A radiant floor heating installation being done in a large open space in a building.

Radiant floor heating is one of the most effective heating systems. It works by heating the floor rather than the inside air directly, which provides comfortable, warm temperatures throughout the room.

Radiant flooring is the ultimate comfort—but how energy efficient is it? Is it worth investing in?

This guide will walk you through all the particulars of this heating system.

What is Radiant Floor Heating?

Radiant floor heating is a web of pipes made of polyethylene tubing (PEX-tube) arranged strategically underneath the floor. The tubes are connected to a central heating source that continuously warms the water and pumps it through the pipes.

The warm water then reaches the room’s subfloor, and the heat from the water is transferred to the floor through radiation. Through this process, the entire floor is warmed uniformly, supplying gentle heating to the home’s occupants. 

Radiant floor heating is designed to combat environmental issues and increasingly expensive electricity bills.

Is Radiant Floor Heating Energy-Efficient?

The average size of a bathroom in the US is 20-30 square feet. Heating this area uses about 300 watts of electricity, roughly equal to the power used by a laptop charger or light bulbs in some cases. Therefore, an entire house with radiant floor heating would not cost more than $250 per month to run.

On average, the highest energy consumption in the US is due to heating systems. Heating is the reason behind the high utility bills, accounting for almost 45% of the typical energy bill. An average American spends hundreds of dollars on fuel for the heating system. 

You can save your money by opting for radiant floor heating. It is a more efficient option than other traditional heating systems.

Traditional heating systems such as forced-air heating require a high temperature of up to 167ºF to warm a room effectively. That’s because air rises towards the ceiling as soon as it is heated. As a result, it cannot reach the bottom of the room, where people are lounging. Some heat is also lost through the ducts. 

Radiant floor heating, on the other hand, heats the floors directly, which reaches you more quickly, so only a temperature of 84ºF is sufficient to provide a comfortable heating experience. It means that the room can become warm in a comparatively shorter duration. 

Looking down at a crosssection of and exposed radiant floor heating lines at left and a section of the wood flooring covering it to the right

This is the reason why a radiant floor heating system is so efficient. It can knock off about 15% of your energy bills. 

A radiant floor heating system costs between $10 to $15 per square foot, depending on your type of system. Its installation costs from $250 up to $400 per day. However, once it has been installed, the cost of actually running the system is low. 

While utilities are expensive, dividing the floors into zones and their smart use will ensure you cut down on those costs.

How Do Heating Systems Work?

A regular heating system has three primary components without which your system cannot work.

1. Heat Source

A heating source is the very heart of the system. It requires fuel or an energy source to warm the medium so that it can conduct heat to the rooms. 

The most commonly used heat sources are furnaces, boilers, or heat pumps. They are usually placed in a central area in the house to supply heated water to all areas equally.

2. Heat Distributor

A heat distributor is a system through which heat is eventually moved from the source and provided to the room. Forced air, radiators, radiant heating, etc., are all types of heat distributors. 

3. Thermostat or Controller 

A thermostat is a sensor and controller, all in one. It senses the room’s temperature and automatically regulates it to achieve the warmth desired by the occupants. 

A smart thermostat on the wall in our second net-zero home
A smart thermostat on the wall in our second Net-Zero home

Types of Heating Sources

Homeowners can use many kinds of heat sources in a central heating system, each with many pros, cons, and other efficiencies.

Furnace

Furnaces date back a long time and are the most common heating source. A furnace heats the air using fuel such as gas or electricity. The heated air produced is pushed through air ducts, passes into a room, and heats it. 

Air ducts are usually located at the top of rooms. Apart from ruining the room’s aesthetic, ducting is not very efficient either. More heat is needed to warm the entire room as the hot air rises and stays near the ceiling. 

Radiant heating warms the internal air of the room by way of the floors at lower temperatures, requiring less energy as the heat does not escape.

Furnaces can use natural gas, propane, heating oil, or electricity as their fuel. Depending on the energy used and the system’s age, a furnace’s efficiency can range from 60-98.5%. 

Boiler

Boilers are used in water-based systems, including hydronic radiant floor heating. They use heat to warm the water and use it or the steam produced to power entire heating systems. PEX pipes direct the water flow as they are resistant to rust. 

Older boilers used to be only 56-70% efficient, but modern ones are up to 99% efficient and convert almost the entire fuel to heat. Boilers use natural gas, propane, heating oil, biodiesel, and electricity as a power source.

Closeup of a hydronic radiant floor heating boiler and its attachments.

While a boiler may be efficient itself, the entire system is not. Water-based heating systems take a long time to heat or cool and are only preferential when a house is under construction.  

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps utilize the heat in the atmosphere and direct it to heat the air inside rooms. In addition, they have a furnace as a backup to provide heat when insufficient amounts are available in the atmosphere. 

A heat pump is not very useful for heating during the cold months as the surrounding air has no heat in the first place. They are also very similar to forced-air systems and are expensive to install.

It is run using geothermal fuel or electricity and has an efficiency rating of 6.8 to 10 HSPF (heating season performance factor).

Solar Heating

Solar heating uses the sun to power the heating system. The sun is a stable source that heats the medium (air or water) immediately and can store it for future use. Since solar energy is free, sustainable, and renewable, its efficiency is not calculated.

Electric Heating

Electric heating is a system in which electricity is converted into heat, often using electrical resistance cables. As the name suggests, electric heating runs on electricity and is 95-100% efficient, heating the surrounding air immediately. 

Electric baseboards are relatively less expensive than radiant floor heating, but their operational price is very high due to the high cost of running electricity. For example, the same room costs three times more to heat it using electric baseboards than radiant floor heating. 

Space Heaters

Everyone has heard of fireplaces. They are a type of space heater. Space heaters are small heating source that provides supplemental heat to a room. They usually use wood as their fuel, and taking the appropriate measures to save yourself from fire or gas-related hazards is necessary. 

a classic-looking unvented space heater sitting on the floor

Space heaters are 100% efficient as they convert all fuel to heat. However, this does not mean that they are cheap to operate. They are also a climate hazard.

How to Measure a Heating System’s Efficiency

The efficiency of a heating system is measured using AFUE. 

AFUE is the annual fuel utilization efficiency. It can be calculated by determining how efficiently the system converts its fuel to heat divided by how much fuel is utilized annually.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Heating System

Efficiency alone cannot be the basis on which you should choose a heating system. Some options that are 100% efficient are not very cost-friendly to run, so you should keep all the factors in mind before choosing one for your home.

Fuel

Depending on where you live, different heat sources may be more readily available than the other. For example, with limited access to natural gas, heating oil is a more popular solution. 

Similarly, if the cost of electricity is too high in your area, natural gas is an effective option.

Climate

Your climate dramatically affects the kind of heating system you may require. For example, a space heater is sufficient to provide heat in moderate climates with only a few months of cool weather. 

However, in environments where the temperature falls below zero, a comprehensive central heating system is necessary to prevent you from freezing up.

Efficiency

Efficiency, installation cost, and operational cost go hand-in-hand. ENERGY STAR-rated models are the efficiency standard for any gadget.

A highly-rated product will have high efficiency and installation cost but a low functional price, which is usually the best option.

Size

The size of your house or area to be heated needs an appropriate heater. A heater that is too large for your home will use too much heat and not be very efficient.

Before buying a heating system, consult a professional contractor to determine which method will be the most appropriate.

Tips for Saving Energy and Maintaining Your Heating System

Insulate Your Home

Before you can install a heating system, insulating your home should be the critical step. Effective insulation would prevent the heat from escaping once the system has been installed so your room can remain toasty for extended periods. 

A worker lifts a batt of rockwool insulation off a stack as he readies it to be applied to an attic ceiling

Installing a heating system when your house isn’t insulated will waste more energy as more significant amounts would be needed to replace the escaping heat.

Similarly, when a home is well-insulated, a small heating system would be sufficient for it, which would be cost-effective and save energy.

Install a Thermostat

A thermostat is an automatic regulator that can continuously turn the heating on and off to achieve the set temperature required.

A thermostat uses only the exact amount of heat to attain a specific temperature, reducing energy wastage. As a result, thermostats can save up to 10% on your annual heating bill.

Install a Ceiling Fan

No, this ceiling fan is not to cool down your room! A ceiling fan that spins clockwise will repeatedly push the rising hot air down and improve heating in the room. 

Final Thoughts

Radiant floor heating is an invisible and quiet heating system that warms you from your toes to your heart. Although you must pay a large upfront amount for its initial installation, radiant floor heating saves energy and money on utility bills.

In the long run, you will see returns on your initial investment soon, while the comfort will always remain unmatched.

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