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Radiant Floor Heating Installation Guide

If you are a do-it-yourselfer interested in radiant floor heating, you probably have a heating issue you need to fix. Most of us use a furnace or heat pump as our primary source of heat, but sometimes it isn’t enough. Cold spots are common, especially in rooms with tile.

Today we will discuss radiant floor heating and the various methods used in today’s construction.

Can Radiant Floor Heating Be Installed Yourself?

In a word, yes. Radiant floor heating systems have been around for decades and can take various forms. Some versions use an electrically heated cable embedded in concrete or mortar, while others rely on heated air or water (technically the same thing) circulating under the floor. All of the common methods of today have pros and cons depending on where they are and what problem they are trying to solve. 

If you are an experienced do-it-yourselfer with a few common tools, you can probably install a radiant heat flooring project yourself. All of the available systems will require some amount of demolition in an existing home.

Therefore, if you are building an addition or making an extensive repair to the room, adding radiant heat will be easier. You will need to make electrical connections, so if you are not confident in your electrical skills, you may need to include an electrician into your budget.

Electric System Installation Tips 

Installing an electric radiant system is a fairly straightforward do-it-yourself project, but you will need experience in working with electricity. You may also need other skills, such as working with mortar, if you plan to do the project from start to finish. Here are a few tips the pros use to make installing an electric radiant floor heating system successful.

  • Ensure There is Ample Electrical Power Available

Electric radiant systems are quite efficient, however as the project gets larger so 

do the electrical requirements. Ensure there is room available in your panel in case you need it.

  • Test the Wires Before Installation

Whether you are using an electric mat system, or a single wire system, check the continuity of the wire before installing it. The wire is quite small and can be damaged during shipment and handling. Test the continuity using both ends of the wire and a multimeter.

  • Design the System For the Future

More often than not, once you own a radiant floor heating system you will want it forever. Knowing this, most professionals will design and install the system with future expansion in mind. For example, you may install a radiant system in a bathroom to eliminate cold tiles on your bare feet.

However, once you leave the room, the floors in other rooms will feel cold by comparison, which often prompts additional radiant flooring projects. 

Hydronic System Installation Tips 

Hydronic radiant floor heating systems perform the same task as an electric system, just in a different way. As the name suggests, hydronic systems use heated water (or some other liquid such as antifreeze) to warm the floor.

Hydronic systems are quite involved compared to an electric system, so hydronic systems typically become more cost-effective the larger the project becomes. Therefore, hydronic systems are often used as whole-house heating and in commercial applications. 

Here are a few tips the pros use to install a hydronic system and minimize maintenance:

  • Test the Tubing and Wire Before Installation

As with an electric system, a professional will ensure the quality and condition of not just the wiring, but the plumbing components as well before installing them. Especially with radiant floor heating systems, a single failure can mean starting over. Considering that in every case the radiant heating system will be covered up by flooring, making repairs can be expensive and frustrating.

  • Have a Separate Heat Source

Some hydronic systems claim to function well using the home’s hot water heater to heat the water. Except in rare instances, a professional will install a separate boiler to heat the water in the system anyway. This is because a typical residential water heater is sized for the number of occupants, not individual systems within the home. 

As an example, the water needs of a normal family of four may require only a fifty-gallon water heater to ensure hot water is available at all times. Even a small hydronic system can contain ten gallons of water in the tubing, so that means a hydronic system can reduce the available hot water for cooking and bathing by twenty percent. 

Methods of Installation 

Electric Mats

Electric mats are typically the easiest to install. These mats are pre-formed with the wire already integrated with the mat. In most cases, these mats are installed beneath bathroom tiles.

With this method, thin-set mortar is poured onto the floor backer board and the mats are sandwiched between the mortar and the tile. This ensures the mats are protected and will not move around.

Pros of the Electric Mat System:

  • The electric mat system is the fastest and easiest version to install.
  • This system often comes in kits, making the project even easier.
  • If price is a factor, the electric mat system is usually the least expensive.

Cons of the Electric Mat System:

  • Although electric mats can be slightly modified, they are often not suitable for highly unique spaces.
  • Electric mat systems are not generally used in large areas, because although the design is fairly efficient, it may still be more expensive to operate than other methods.

Electric Single Wire

This method of electric radiant heating incorporates the same parts and materials as the mat version but separates each component. This allows the mats to be installed independently of the wires, which allows for greater customization.

Single wire systems, just like mat systems, can be installed under tile using the thin-set mortar method, or essentially any floating floor.

Pros of the Electric Single Wire System:

  • The electric single-wire system is the second fastest and easiest version to install. 
  • The parts of this system often come separately, so a diligent consumer can sometimes save money by shopping around.
  • The single-wire system is likely the most infinitely customizable version available today.

Cons of the Electric Single Wire System:

  • Being so customizable means this method requires more time and labor, so if your area to be heated is a small rectangle in front of a jetted tub, the mats may be a better solution.
  • As with mat installations, electric single-wire systems are not generally the first choice for large areas. 

Hydronic

As mentioned earlier, hydronic systems are more involved. Since the system requires both electrical and plumbing components, much more skill is required to perform the installation successfully.

The best method involves securing the tubing (known as PEX) under the subfloor, as opposed to on top. Brackets are used to attach the tubing between the floor joists or trusses, and the heat radiates up through the flooring. 

Pros of a Hydronic System:

  • Hydronic floor heating systems are very dependable, and depending on the heating method, can be very efficient to operate.
  • The design of the hydronic method uses tubing instead of pipes. This tubing is very durable because it eliminates almost all the joints normally required. 
  • Since the heat is provided from an external source, hydronic systems will often have a larger range of available temperatures. In an electric system, the wire itself will limit how warm the system can become. In a hydronic system, the available warmth is only limited by the size of the boiler or water heater.

Cons of a Hydronic System:

  • The most notable downside to a hydronic system is the installation. Since the vast majority of these systems are installed between floors, hydronic systems are usually done as part of a remodel, and not a weekend project.
  • With radiant floor heating, being more elaborate means more expensive. Hydronic systems will often require more expensive components, not to mention the associated demolition and reconstruction costs.

Warm Feet Means a Good Start to The Day

Warm floors year-round are a comfort that we can all appreciate. Although radiant floor heating is an ancient idea, the practice has become commonplace in recent years as the availability of materials and kits has flourished.

If you are looking for a do-it-yourself project or simply looking for toasty toes on a winter morning, radiant floor heating is usually money well spent.

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