Warming Up to Radiant Flooring

Some of yesterday’s bathroom flooring trends — think avocado green shag carpet — should probably never make a comeback, while others are ripe for revival. One of the latter is radiant floor heating, first used by the ancient Romans who forced warmed water into pipes running beneath the floors of their homes and bathhouses. The Romans knew what homeowners are discovering today: Under-floor heating offers a luxurious sense of warmth to those often chilly bathroom floors.

According to Mark Shaw, a radiant floor system purchaser for Lowe’s stores nationwide, sales of radiant, in-floor heating systems are growing at a rate of 30 to 50 percent each year.

“More and more people are learning about this great option for heating bathrooms and other rooms as well,” says Shaw. “Once they experience the feeling of stepping out of a shower onto a warm floor, they’re sold.”

Comfortable Savings

Radiant heating is ideal for use under hard flooring surfaces, such as tile or stone, which often remain chilly in rooms heated by the conventional forced air systems found in most homes today. With a radiant system, the entire flooring surface in a room is gently and evenly heated from below, with no cold spots. Radiant heating warms the body through the feet, as well as other objects in the room, rather than just the room’s air.

Allergy sufferers love radiant heating because it doesn’t stir up dust, mold or other allergens like forced air systems. Comfort isn’t the only plus for radiant flooring systems; they can also offer significant savings on a home’s heating bills. Because heated floors warm up people, rather than the air around them, homeowners generally find that they keep a room’s thermostat turned down a few degrees.

Additionally, forced air heat rises to the upper level of a room while radiant heat stays in the lower level of the room, making it more accessible. And unlike forced air heat, radiant heat doesn’t try to escape out drafty windows and opened doors. These factors mean that a radiant heat system can save a homeowner between 10 and 30 percent on their monthly heating bills over conventional heat systems.

These benefits have more homebuilders and renovators choosing radiant systems for the bath, says Hiland Hall Turner, a New Jersey architect. Turner has been installing radiant systems for the past 18 years, but has recently seen a strong upsurge in interest. “Today’s technological advances have improved the efficiency, function, reliability and affordability of radiant heating systems,” says Turner. “As radiant technology becomes more accessible, more people are adding this luxurious feature to their homes.”

Hydronic and Electric Systems

There are two primary types of radiant heating used in homes today: hydronic and electric. Hydronic systems are the modern version of the ancient Roman systems, and the most popular choice for homeowners installing a whole-house radiant flooring system. Until recently, hydronic floor systems used copper tubing, but modern systems use flexible, rubber-like tubing installed under the flooring. A boiler (or in some very small rooms, a hot water heater) is used to heat water, which is then circulated through the tubing, which radiates energy and warmth up through the floor.

Electric radiant heating is far more economical than hydronic and is quickly gaining in popularity as technology has improved and more homeowners become aware of this radiant flooring option. It’s also simpler to install for homeowners who want to heat only one or two rooms, such as a bedroom and adjoining bath.

With electric radiant flooring systems, a very thin electric panel, similar to an electric blanket, is installed under the floor. These panels contain heat-resistant wire coiled within a supporting material and controlled with a thermostat and timer. This type of radiant flooring is very economical to install and operate, costing only $500-$700 to outfit an average-size bathroom and only about 10 cents per day to operate.

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