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How to Buy a Radiant Heating System

Whether you're about to do a major remodel in your home or you're simply looking for a new way to heat targeted areas, it's hard to go wrong with a radiant heating system. With some forethought and a bit of research it's easy to purchase the perfect radiant heating system for your home.

Time, Money, and Labor

The Initial Cost is High

The first thing you'll need to do when preparing to install a radiant heating system is to get some capital ready, especially if you're retrofitting your home. Even if you're already building a new home or doing massive renovations, the high cost of quality radiant heating equipment combined with the fees associated with installation can have a significant impact on your budget.

Expect to pay around $6-$16 per square foot, or anywhere from $9,000-$22,500 for a 1,500 square foot home, and be prepared for two to four days of work time.

Don't Overlook the Warranties in Your Home

If you've opted for a radiant floor heating system, be sure to check the warranty of your flooring, as the addition of radiant heating beneath it could void it. As with any expensive equipment, be sure to sign and return the warranty after purchase, even if it means asking the contractor to give you the warranty. Most radiant flooring manufacturers offer warranties. If the manufacturer doesn't offer a warranty you may want to look for a different brand.

Your Best Bet Is a Radiant Heating Specialist

Since radiant systems go behind the interior surfaces of your home, this can involve several different tradesmen who could have conflicting schedules or communication issues if you contract the work out yourself. To get everyone cooperating and on the same page, it's best to find a contractor in your area who specializes in installing radiant heating systems. You might be able to save some money by doing it yourself, but the work is risky, complex, and best left to experienced professionals.

Before you start down that road, be sure to read this article on direct-to-consumer equipment to save money and make sure you have all you need. Remember, some of the materials used can add a lot of weight to a room and necessitate additional supports below, which can really add to the budget and difficulty of the project.

Consider a Targeted Approach

Still need to save money? Consider only adding radiant heating to the specific rooms where you spend the most time. If you're relying on radiant heat for your whole house, think about heating auxiliary rooms with simpler technologies, such as a wall heater or radiator.

Selecting the Best Radiant Heating System

Keep Your Climate in Mind

If your winters are very humid, radiant heating might not be the best choice, because it doesn't dry the air as a furnace does. In this case, your best bet might be to find an alternative means of controlling humidity, such as:

  • Making sure that windows and doors are properly insulated and airtight
  • Keeping blinds and curtains open to let in sunlight
  • Using exhaust fans in your kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room

Hydronic vs. Electric Radiant Heating

The two primary means of powering radiant systems -- both panel and floor systems -- are hydronic and electric. Radiant air heating also exists, but it's not considered as efficient.

If you don't have a boiler, it might not make sense to use a hydronic system, which relies on hot water to circulate heat. Hydronic systems pump hot water from the boiler through a series of tubes. The heat from the water is transferred to either a wall or ceiling panel or flooring.

Meanwhile, an electric system doesn't use water and can be installed without a boiler. It uses wires or conductive mesh to heat the thermal mass in which it is embedded.

Think About Thermal Mass

Thermal mass is the metric that dictates how well a material stores and radiates heat. Building materials with a demonstrably high thermal mass include concrete, tile, sand, and special paneling made specifically for radiant heating surfaces. Budgetary constraints and personal preference may dictate what thermal mass materials you use, but keep in mind that you want to conduct and radiate the heat energy, not insulate it.

Heating Panels or Floor Heating?

Before you charge into installing a radiant heating system, you'll need to determine whether you want a radiant heating system that relies on floor and wall panels or a radiant floor heating system that uses infrared radiation to transfer heat directly to the floor.

Once you've selected either an hydronic or electric radiant heating system, and you've chosen your thermal mass materials, you must determine from where your heat should emanate. Radiant heating systems come in one of two varieties: standard radiant heating systems that use wall or ceiling panels to disseminate heat and radiant floor heating systems, which transfer heat to conductive flooring materials.

Even though hot air rises, remember that radiant heating doesn't move using the air and can therefore be implemented from any direction. If you have to have carpet on the floor or you want to bring more heat into an addition, it might make sense to put the radiant system in the walls.

If budgeting is your primary concern, radiant ceilings are easiest and cheapest to install.

How Radiant Heating Works

If you're looking into the purchase of a radiant heating or radiant floor heating system, then you should know the fundamentals of how they work. Fortunately, the basics behind how a radiant heating system works are easy to grasp. You've likely been using radiant heating in some form or another your entire life without even realizing it.

Radiant Heating Throughout History

Once they'd mastered the basics of building and maintaining a fire, early humans also noticed that the rocks lying next to the fire stayed hot longer than the air and would continue to radiate heat long after the fire died and the air cooled. In that way, mankind drew comfort from radiant heating before we could even speak.

These early experiments with radiant heating lead to the use of blocks of masonry heated by fire as well as specially-built masonry heaters. The invention of the fireplace added the effect of convection by drawing cold air up and out of a room as well.

One of the earliest examples of radiant heating came from the ever-industrious Romans. The sophisticated and costly Roman hypocaust used the principle of convection to spread hot air through a building by conveying it from a furnace room through hollow tubes built into the structure. The brick and stone walls and floors heated by the hypocaust then emitted infrared radiation to warm the whole room. Artifacts indicating the use of under-floor radiant heating date back to around 5,000 B.C.

The same basic principle is in use today, but modern radiant heating systems typically use more effective heating elements than air thanks to the availability of electricity and natural gas in the household.

How Does Modern Radiant Heating Work?

If you have a furnace, you know that it heats up air and uses a fan to blow that hot air into the various rooms of your home through a series of ducts. Radiant heating, on the other hand, works without the use of ductwork or a fan by applying heat directly to specially-designed panels in the walls or ceiling. Radiant floor heating, unsurprisingly, eschews ductwork and a fan by applying heat directly to your floors.

Both forms of radiant heating can be adapted to use any common fuel source already present in a house, including boilers, heat pumps, active solar heat, and electric heating. That adaptability is due to the variety of methods by which radiant heating can be implemented.

The primary division among radiant heating methods lies in the use of either water-filled tubing or an electric thermal mass heater. Beyond that, the differences mostly relate to where the devices are installed, i.e. in the floor, walls, or ceiling. Traditional radiant heating and radiant floor heating are considered distinct from one another.

A purely electric system, which uses plates or conductive mesh embedded in a heat-retaining material such as concrete or tile, is simple and effective, but can be more expensive to implement and maintain. The cheaper solution is an hydronic system, which uses hot water pumped through tubes.

An air-heated radiant floor is also an option, as well, but it's important to note that they are generally considered both inefficient and impractical. Air-heated radiant floors are occasionally used in conjunction with solar power systems and solar air heaters. However, if you're planning to install a radiant floor heating system, it's best to opt for an electrical or hydronic system.

The correct radiant heating system for your home mostly depends on your budget and the fuel source you already use.

Installation Considerations

Before you set out to install and implement a radiant heating system in your home, you'll want to take into account a few factors that extend beyond the type of radiant heating system you're looking for.

When you do install a radiant heating system of any kind, it's important to understand the potential for error over the course of this complicated process. First, it's strongly recommended that you use a specialized contractor to properly install your radiant heating or radiant floor heating system, so that it doesn't break down due to installation error. Failure on the part of any one of the many specialized tradesmen required for the job -- from a carpenter to a concrete mixer -- can contribute to the eventual breakdown of the whole system. For example, an improperly sealed connection among the pipes could show no warning signs until after the system is completely installed and pressurized.

Since hydronic radiant heating systems use pipes and pumps, it's crucial to have them inspected for leaks simultaneously with your yearly inspection and maintenance of boilers and other equipment. One leaking connection can cause your system to lose pressure, decreasing energy efficiency. The leaked water, in turn, can lead to corrosion and further damage, and the air introduced into the system can make noise, too. If you have a preventative maintenance contract with your HVAC service provider, be sure to check it for radiant heating system coverage.

Another consideration before selecting a radiant heating or cooling system is the climate. Hot air being pumped in from a furnace can really dry out a room, but radiant systems have a much lesser drying effect on the air. If you live in a cold and wet climate, this could contribute to moisture control issues you experience in your home.

Finally, no matter what type of radiant heating system you employ, the installation can be an expensive and lengthy process, because it is embedded within the structure itself, and should ideally be done during construction or a massive remodel. Old houses can, with some effort, be retrofitted with radiant heating, which adds value in the long run, and can save on energy, especially for homeowners who only need to heat a few rooms at a time. If radiant heating sounds like the right choice for you, let us help you get started by choosing a contractor.

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