How Radiant Floor Heating Works

A new home with a hydronic radiant floor heating system.
A new home with a hydronic radiant floor heating system.
Miguel Salmeron/Getty Images

­It's a cold morning, and you awaken to snow falling outside your bedroom window. It's hard to peel yourself from the coziness of your down comforter -- but your morning cup of joe isn't going to make itself. You slip out of bed and put your bare feet on a warm hardwood floor. When you head to the bathroom, you encounter heated ceramic tiles. In the kitchen, your feet meet a warm, tiled floor. Sounds like you're enjoying the benefits of radiant floor heating.

Radiant floor heating (RFH) involves installing electric heating coils or water-heated tubing under your home's floors. With an RFH system, the heat from the floor warms everything it touches and radiates throughout the room from the ground up. Think of RFH like heat from the sun. On a sunny day, if you step from the shade into the sun, you'll feel warmer even though the air temperature is basically the same. This is how radiant floor heating works. Temperature throughout the room is more constant than with your standard forced-air system, where the air rises, cools and then falls to the floor.

Aside from basking in consistent warmth from the floor to the ceiling, some people look for savings benefits with RFH systems. More economical to operate than furnaces, RFH can slash heating costs by 25 to 50 percent [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. New homes are the best candidates for a whole-house RFH system, but your existing home can also be successfully retrofitted. Some people with older homes choose single-room installations, like a kitchen or bathroom, instead of a whole-house system.

The concept for RFH isn't new. Ancient Romans used hot water pipes to warm floors, and it's been the preferred heating system in Europe since the 1970s. Aside from the long-term cost benefits, RFH heating is silent heat, with no loud air ducts or furnaces to deal with. It's also better for people with allergies -- eliminating blown air can reduce dust mites by up to 80 percent [source: Warmly Yours].

RFH systems fall into two categories -- electric and hydronic. In this article, we'll cover the pros and cons, costs, and methods of installing radiant floor heating.