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Yet another gray winter morning, and you drag yourself out of bed, dreading the icy shock of your otherwise beloved hardwood floors. Or your bathroom is all toasty and steamy from that long, hot shower, but your tile floor feels like the surface of a frozen pond.
It’s on days like these that the idea of an in-floor heating system seems less like a luxury item and more like a necessity. (Besides, heated floors were good enough for the Roman Empire.) But before you commit to what can be a major remodeling project, it’s best to ask yourself whether a radiant floor heating system is an appropriate solution for your specific home heating needs.
The chief benefit cited for the installation of heated floors is increased energy efficiency. And it’s true that there are a number of factors—not all of them purely scientific—that can make floor-heating systems more utility-bill-friendly than conventional HVAC systems.
When an in-floor heating system is the perfect solution for comfortWith an in-floor heating system, the laws of thermodynamics are on your side. Perhaps the best way to understand how in-floor heating can help to heat an entire room is to consider how most furnace-based heating and cooling systems operate. Air is heated and then impelled (blown, via a fan) through ducts, which empty through vents and dampers into the various rooms of your home. Because air literally has to be moved or circulated throughout your home, a certain amount of heat loss is inevitable. This loss can be compounded in homes and individual rooms in which vents are located near the ceiling rather than the floor. Remember, hot air rises and only falls if it loses energy, also known as “heat.”
Also suggested: Myths vs. Facts: The Truth About Radiant Floor Heating
By contrast, according to Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of Scientific American, the uniform heat distribution over the entire surface of a floor heats the lower half of the room, enveloping inhabitants in warmth at a lower overall temperature—in some cases up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit cooler—than a conventional heating system.” In other words, in-floor heating systems provide a different mode and level of comfort. And, as various public awareness campaigns have long reminded us, the more comfortable we feel, the more inclined we might be to nudge down our thermostat, in turn lowering our energy expenditures.
Comfort, of course, is a matter of perception. More quantifiable are the cycling properties of in-floor heating systems. By and large, radiant heating systems turn on and off less frequently than conventional forced-air HVAC systems. Less turning on and off and less resetting and ramping up from a “cold start” equals less energy usage.
Additionally, homeowners have a variety of options to choose from in powering a floor heating system. Radiant systems are compatible with electrical, natural gas, solar and even geothermal energy sources. As many homeowners are all too aware, legacy furnace systems are typically restricted to running on a single energy source, such as heating oil. If the market for that energy source turns volatile, rates can fluctuate, prices spike and you can end up paying more to heat your home regardless of how low you set your thermostat.
Finally, if you do identify a particularly energy-efficient in-floor heating system and choose to install it in your home, you could be eligible for state or federal programs that can help cover your up-front contractor costs. (And these costs can be significant. According to figures collected by Angie’s List, homeowners can expect to pay between $6 and $16 per square foot, not including tax and labor, for a radiant heating system.) Consult the U.S. Department of Energy’s Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy (DSIRE) to see if there are rebates, loans or tax deductions available for the installation of a more efficient in-floor heating system where you live.
In-floor heating systems can come with certain health benefits. The hotter the air, the drier it becomes. On those days when you just can’t seem to warm up and find you need to turn up your thermostat, your furnace can suck all the humidity out of your home and leave your sinuses throbbing. Because they heat surfaces and not the air itself, in-floor heating systems are not prone to this issue. Moreover, since they do not rely upon fans, ducts, registers and returns to distribute hot air, in-floor heating systems can reduce the amount of dust and seasonal allergens in your home.
In-floor heating systems are scalable, too. Homeowners can create custom solutions to meet their floor heating needs. If you do not wish to install heated floors throughout your entire home, you can instead modularize, choosing only to heat one or several rooms from the ground up.
However, the news isn’t all good when it comes to in-floor heating. In fact, research indicates that some of the most apparent “pros” associated with radiant floor heating might actually be “cons.”
When in-floor heating may not be worth itIf you have a large home, a home with high ceilings, a home with many windows or a home with insufficient insulation, heating your floors rather than the air may not be enough to reach the level of comfort to which you are accustomed. Homeowners would be well advised to perform a home energy audit to assess where improvements may be made to increase the efficiency of an existing HVAC system. These changes could actually add up and possibly reduce your perceived need for in-floor heating.
In some instances, in-floor heating may be more of a complementary than a universal solution. Remember the theory that in-floor heating systems equal lower thermostat settings? Research conducted by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation suggests the exact opposite. In examining the usage patterns of 50 homeowners in Nova Scotia, the CMHC determined that these individuals “[did] not set their thermostats significantly lower than homeowners with other types of heating systems.”
If your main rationale for installing an in-floor heating system is that doing so will produce long-term savings by reducing your utility bills, other solutions—such as system zoning or solar panels—may actually be more cost-effective. And remember, an in-floor heating system contributes nothing to the cooling of your home in the summertime.
Homeowners may also assume that because a radiant floor heating system can be viewed (and financed) as a home improvement, its installation will immediately raise their home’s value. No evidence exists suggesting that in-floor heating either positively or negatively affects property values. In-floor heating is not even tracked in the annual Cost vs. Value Report issued by Hanley Wood Media, publishers of Remodeling Magazine. Perhaps Realtors must consider too many variables to definitively state what a radiant heating system might add to, or subtract from, any given asking price. That said, homebuyers looking to “go green,” who prioritize energy savings, or who absolutely want an in-floor heating system will be willing to pay a premium for a home that features one.
Homeowners should also be aware of the difficulties and costs associated with repairing in-floor heating systems. Flooring, as well as sub-flooring, may have to be removed simply to assess, much less address, issues with the system. And because the majority of radiant floor heating systems are hydronic, in which the system’s radiant elements are not electrical but consist of low-profile PEX Tubing through which hot water is pumped, this means additional plumbing and additional potential for broken pipes and leaks. Moisture under your home can damage your foundation, create inviting conditions for termites and other destructive pests, ruin carpeting and warp hardwood floors.
So, what's the verdict?
All in all, no matter how much you hate the feeling of a frigid floor first thing in the morning, an in-floor heating system may not make sense as a stand-alone retrofitting project. But, depending upon your priorities and your budget, in-floor heating may be ideal as a component of major remodel or if you are planning new construction.
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