A technician kneeling on the floor cuts a piece of cable from a spool during a radiant floor heating system installation

Heating technology has evolved numerous times over the last few centuries. Today, two of the most popular residential and commercial heating types are radiant floor heating and forced-air heating.

These heating methods share many similar characteristics but differ in many ways. Understanding these differences is vital as they may impact how well these heating types perform in your intended application.

This guide will examine what radiant floor heating and air heating are, their pros and cons, and which type is best suited for different applications.

But first, a down-and-dirty answer to which heating solution may be most suitable for you.

Radiant Floor Heating vs. Forced-Air: Which Do You Choose?

If you want to add a heater to an existing space and don’t mind paying higher operation costs, a forced-air system could be the right choice. However, radiant floor heating might be better if you want to add heating to a space under construction and don’t mind paying a higher installation cost.

What is Radiant Floor Heating?

Radiant floor heating is a unique method that involves heating a space via electric coils or water-heated tubes under the floor. This system generates radiant heat that warms the air in the room above, which rises and circulates the room. 

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

When this air cools down, it settles near the floor before heating up again.

History of Radiant Floor Heating

The concept of heating your floor and warming up a room from below might sound relatively new. However, such heating systems have existed in other parts of the world for thousands of years.

Archaeologists discovered that the Chinese used heated flooring called “dikang” as far back as 5000 B.C. These systems consisted of raised floor surfaces under which hot air from fireplaces was transmitted. This heat was conducted through the floor’s surface and radiated into the above room.

Europe also adopted radiant floor heating in the late 16th century. The technology utilized a network of pipes that carried hot water underneath floors—these systems were initially used in greenhouses.

However, the Bank of England installed one in 1790, marking one of the first documented uses of radiant floor heating for commercial purposes in Europe.

Radiant floor systems made their way to North America in the early 1900s in the form of concrete or plaster pipes carrying hot water. A school in Indiana used such a heating system in 1909. An architect named Frank Lloyd Wright then began implementing similar heating systems in his projects around Buffalo.

Radiant floor heating gained greater popularity in the decades that followed. Today, such floor heating systems are frequently used in residential and commercial spaces.

Types of Radiant Floor Heating

Two types of radiant floor heating are predominantly used in residential and commercial spaces. They are:

  • Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating
  • Electric Floor Heating

Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating

Hydronic radiant floor heating systems utilize a network of heating pipes beneath the floor. The system first heats water using a boiler and then pushes it through the pipe system. 

Some hydronic systems control the hot water flow using pumps and zoning valves, typically connected to a thermostat that helps regulate the room temperature.

The pipes and valves of a hydronic radiant floor heating system are shown on the wall attached to the exposed lines spanning the floor

Electric Floor Heating

Electric radiant floors are generally made up of electric heating cables built directly into the floor. Such systems may also comprise electrical matting containing such lines. Homeowners can fit this electrical matting underneath floor coverings such as tiles.

What is Forced-Air Heating?

Forced-air is a traditional heating method that has remained popular in residential and commercial spaces for decades. This heating system captures air inside a room, heats it, and sends it back through ducts and vents using a blower fan. 

History of Forced-Air Heating

Forced-air heating systems are a relatively recent invention compared to radiant floor heating. Wood-burning fireplaces and Franklin stoves have been used for many centuries, but none of these systems relied on “forcing” air. 

Such systems also came with many problems. For example, wood-burning fireplaces had poor ventilation, which resulted in large amounts of smoke and soot entering living spaces.

Franklin stoves helped solve some of these smoke and soot problems by lining their fireplace components with metal and including a hollow baffle section. However, this system wasn’t efficient at heating large rooms or homes with multiple rooms.

The first “forced-air” furnaces appeared after this. These systems came about when electricity wasn’t widely available, so they relied on natural convection to circulate heated air around living spaces. 

The first electrical forced-air systems that used a blower fan appeared in the 1930s. They utilized a coal furnace, which was more efficient than wood fireplaces.

The electric fan also did an excellent job of forcing heating air through ductwork and into faraway rooms, thereby heating the entire home.

Types of Forced Air-Heating

There are four types of forced-air systems available today.

These varieties include:

  • Fossil fuel or wood-powered
  • Electric
  • Heat pump
  • Hydronic coil

Fossil Fuel or Wood-Powered

As the name implies, these forced-air systems generate heat by combusting fossil fuels or food. They also feature a heat exchanger allowing warm air to circulate into rooms without letting harmful combustion byproducts through.

The main living space inside a cabin, complete with a fireplace and wood-burning stove.

Electric 

Electric forced-air systems use a simple electrically-powered heating element to warm air based on a thermostat’s settings. 

The heat and blower turn on simultaneously when the thermostat calls for a higher temperature. The system then shuts off once the thermostat detects the room has reached the desired temperature.

Electric forced air systems require less maintenance than fossil fuel or wood-powered furnaces, but they tend to be more expensive to operate.

Heat Pump

Heat pump forced-air systems draw heat from the air or ground using the refrigeration cycle. They use a refrigerant coil instead of the burner or heat exchanger that furnace-based systems use. 

An illustrated diagram of how a ductless mini-split system functions

Heat pumps also tend to be more versatile than furnace-based systems because you can use them for cooling

Hydronic Coil

Hydronic coil systems are similar to radiant floor heating because they utilize hot water. A hydronic coil system typically heats water by combusting a fuel in a boiler. It then transfers heat using the hydronic coil as a heat exchanger.

This heat is channeled to the heat pump, which transfers it to the air in the vents. This heated water then returns to the boiler, where it is reheated.

Advantages of Radiant Floor Heating

The advantages of radiant floor heating include:

Saving Space

Radiant floor systems tend to be discrete because they are tucked under your flooring. In fact, you might not even notice a radiant floor heating system is present in a home or commercial space until you feel the warmth emanating from the floor.

Radiant floors can be a better choice over traditional forced-air systems that rely on furnaces, as the furnaces in the latter take up a lot of space.

Low Maintenance

Radiant floor systems require relatively little maintenance, depending on their type. For example, an electric radiant floor doesn’t need to be maintained or serviced on an ongoing basis. So if you have had one installed by a professional, you don’t have to worry about servicing it.

Hydronic floor heating systems, on the other hand, require occasional maintenance due to leaks naturally occurring in pipe-based systems. A technician may also need to check the water pressure from time to time to ensure the system is operating correctly.

A homeowner adjusting the valves on his radiant floor heater's expansion tank

Free From Allergens

Radiant floor heating stands above forced-air systems because it doesn’t offer the possibility of introducing allergens into the home’s air. After all, radiant floors rely on conduction and radiation rather than convection.

On the other hand, forced-air systems directly impact the air inside a living space, creating the possibility of allergens such as ash from the boiler or furnace entering the vents and making their way into living spaces.

High Efficiency

Radiant floor heating systems are approximately 30% more efficient than forced-air systems. This improvement is because the latter isn’t great at maintaining the warmth of the air in a room. Radiant floor systems don’t rely on air to transfer heat, so they’re better able to retain heat and share it directly with the living space.

Disadvantages of Radiant Floor Heating

The disadvantages associated with radiant floor heating include:

Difficult Installation

Radiant floor systems are difficult to install into existing spaces because they require removing the existing flooring. 

While many companies can take care of this installation process within a few days, it still requires you to remove all the furniture and other items in the room. So if you intend to add radiant floor heating systems to a commercial space, you likely won’t be able to use it until the installation process has been completed.

High Installation Costs

Radiant floor heating systems may be more efficient than forced-air systems. However, they typically come with higher installation costs. You should likely expect to spend between $10-$20 for each square foot of heating. You will also need to pay an electrician to set up the system’s power supply, which may cost you an additional $200.

Water-based radiant floor heating systems tend to be even more expensive when installation costs are factored in. So it may be better to choose an electrical or forced air system if you are on a tight budget.

Advantages of Forced-Air Heating

The advantages of forced-air systems include:

Fast Heating Times

Forced-air systems operate relatively quickly compared to radiant floors because they heat air directly before channeling it into the vent system.

A homeowner sits on the couch in her living room, appearing satisfied while adjusting her mini-split evaporator with a remote control

By contrast, radiant floor systems must heat water or floor panels before radiating heat into the area above the floor surface.

Easy Installation

Forced-air systems are relatively easy to install if you already have a duct system for air conditioning. In this situation, you will simply need to install a boiler or furnace and a blower to get your heat going.

Simple Repairs

Forced-air systems are generally easy to repair because each component is easy to access. You can access the boiler or furnace directly if an issue occurs at the heating component’s end. 

A technician adjusts the indoor component of a mini-split

By contrast, repairing a radiant floor can be difficult because it requires removing the floorboards to access the electrical mat or water pipes.

Disadvantages of Forced-Air Heating

The disadvantages associated with forced-air heating include:

Uneven Heating

It is easy to control most forced-air systems using a thermostat. However, this system’s central heating nature typically results in uneven hearing. As a result, it’s not uncommon for the rooms closest to the furnace or boiler to receive more heat than the ones located farther away.

This issue is less likely to exist with radiant floor heating because the pipes or electrical mats are directly underneath the room’s floors.

Noise

As their name implies, forced-air systems “force” air through the ducts, which produces noise. This noise might not be deafening, depending on the system. However, it is still far louder than a radiant floor system, which tends to be completely silent.

Which Heating System Should You Go With?

As you can see, both radiant floor heating and forced-air heating have pros and cons.

A forced-air system could be the right choice if you’re looking to add a heater to an existing space and don’t mind paying higher operation costs.

However, suppose you’d like to add a heating system to a residential or commercial space currently under construction and don’t mind paying a relatively high installation cost. In that case, a radiant floor heating system might be better.

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