Radiant heated floors have been around since the Roman Empire in one form or another. In the United States, electric floor heating has become a popular trend for both new and retrofit projects. Nevertheless, there’s still a learning curve among many homeowners. How do heated floors work? What are the pros and cons of radiant floor heating? How do you know if in-floor heating is right for you? Those are the questions we’ve set out to answer to reduce the learning curve.

How Do Heated Floors Work? 

Traditional heating systems heat the air, which then warms up the people in the room. Radiant heating systems work by directly warming the people and objects in a room. Like feeling the warmth of the sun, radiant heat warms via direct contact. This allows people to feel warm even when the ambient (air) temperature in the room is actually cooler. It’s the same concept as standing in direct sunlight vs. standing in the shade.  

Radiant heat directly warms feet from the floor
Radiant heat works by directly heating the people and objects in a room.


How Do You Know if Your Home Could Benefit from Radiant Floor Heating?  

Have you ever walked into a room in your house that was noticeably colder? Or have you ever stepped out of the shower or tub and felt a chill? Most homes have these “cold spots” due to tile flooring, which is inherently cold, or other factors like a cement slab, unheated crawl space and unheated garage. Therefore, nearly all homes can benefit from radiant floor heating.

Some of the most common rooms to heat are bathrooms, kitchens, basements and bedrooms located over a garage. To decide which radiant floor heating system is right for your project, you should first be familiar with the different types of radiant heat.

Electric vs. Hydronic

Floor heating roll under tile with thinset adhesive
Electric floor heating systems are ideal for remodeling projects.

The two main types of radiant heat are electric and hydronic. Both function the same way — they create warmth under the flooring and radiate it upward into the room above — but the way they do it is different.

Electric floor heating systems use electric cable woven in a serpentine pattern to heat the floor. They’re known for being easy to install (you could even do it yourself if you’re pretty handy) and ideal for remodeling projects. They also heat up in 30-60 minutes, so homeowners can turn them on and off as needed to keep costs down.

Hydronic floor heating systems use hot water pumped through plastic tubing laid out in a serpentine pattern to heat the floor. They’re ideal for whole-house heating, but professionals suggest installing them during the home’s construction because they can be difficult to retrofit if the home isn’t already outfitted with the proper equipment. The upfront cost of a hydronic floor-heating system is typically higher because it requires a boiler, a pump and gas lines. However, the cost of operation is generally lower when the square footage is greater (i.e. when heating multiple rooms or an entire house). Hydronic systems also take a greater amount of time to heat up, requiring most homeowners to leave them on around the clock, resulting in more energy usage.

Overall, if you’re remodeling a bathroom or want to add supplemental heat to small areas of your home, an electric floor heating system is right for you. But, if you’re building a new home and wish to have heated floors throughout, you should consider a hydronic floor heating system.

Pros and Cons of Radiant Heating

Whether you choose electric or hydronic radiant heat, there are pros and cons. This list will break them down while noting any exceptions between the two types.  

Pros

1. Uniform heating

The biggest benefit of floor-heating systems is their ability to uniformly heat a room. Forced-air heating systems use vents to distribute warm air throughout a room. The location of the vents determines which parts of the room will be warmer than others. In contrast, radiant floor heating systems heat the entire floor, which leads to an evenly heated room.

2. No maintenance

Thermal camera image showing a damaged floor heating cable
A thermal imaging camera can easily identify damage to an electric heating cable, making repairs easier.

Electric floor-heating systems do not require maintenance. In fact, WarmlyYours’s TempZone™ electric floor-heating system is warrantied for 25 years. If damage does occur to the cable, a professional can use a thermal imaging camera to locate the issue and make the repair. Hydronic floor-heating systems do not offer this benefit.

3. No noise

Radiant floor heating systems are known for being quiet. Unlike forced-air systems, there isn’t a loud furnace that kicks on. Therefore, you won’t hear anything while they’re on.

4. Non-allergenic

Because floor-heating systems directly warm the people and objects in a room via touch, they do not disturb any existing dust and allergens. This is a major downfall for forced-air systems, which blow around dust and other particles while they distribute heat.

5. Energy efficient

Electric floor-heating systems are at least 25 percent more efficient than forced-air systems. That’s because they do not provide an escape route for the heat they produce. Therefore, virtually all of the heat that’s produced is retained. In contrast, forced-air systems use ductwork that is susceptible to leakage.

Electric floor-heating systems also are energy efficient because they only take 30-60 minutes to heat up, thus allowing homeowners to use a programmable thermostat or manually turn them on and off (or up and down) as needed. Hydronic floor-heating systems take much longer to heat up, requiring homeowners to leave the system on continuously, thus using more energy. However, they are still efficient in terms of retaining heat.

6. Easy to install

Electric heating cable installation with uncoupling installation membrane
A Prodeso Installation Membrane makes installing electric heating cable particularly easy.

Electric floor-heating systems are so easy to install that a handy DIYer can even do it. They’re available in rolls that already have the heating cable attached to mesh in a serpentine pattern. Therefore, all the installer has to do is roll them out and cut and turn them where necessary to fill up the room. They’re also available in loose cable with an installation membrane that features square-shaped “studs” to hold the cable in place. This option also offers crack prevention benefits for tile flooring. In contrast, hydronic systems are not as easy to install. They require a professional for installation.  

Cons

7. Flooring must be replaced

Laying tile over heated shower floor
In order to install a radiant floor heating system, the existing flooring must first be removed.

Whether electric or hydronic, floor-heating systems require any existing flooring to be removed before the radiant floor heating can be installed. That’s why these projects are ideal to complete during a remodel or new-home construction.

8. Slightly elevates the floor height

Depending on the system you choose, the height of the floor will be elevated. WarmlyYours offers floor-heating systems that are only 1/8 inch thick, resulting in very minimal floor elevation. However, whether you choose to use an installation membrane or underlayment will also factor in to the floor height. Overall, the height of the floor is typically only raised about ½ inch in most electric floor-heating projects. On the other hand, hydronic floor-heating systems require the floor height to be raised significantly more.

9. Cost

Depending on the project, radiant floor heating can be costly. Electric floor-heating systems typically cost between $10 and $20 per square foot, depending on the system you buy. However, if the cost of electricity is high in your area, the cost of operation will be higher. Usually this is not an issue because the systems can be controlled with a thermostat to save energy, but it’s something that’s important to look into before you start your project. On the other hand, hydronic floor-heating systems are typically more expensive upfront because they require a boiler, a pump and gas lines to operate. However, if they are being used throughout a house, their cost per square foot goes down because multiple rooms share the cost.  

How to Get Started

Radiant Floor Heating Quote Builder Tool

To find out how much it would cost to install an electric floor-heating system in your home, check out WarmlyYours’s Radiant Floor Heating Quote Builder. You can also see how much a system would cost to operate in your area by using the Operating Cost Calculator. Once you’re ready to move forward with the installation, you can find a list of the contractors in your area that work with radiant floor heating here. Choose a professional to install your floor-heating system, tile, thermostat, etc. Or, do the work yourself if you’re so inclined, and only hire a professional electrician to finish the job by installing the thermostat. The option is yours.

Once you’ve started your project, WarmlyYours will still be there to help. Our technical experts are available by phone 24/7 at 800-875-5285 to help you with any questions that arise during installation.