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Radiant heat is heat that "radiates "out from a warmed object. Radiant heating systems use heated tubes or coils, hidden beneath the floor, to warm the floor. The warmed floor then radiates heat upward into the room, providing uniform, comfortable heating.
Radiant floor heating is quiet, does not affect air quality, and offers the aesthetic advantage of requiring no visible components like vents, fans or radiators.
Radiant floor heating systems fall under three main categories: hydronic– water flows through tubes, electric– heated electrical coils do the work and, heated-air– warm air flows through tubes or pipes.
Hydronic systems are the most popular. Electric systems are also popular, but they require substantial amounts of electricity so operating costs than are higher than hydronic systems. Heated-air systems are the least popular, in part because heated air does not retain or transfer heat as well as hydronic or electric systems.
Radiant heat systems can used as the primary heating system for an entire house, or, to supplement or replace heating in a single room. Radiant floor heat has become quite popular in bathrooms.
"How does radiant floor heating work?"
Water-heated tubes, air-heated tubes or electric coils are installed under floors. These elements warm the floor. Heat from the floor then radiates up into the room, hence the term "radiant" heat.
Radiant heat is more efficient than convection systems like forced air, because objects (like floors) retain heat better than air, so residual warmth in the floor and surrounding objects maintains heat for a longer period of time. This allows radiant systems to heat more efficiently than most other kinds of heating systems.
Hydronic systems – use tubes that are installed in concrete or mortar slabs to circulate heated water. Solar, geothermal, natural gas, oil, wood-fired boilers, or electric sources can heat the water.
Electric systems – are typically embedded in mats that rest between the subfloor and the floor covering. Electric systems use relatively high amounts of electricity, and so are less economically efficient to operate than hydronic systems.
Air-heated systems – can be open or closed: open systems allow new air into the system, closed systems do not. Open systems are usually furnace-driven forced-air systems. Closed systems are heated by a heating mechanism near the air pipes.
Thermostats control the temperature level.
"Does radiant heat harm wooden floors?"
Generally, no – regardless of which type of radiant heat system in place. The main cause of cracking and cupping in wood floors is moisture.
However, there's a caveat: floors should not be heated above 85 degrees. Wood floors that are frequently heated and cooled can become susceptible to deterioration, especially in smaller spaces with high humidity (i.e., bathrooms).
The solution is simple: manage your system to keep the thermostat temperature set at less than 85 degrees, and control humidity if necessary with room exhaust fans like bathroom ceiling fans.
To be extra safe in bathrooms, homeowners can consider radiant-friendly flooring materials other than wood. But again, wood floors can work in bathrooms, as long as radiant heat and humidity levels are well controlled. When wood is used, experts advise keeping the width of the planks at 3 inches or less, since wider planks are slightly more prone to warping and cupping.
"Can I combine radiant heat with my air conditioning system?"
Generally, yes. The advisability of this choice depends on a variety of factors including: the type, configuration, and age of your current HVAC system, and, whether you are adding heating where none exists, replacing an existing heating system, or supplementing existing capabilities.
If you are adding heat where no system exists, adding a whole-house or room-specific radiant heat system can make a lot of sense, depending on your heating needs and budget. Keep in mind however, that if you have a cooling system with ductwork, it might be cheaper to add a heat pump that can use the existing duct system, rather than adding an entirely new kind of heating system like radiant heat, which involves tearing up existing floors.
If your existing central air heating system is failing and needs replacement, you may be able to replace just part of it, which is probably cheaper than installing a new radiant heat system, especially if your heating needs include the entire house.
If you need supplemental heating in rooms that are hard to heat, or that sometimes need more heat than the rest of the house (like bedrooms at night, or bathrooms during shower time), radiant heat is a good solution.
Bottom line: sorting through the options can be complicated. The best choice is to seek advice from a qualified HVAC pro.
"How do I get/install radiant heat?"
Radiant flooring should be installed by a qualified HVAC professional with extensive knowledge of heating systems and radiant heat flooring requirements. You may also need a flooring contractor or handyman.
To start, make sure you've identified your current heating needs. Also, do research on the kind of system you think you might want. Then contact a local HVAC pro, with your ideas and questions in mind. Your HVAC pro should also be able to advise on the need for a flooring specialist.
Home heating options are many, and can be confusing; misconceptions about home heating systems are common; and, installing a radiant heat system isn't cheap. So it really pays to use pros who know what they are doing.