I’m getting ready to remodel my master bathroom. When describing my plans to my contractor friend, his first comment was, “How about a heated floor? They’re really nice.” Huh? While visions of new tile, a shower and vanity had danced around in my head, I hadn’t even considered heated floors. I mean, it’s that a bit outlandish? But upon further investigation, it seems like this practice has become more of the norm that not.
Once considered an unnecessary, extravagant luxury item that was fraught with malfunction and headaches when embarking on home improvement adventures, radiant or in-floor heating has become one of the more popular upgrades in new homes and remodels. And even though in-floor heating has been around for a long time, it’s been only recently that you’ve seen it rising in the ranks of “must-haves” in the home.
When in-floor heating was first introduced into new homes following World War II, contractors used a system that circulated hot water through a series of copper pipes embedded in a concrete foundation slab. The water was pumped and heated via a small boiler that typically sat in the kitchen. Seventy years later, the same concept is still in use but the materials and implementation have improved dramatically.
What’s the upside?
One of the biggest attributes of radiant floor heating is that the heat not only feels good on your bare feet but the warm air slowly rises and disperses throughout a room in a measured, gentle flow. This is especially helpful in a bathroom where cool tiles on a cold winter’s night are unwelcome and uncomfortable. Also, any room with vaulted ceilings can easily lose heat and heated floors can help spread the warm air more evenly and at a lower level (think entryway or mudroom). It’s important to point out that radiant heat does not perform well in carpeted areas as carpeting serves as insulation from the cold.
Remember, hot air rises so having a heating source in the lower half of the room is going to save you money in the long run.
According to most estimates, figure on spending $4 to $15 per square foot on in-floor heating so if you are considering a remodel down the road, select the rooms carefully. It can get expensive to cover large areas. The cost will be in addition to the new tile or other material you choose plus labor.
There are two common types of radiant heat systems
Hydronic–based: Hot water is moved through a series of low profile PEX tubing tubes laid in a looping zig-zag pattern across the sub-floor. There must be an accompanying hot water heater or boiler associated with this system and there are higher start up costs. As a result, you will typically find these systems in larger areas like kitchens and living areas. When it comes to the installation, you’ll have the choice of either “wet” or “dry.” Dry installations incorporate the newest technology and are installed either above or below the subfloor (or inserted between two subfloors). This type is the most popular type for new installations. Wet installations are embedded in concrete during the building process and usually associated with new construction.
Electrical: This is usually more expensive and less efficient. But, this approach is perfect in a small area when using an electric mat under the tile floor. According to HGTV, for a 200 square foot bathroom, an electric mat and installation costs approximately $1,500. The electric mat can be set on a timer so the tiles will be toasty warm during the hours you are typically using the room.
Depending on the size of the room, many people choose to include in-floor heating over the entire surface or in select areas. The electric heating “mat” can be in front of the toilet, shower, vanity or a full-room section can be planned. Keep in mind ceramic tiles are the most common and effective floor covering for radiant floor heating, according to Energy.gov. Tile conducts heat well yet also stores energy as well. As a result, while the heat warms your feet and the air above the floor, the tiles also serve as reservoir to minimize heat loss in the room.
If you desire a different material, consider laminate wood as hardwoods will crack and dry out from the drying effect of the heat.
The hydronic-based in-floor heating systems can be a wonderful part of large remodel or addition. The heat emanating from the floor will help cut your energy bill when combined with a forced-air system — the floor will retain heat longer requiring less output from the furnace assuming you make the necessary adjustment on your thermostat.
So what’s the downside?
In the early days of in floor radiant heating, over time there were problems with the interaction between the copper piping and the concrete. Leaks would form and water would drain into the ground, often without the knowledge of the homeowner. Pipes could break and many of the homeowners eventually installed baseboard heating systems and deserted the radiant heating system altogether.
Even today, consumers need to be aware of potential problems down the road. Because these systems lie below the flooring, any malfunction in the system would require the removal of the flooring. And with the hydronic systems, which include PEX tubing and hot water, there is always potential for leaks. Discuss your concerns with your contractor before committing to these systems and understand the long-term benefits and drawbacks.
For more information on different types of energy sources and heat distribution systems for home heating, click on this link Energy Saver 101 infographic on home heating.