Getting to know radiant floor heating

There’s nothing worse than stepping out of your nice warm bed onto an icy cold floor. That’s when radiant floor heating seems like an especially good idea. It is, without question, one of the most comfortable ways to heat your home.

What is radiant floor heating?

Radiant floor heating is installed under the floor, warming your house from the bottom up. Have you ever seen an old Roman bath? They actually had heating under the floors. Very clever, those Romans. Various forms of radiant heat have been popular in Europe for years.

Heat is circulated through flexible tubing installed beneath the floor. The floor warms up and heat radiates throughout the room. The floor, being a few degrees warmer than the rest of the house, radiates heat at a very comfortable rate. No need for a furnace to kick in, and blow air through the room. As well, there are no restrictions regarding where you can put your furniture, as you don’t need to worry about the placement of baseboard heaters or air registers. The system is also silent, efficient, and dust-free.

Because it warms from the bottom up, radiant heat warms the room where the people are. And it maintains the heat over a long period of time, unlike a forced air system which feels great when the hot air is blowing into the room, but as soon as the fan shuts off, the room begins to cool. Plus the hot air rises to the ceiling and quickly dissipates. Your head may be warm, but your feet can still be freezing. Conversely, a radiant floor heating system is totally invisible, heats the room evenly from the floor up, and can help you save on energy costs. Also, there’s no need for a blower, so your air quality is much better with no dust or allergens being circulated around your home.

How does it work?

There are two main types of radiant floor heating: electric and hydronic.

  • Electric: Electric cables, usually in a mat, are installed above the subfloor, in thin set mortar. One of the advantages of electric radiant heat is that it is cheaper to install than a hydronic system. And it heats up quickly, as soon as you turn up the thermostat. However, due to the high cost of heating with electricity, this is usually just used in small rooms, or for supplemental heat. It’s commonly used in bathrooms or kitchens, as it heats up quickly and because it’s in a small room, doesn’t use a lot of energy.
  • Hydronic: Water is heated by a boiler or water heater and travels through flexible plastic PEX tubing. The tubing can be set above the subfloor in grooves, clipped to the underside of the floor, or buried in concrete. It is more expensive to install than an electric system. However, it’s less expensive to operate, and therefore, is often used to heat whole houses. It provides a very high level of comfort and can be your home’s primary source of heat. Most commonly, water is heated by a boiler. Boilers come in various sizes, and can use just about any kind of fuel, such as natural gas, oil, propane, or coal.

If you have a radiant floor heating system, you’ll likely want tile or hardwood flooring through your house. If you have a thick carpet with lots of underlay, you’re actually insulating the system so you won’t be getting the benefit of the under floor heat. If you are a carpet lover, this may not be the right system for you.

The installation cost for a radiant floor heating system is generally quite a bit higher than other types of home heating. However, you can see significant savings on your energy bill, compared to a forced air system, especially if your home is well insulated. Plus when you get up in the morning, and tip toe to the bathroom, that warm floor is a real game changer.

Check out Bob Vila’s website for detailed information on all the different installation methods. Also, see This Old House for more info on heating your whole house, and various methods of installation.

What should you do when something goes wrong?

From all accounts, things rarely ever go wrong with a radiant heat system. Before you decide to install one, though, there are some things you should consider:

  • Insulation: Radiant heat works best in a home that is well insulated. Check the insulation throughout the house.
  • Fuel source: Make sure you select a fuel source that is cost efficient in your area. If using electricity, you may be able to get a break on your electric bill if you use it mainly during off-peak hours. Large concrete subfloors can be heated up (or charged) using electricity at night, and may not need more electricity during the day.
  • Type of floor covering: Some floor coverings work better with radiant floor heat than others. For instance, ceramic tiles warm up nicely and distribute heat evenly. However, carpets act like insulation and will make it more difficult for heat to get into the room.
  • Off-gassing: Some experts advise using rosin paper as opposed to tar paper underneath a laminate floor when you are installing a radiant floor heating system. As tar paper warms up, it can off-gas, causing an odour in the home.

What can you do to maintain your radiant floor heating?

Like any other heating system, you should plan on yearly maintenance by an HVAC professional. Even though the pipes will last for the life of the house, there are mechanical parts, such as pumps and boilers, which should be checked. Normally these parts are silent, so it they start making noise, it could indicate a problem. The technician can clean the pump, while also checking the pressure valves. If they are beginning to wear, they can be replaced before any serious problems occur.

One of the benefits of radiant heat is that there are no filters or ducts that require regular cleaning. And there is no need for venting outdoors.

Yearly maintenance should include a thorough inspection and a test to check pressure which could indicate the presence of leaks. Leaks could mean that oxygen is getting into the system which can lead to corrosion. Low pressure can also indicate that the system is not operating as efficiently as it should, leading to higher utility bills.

Your service provider may be able to set you up on a preventative maintenance contract to ensure that everything is taken care of on a timely basis.

What is the life expectancy?

When it was first introduced to North America by soldiers returning from Europe after the World War II, copper tubing placed in concrete was used. However, copper within concrete will corrode fairly rapidly, so the lifespan was relatively short. Today, high-tech plastics are used and can have a lifespan of over 100 years. The mechanical parts of the system, such as the water heater, pumps, etc. may need to be replaced more often.

You can extend the life expectancy of water heaters and boilers by keeping the temperature a little lower. Proper yearly maintenance will also help to extend the life expectancy of your system.

What will your home insurance company want to know?

Home insurance companies will want to know what type of heating system your home has, the type of fuel, and if it’s a hydronic radiant floor heating system, the age of the unit used to heat the water. Home insurance policies generally cover water damage caused by burst pipes, so it is important for your insurer to know what type of risk they are taking on. The type of system you have, as well as the age, can have a bearing on whether you can obtain home insurance, and at what cost.

These systems do seem to last a long time, but proper maintenance is key to keeping any system in good working order. If your heat goes out during the winter, there could be some serious water damage due to frozen pipes bursting. It’s in everybody’s best interest to make sure your heating system is in good condition.

Be sure to review your home insurance policy in detail, and consult with your agent if you have any questions or require clarification. Most policies have exclusions for water damage caused by frozen and burst pipes if you’ve been away from home during the winter. Some companies may require you to have your home checked regularly (or even daily) if you’re gone during the usual heating season. Otherwise, any damage caused by freezing will not be insured. Just imagine coming home to a big frozen mess, and then finding out your insurance will not pay for the repairs. It’s important to know exactly what the requirements are, so you can properly protect your home, and rest easy while you’re away on vacation.

When purchasing home insurance, make sure you know all the details about your home, including the heating system, so you can provide accurate information to your insurance agent. They need to know the type of risk they’re insuring, and you need to know the type of coverage you have, before anything happens. For more information, or to get a home insurance quote, contact Square One at 1.855.331.6933.

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