Radiant heating systems supply heat directly to the floor or to panels in the wall or ceiling of a house. The systems depend largely on radiant heat transfer: the delivery of heat directly from the hot surface to the people and objects in the room via infrared radiation. Radiant heating is the effect you feel when you can feel the warmth of a hot stove top element from across the room. When radiant heating is located in the floor, it is often called radiant floor heating or simply floor heating.

Radiant heating has a number of advantages. It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because it eliminates duct losses. People with allergies often prefer radiant heat because it doesn’t distribute allergens like forced air systems can. Hydronic (liquid-based) systems use little electricity, a benefit for homes off the power grid or in areas with high electricity prices. Hydronic systems can use a wide variety of energy sources to heat the liquid, including standard gas or oil-fired boilers, wood-fired boilers, solar water heaters, or a combination of these resources. 

Despite its name, radiant floor heating depends heavily on convection, the natural circulation of heat within a room as air warmed by the floor rises. Radiant floor heating systems are significantly different from the radiant panels used in walls and ceilings. For this reason, the following sections discuss radiant floor heat and radiant panels separately.

Different Types of Radiant Heating: Radiant Floor Heat

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. You can further categorize these types by installation. Those that make use of the large thermal mass of a concrete slab floor or lightweight concrete over a wooden subfloor 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 finished floor or subfloor are called “dry installations”.

Types of Radiant Floor Heat

Types of Radiant Floor Heat: Air-Heated Radiant Floors

Air cannot hold large amounts of heat, so radiant air floors are not cost-effective in residential applications, and are seldom installed. Although they can be combined with solar air heating systems, those systems suffer from the obvious drawback of only producing heat in the daytime, when heating loads are generally lower. The inefficiency of trying to heat a home with a conventional furnace by pumping air through the floors at night outweighs the benefits of using solar heat during the day. Although some early solar air-heating systems used rocks as a heat storage medium, this approach is not recommended.

Types of Radiant Floor Heat: Electric Radiant Floors

Electric radiant floors typically consist of electric cables built into the floor. Systems that feature mats of electrically conductive plastic mounted on the subfloor below a floor covering such as tile are also available. 

Electric radiant floors may make sense for home additions if it would be impractical to extend the heating system into the new space. However, homeowners should examine other options, such as mini-split heat pumps, which operate more efficiently and have the added advantage or providing cooling.

Types of Radiant Floor Heat: Hydronic Radiant Floors

Hydronic (liquid) systems are the most popular and cost-effective radiant heating systems for heating-dominated climates. Hydronic radiant floor systems pump heated water from a boiler through tubing laid in a pattern under the floor. In some systems, controlling the flow of hot water through each tubing loop by using zoning valves or pumps and thermostats regulate room temperatures. The cost of installing a hydronic radiant floor varies by location and depends on the size of the home, the type of installation, the floor covering, remoteness of the site, and the cost of labor.

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