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It’s bad enough that you have to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, but that tile – it’s so cold!

The notion of warming floors for comfort is hardly new. Archeological digs reveal that, as early as 5,000 B.C., cave dwellers were drafting smoke through stone trenches in an effort to warm their subterranean floors.

underfloor heating and cooling

Hydronic heating system being installed

These days, the two most common types of radiant floor heating systems are electric and hydronic, both of which are installed under your flooring. Hydronic systems heat floors by using loops of plastic tubing to run hot water from a boiler or water heater under flooring.

Hydronic systems have lower operating costs than electric systems but, because they generally require a boiler, pump and gas lines, they’re also far more complex. Hydronic heat might be a good option if you’re looking to add heat to your entire home or, at least, a large portion of it. Even if you have plumbing and electrical expertise, you’ll likely want to consult with a heating pro to ensure your system is well designed.

Electric systems transfer heat via electricity. The most popular of these systems rely on a continuous, pre-spaced heating element that’s woven into a plastic mat and installed beneath your flooring. Electric radiant floor heating systems are easier and more affordable to install than hydronic systems, but they’re more expensive to operate, making them best suited for use in small spaces, such as kitchens or bathrooms. A do-it-yourselfer with basic skills can install electric radiant heat, even if you need to hire an electrician to do the final hard-wire connection.

If installing an electric floor heating system is on your to-do list, you’ll want to keep these things in mind:

  • Be aware that, in addition to mesh mat, electric heat can be applied using a loose cable which you must position in a serpentine pattern, fasten with hot glue or staples and then “embed” with thin set or a self-leveling compound. Solid mats are the third and most expensive type of electric heat system. The cable is completely enclosed in synthetic fabric, plastic sheeting or foil. The real advantage to solid mats is that you don’t need to embed them. Do your research before deciding which type of electric in-floor heat is right for you.
  • When installing heat over a wood-framed floor, fiberglass insulation between the joists can make the system more efficient by driving heat upward. If you’re installing an electric system over a concrete floor, double-check the manufacturer’s recommendations; you may need to place a layer of foam insulation over the concrete before the heat cable is installed.
  • When calculating the square footage of a room, figure in only the areas where you can walk. There’s no need to spend money on heat that runs under the refrigerator or behind the toilet.
  • Because most electric heating must be installed under your tile, hardwood, stone, laminate or concrete floor, this is a project you’ll want to hold off on until you’re building or are ready to change the floors in an existing room. If you’re intent on adding heat without replacing your floor, you may be able to use solid mats that are sized to fit between joists, allowing you to heat the floor from below.
  • Many electric heating systems can be used under carpet but they’re often not as effective. If the carpet pad is thick, it will act as an insulator and won’t allow much heat through.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, radiant heat is more efficient than baseboard or forced air systems. Rather than just blowing hot air around the room, radiant systems slowly and steadily charge the floor with heat, keeping it where you want it, longer. Additionally, the California Energy Commission reports the lack of moving air can be advantageous to those with severe allergies.
  • When you purchase your electric radiant system, pay special attention to the thermostat. Most models are programmable, allowing you to run the heat only during the hours when you’re home and awake. Others come with “smart” features that learn your routine and automatically adjust the temperature.

Related:

Mary Boone is a freelance writer for Zillow Blog. Read more from her here.

About the Author

Mary was a newspaper writer/editor for 13 years and worked as spokesperson for a Fortune 500 Company before becoming a freelance writer. She has authored more than two dozen books for young readers and writes for a handful of regional home and garden magazines.

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