
The following articles provide additional information on radiant floor heating. This bibliography was reviewed in November 1998.