Are We Finally Ready for Radiant Heat?

It's not new, but it might as well be. Today, radiant floor heating delivers on its long-held promise of better, more affordable comfort—right when we needed it most.

By Donna Boyle Schwartz | Updated Sep 16, 2020 7:18 PM

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Radiant Floor Heat Systems


It’s a good time for the building and remodeling industry! Just check out the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, which shows that in the last year alone, single-family home starts are up over 10 percent. At the same time, the Residential Remodeling Index has risen for 21 consecutive quarters, so those who already own homes continue to remodel at record rates. OK—what’s happening here? Experts explain that the activity stems at least in part from the millennial generation entering the market for the first time. That’s a big shift that’s reflected in the numbers, but also in professionals’ views of what clients want. Whereas square footage used to spur sales and motivate major renovations, more and more Americans now value technology—not for its own sake, but as a means of increasing the quality of daily life while bringing down fixed monthly costs.

Cutting-edge thermal windows, Energy Star-rated kitchen appliances, solar roof panels—these were all niche products years ago, but they’re all mainstream today, with technology-minded consumers driving demand. So, while builders and remodelers are doing brisk business these days, they’re also building and remodeling differently than before—except in the case of HVAC. The same heating and cooling technology that dominated 50 years ago somehow still dominates, despite its intrinsic flaws and despite the broader, shifting market landscape. Change may be on the horizon, though. That’s not because there’s a new climate-control system on the scene, but rather because manufacturers have finally perfected a system that’s been around for a long time—radiant floor heating. It had always been promising, but only now does it deliver its promise of better, more affordable comfort.



Radiant Floor Heat Systems - Total Comfort


What’s the appeal of radiant heat for new construction and retrofit applications? Simple. The technology delivers “everywhere” warmth. With a radiant system, the temperature you set is the temperature you get—period. Of course, that’s the goal of any climate-control system, but few succeed. Take the example of forced air. It’s the most common heating system in America, but one of the least consistent. For instance, when you’re positioned directly next to the vent in a given room, you experience one temperature, but as you move away, the temperature fluctuates. The result: Your comfort level often depends on your location in the home. It depends, too, on where in its cyclical operation the system happens to be. Forced-air systems loudly start and stop over and over again, inevitably leading to “roller coaster” temperature swings.

In contrast, radiant floor heating ensures an even temperature in every part of every room. To understand why, you need to understand how these systems are set up. Whereas forced air depends on the furnace and blower to distribute warm air throughout the home (via ductwork), radiant heat starts with a boiler. From the boiler, heated water travels through tubes set into conductive panels installed beneath every inch of flooring. Heat transfers from the water to the panels, from the panels to the floor, and from the floor to the living space. This design allows radiant heat to provide comfort across the full square footage, at a level that you can really feel. Even better: The comfort never dissipates, because unlike forced air, radiant systems don’t run intermittently. Plus, the technology elegantly sidesteps a chronic problem faced by forced air—the fact that warm air always rises.



Radiant Floor Heat Systems - Most Efficiency


You might expect to pay much more to run a heating system that delivers not hit-and-miss climate control, but total, encompassing warmth. But that’s not the case. The average radiant heating system operates at least 25 percent more efficiently than forced air, giving homeowners the best of both worlds—comfort and savings. Though many factors enter into the equation, there’s one big reason why radiant costs less to run than forced air—unlike forced air, radiant floor heating configurations don’t involve any ducts. What’s wrong with ducts? A lot, actually. As a result of leakage at the seams where two sections meet—as well as heat loss stemming from lack of insulation—ducts have earned a notorious reputation for compromising HVAC efficiency. Radiant heat suffers from no such efficiency drawbacks, simply because the technology requires no ductwork whatsoever.

But before you jump on bandwagon, know that even within the specific radiant heat category, different products offer very different levels of energy savings. Perhaps least efficient are those that rely on gypsum concrete. There’s more than one problem with gypsum. One is that on account of its sheer mass, gypsum lacks responsiveness—meaning, in a home with a gypsum system, it takes a frustratingly long time for changes in the thermostat setting to be felt. An even bigger problem with gypsum is its low conductivity. Aluminum conducts heat 232 times more effectively than gypsum! That’s why low-mass, high-conductivity aluminum panels typically respond faster and perform more efficiently, saving homeowners up to an additional 10 or 20 percent on heating costs. The reason? Aluminum panels can achieve the target room temperature using comparatively cooler water that’s significantly cheaper for the boiler to produce. Note: Only Warmboard offers such extra-high-efficiency systems.


Beyond delivering perhaps the finest possible heating experience, and in addition to its bottom line-boosting energy efficiency, radiant floor heating also offers a range of quality-of-life benefits. Homeowners love, for instance, that the technology runs silently—a relief if you’re accustomed to the concentration-stealing, conversation-interrupting roar of forced air. Another point of appeal: Whereas traditional HVAC systems often create dry, dusty conditions, radiant heating takes nothing away from indoor air quality, creating a healthier home environment. Finally, there’s the fact that as you much as you feel a radiant system at work, you never see it. There are no vents, no radiators, no baseboards—nothing to subvert the visual appeal of the rooms you work hard to decorate and make beautiful. Under the circumstances, is the surging popularity of radiant heat surprising? Not at all.


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