Radiant Floor Heating 101: Hydronic vs. Electric

Looking for an innovative way to warm your space? Try radiant floor heating. Radiant floor heating is an advanced and increasingly popular method for heating both commercial and residential properties — especially in Montana cities like Bozeman and Billings. By installing your heat source in the floor rather than relying on hot water, electric baseboard, or conventional forced air heating, you can expect comfortable, well-balanced warmth throughout your home or building. If you aren’t familiar with radiant heat, don’t sweat it. We’ll explain how it works, the differences between hydronic radiant heat and electric radiant heat systems, and the most effective ways to install both.

What is radiant floor heat?

A radiant floor heating system is simple in concept: the heat radiates upward from the floor to warm the rooms of a home or building. Heated flooring provides an even heat that reaches every part of your space, eliminating the cool spots and drafts that are typical of conventional forced air systems. As a result, radiant floor heating is an incredibly comfortable way to stay warm. (If you’ve never walked on heated flooring in bare feet, find a heated floor, take off your socks, and thank us later.)

There are two common types of radiant floor heat: hydronic and electric mat. Each requires its own method of installation, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. We’ll give you our professional takes on both.

Hydronic heating

Put simply, hydronic radiant floor heating uses hot water to warm the floor. Heated water, generated by your boiler system, circulates through piping installed in the floor throughout a building or home. (This piping is also known as PEX or crossed-linked polyethylene.)

There are a few ways you can install it:

  • Underneath the subfloor (staple-up)
  • On top of the subfloor with a light weight concrete or gypcrete overpour (thin slab)
  • Embed the system within your concrete floor (slab)

Hydronic radiant floor heating is one of the most effective and efficient means for heating your space. While the required materials — a boiler, a pump, and assorted hydronic accessories — can result in a higher upfront installation cost, you can save up to 30% more in operating costs compared to conventional heating systems.

Pros

  • Lower operating cost: Hydronic radiant floor heat is approximately 30% more efficient than other conventional systems. This makes hydronic heating a less expensive method for heating an entire building or home.

Cons

  • Higher initial investment: The process and components for installing a hydronic heating system is much more involved than for conventional heating systems.
  • Higher maintenance: Just like with any plumbing system, maintenance is required for proper efficient operation. Typically it will require a professional for maintenance or repair.

Electric heating

Electric radiant heating uses electric mats that lay just beneath your floor coverings, typically under tile flooring. In most cases, electric radiant heat is most effective as a floor warming application only; it is not designed to heat an entire building or home. This method essentially requires just three parts: an electric mat, a thermostat, and a temperature sensor. The thermostat connects to the power supply and responds to the readings from the temperature sensor, which connects to the heat cables in the floor. Electric heating is simple and easy to install. The main drawback? The spike in your electrical bill.

Pros

  • Less expensive to install: The installation process is often much simpler than a hydronic heating system’s, requiring cheaper materials, less work, and less time.
  • Lower maintenance: Once you install electric heating, the system requires little to no upkeep.

Cons

  • Higher operating cost: Due to the cost of electricity, heating an entire home or building with electric radiant heating can become expensive. An alternative is to heat only a few rooms — such as bathrooms and entryways — that are prone to moisture or cold.
  • Repairs are near impossible: We can’t sugarcoat this one. If the in-slab electric fails, you cannot make spot repairs — you’ll likely have to replace the entire electric mat, including replacing the tile floors. In short, fixes to electric radiant heating can be extremely expensive and time-consuming.

Conclusion

Whether you choose hydronic or electric heating, radiant heat is a valuable addition to your space. However, while installing these systems can be a DIY project, there are a lot of factors to consider. So contact us if you’re considering installing a radiant heat system — we’ll be happy to help! 

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