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Radiant Floor Heating Systems

Hydronic and Electric Radiant Floor Warming Systems

Radiant heated floors may seem like a fairly new concept, but in fact, radiant floor heating technology has been in use for thousands of years. The Roman Empire employed radiant floor heating and radiant heat systems by utilizing a series of ducts underneath floors and flues within the walls. The steam and warm air heated by a furnace circulated through the system and warmed the floors and walls. Water was also heated and circulated under floors, marking the introduction of hydronic floor heating. The furnace was usually located against the outside wall of the structure, where a worker would have to constantly feed the fire to keep the occupants warm.

Ruins of Roman underfloor heating system.
Ancient ruins of a Roman underfloor heating system. (Photo courtesy of Silvermel.)

Technology has dramatically improved the effectiveness of underfloor heating systems since Roman times, but the principle behind hydronic floor heating remains the same. Today, most hydronic floor heating systems utilize a boiler and a pump. The boiler heats water which is then circulated through a series of plastic pipes installed in the gypsum concrete (also known as gypcrete) sub-floor. The hot water produces warmth that radiates across the floor's surface. While hydronic floor heating has proven to be an effective means of heating homes throughout the years, most experts agree that electric radiant floor heating systems have surpassed hydronic radiant systems in terms of efficiency and overall performance. However, if you are considering installing a radiant heating system in your home, you should explore both options prior to making your decision.

Electric Floor Heating Systems

Electric radiant floor heating systems provide faster response times than hydronic systems, and are much easier and less expensive to install. Radiant heat cable is readily available from a number of manufacturers, but most professional installers regard Warmzone ComfortTile heat cable to be the preeminent cable on the market. ComfortTile floor heating cable has proven to be extremely reliable and durable, which is why the manufacturer offers a warranty that is unparalleled in the radiant heat industry. Not only does Warmzone extend a 10-year product warranty, but the company offers up to five times the initial product cost for damages related to a defect or replacement of the Warmzone cable.

ComfortTile Touch Thermostat
ComfortTile GFCI Programmable "Touch" Thermostat for Radiant Floor Heating System.

ComfortTile electric floor warming systems feature a programmable thermostat, so you can program the floors to be warm early in the morning when you wake up or only at times when your family is home. The floor heating systems are surprisingly easy to install. ComfortTile heating mats feature pre-spaced cable that is woven into a light, flexible mat that can be unrolled as simple as a sleeping bag. The ComfortTile mat also has a self-adhesive backing so it can be easily secured to the subfloor.

Hydronic Floor Heating Systems

In a hot-water (hydronic) floor heating system, specially treated water is heated by a boiler and circulated through pipes or tubes that are laid into the floor (usually a solid-screeded floor, although joist-based systems also work well). Various types of pipe are used including PEX, multi-layer (a composite of PEX, aluminum and PEX) which is also known as Alupex. Copper pipes are not usually used for hydronic floor heating systems.

While the advantages of electric radiant floor heat over hydronic systems are significant, hydronic systems still have their place in the market. For large, entire home heating or commercial floor heating jobs, hydronic systems may offer a slightly lower operating cost (depending on the specifics of the layout). Call 888.488.9276 or contact a radiant heat expert for more information. You may also submit your project information to Warmzone and receive a free radiant heat quote.

General Comparison Chart - Electric and Hydronic Underfloor Heating Systems

Feature Electric Floor Heating Systems Hydronic Floor Heating Systems
Initial cost Electric radiant heat systems are generally cheaper than hydronic systems. Existing boilers can be used, but initial product costs exceed electric systems.
Installation Quick, easy and cheaper to install. Complex, time-consuming installation.
Response time Floor heats quickly for rapid response time. Response time is not as immediate.
Small, custom floor heating applications Flexible heat cable makes it easy to customize the system to accommodate unique job requirements. Typically not as efficient as an electric radiant system in small to mid-sized applications.
Large commercial floor heating applications Ideal for small to moderate floor heating jobs, operation costs for large electric radiant floor heating applications can be slightly more than those of hydronic systems. Operating costs of hydronic heating systems can generally be more economical for large floor heating jobs (in excess of 4,000 square feet), making them popular in large home projects and commercial applications.
Maintenance requirements Electric floor heating systems are designed such that they have no moving parts and require virtually no maintenance. Boilers and pumps must be monitored and maintained in order to function efficiently. Hydronic floor heating systems typically require regular maintenance.
Utilizes existing equipment Electric floor heating systems do not utilize any existing equipment. All aspects of the new system must be purchased. Existing water heaters or boilers can be utilized for a hydronic floor heating system.
Applications Electric radiant heat systems are very versatile and can be applied to a wide range of floor heating applications, including: tile, hardwood, marble, slate, in-slab (cement), and more. Hydronic floor heating systems can also be applied to a variety of floor surfaces, but the system is somewhat limited because it must be embedded in the cement, requiring considerable floor buildup.
Noise Unlike forced air and hydronic systems, electric radiant heat systems operate silently. Boilers and pumps not only require a dedicated "mechanical room," but many heating systems are quite noisy while in operation.
Floor buildup Electric radiant systems are generally very thin, ranging from less than 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch, resulting in minimal floor buildup. Because hydronic floor heating systems are typically embedded in cement, the systems result in significant floor buildup.

Since hydronic radiant heat systems have so many parts and variables to consider, it is crucial that the system be designed by radiant heat professionals and installed by a qualified contractor. This will ensure optimum performance of the system. Contact us for additional information or submit your project information to receive a free underfloor heating estimate.