What is the best radiant floor heating for your home? This unbiased buying guide will help you choose the right type.

Unlike forced-air heating, radiant floor heating doesn’t stir up dust or allergens, and it cuts down on heat loss through infiltration. A forced-air heating system pulls air out of rooms, heats it, and blows it back into the rooms. This pressurizes a house, pushing warm air out through cracks and openings.

Radiant floor heating warms your body, not just the air. © Ron Chapple | Dreamstime.com

Because a home heated solely by radiant heat isn’t under pressure, the room air—and heat—stays inside. And, because of the way radiant heating works, you needn’t be as concerned about warm air escaping when you open a door. Although you will still feel a draft, a room heated radiantly recovers quickly.


Radiant heat warms your body and other objects rather than just the room’s air. This means you can keep the thermostat turned 2 to 3 degrees lower than normal without losing comfort. It’s kind of like standing in the warm sun on a cold day.

Of course, radiant heating is just heating. It will not cool your home or clean the air. If you live in a climate where cooling is necessary, you’ll need additional equipment for the job, such as room air conditioners. An exception is a radiant heating system that utilizes water warmed by a heat pump, which can also provide cooling in the summer.

Radiant In-Floor Heating Diagram

If you’re considering a radiant floor heating system, you will need to choose between electric and water (hydronic) systems. You’ll also need to consider whether the installation will be “wet” (embedded in a concrete slab or lightweight concrete) or “dry” (attached on top or beneath the subfloor or sandwiched between two layers of subflooring).

The right choice will depend on whether you’re dealing with new or existing construction, the type of finish floor you have or wish to install, energy costs in your area, and your budget.

Another type of radiant heating is the old-style hot water heating system, which employs a boiler and network of pipes that delivers heated water (or steam) to convectors or radiators located in rooms. If you have such a system and need advice on maintenance, see Repairing a Steam Heating System.

Hydronic Radiant Floor Heating

With a hydronic floor heating system, hot water circulates through lengths of tubing that loop back and forth on the subfloor. The tubing is usually encased in a slab of concrete or lighter-weight gypsum cement. In some cases, the tubing can be fastened to the underside of subflooring instead.

A clear advantage of hydronic systems over other forms of heating is that you can use a variety of energy sources to heat the water: a gas water heater, electric boiler, wood boiler, heat pump, solar collector, or even geothermal energy. If, in a few years, your heating source, such as oil for a boiler, becomes too expensive, you can change over to solar or some other source.

Another advantage is that the water retains residual heat longer than electric wires. The heated water warms floors to about 85 degrees F. (or cooler—it generally feels similar to a tile floor warmed by direct sunlight). A zone control adjusts floors of various rooms to the desired temperatures.

Hydronic Radiant-floor Heating Diagram
Hydronic Radiant-floor Heating Diagram
Hydronic Radiant-floor Heating Tubing Diagram
Hydronic Radiant-floor Heating Tubing Diagram

Hydronic heating’s reputation was tarnished in the 1940s and ’50s when temperature control was marginal and metal piping corroded, leaving leaky pipes that were difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

But manufacturers of today’s water-circulating systems have learned from those mistakes and taken advantage of modern technology and materials to produce high-quality, low-maintenance systems. These utilize sophisticated control manifolds and polybutylene or synthetic rubber tubing that has proven its durability under extreme test conditions.

Hydronic tubing is strapped to solid foam insulation on a concrete slab before lightweight concrete is poured. Note that this significantly raises the floor level.
Hydronic tubing can be strapped to solid foam insulation on a concrete slab before lightweight concrete is poured. Note that this significantly raises the floor level. Phil Holmes / Shutterstock.com


Electric-Resistance Radiant Floor Heating

Electric-resistance radiant floor heating works like a toaster. When electric current travels through electric wiring, it generates heat.

This infrared-carbon electric heating system is designed to go directly beneath surface flooring.
This infrared-carbon electric heating foil is designed to go directly beneath surface flooring that doesn’t require nailing—in this case, a laminate floating floor. Ronstik / Shutterstock.com

With this type of heating system, special floor-heating cables or woven mats, foils, or panels with built-in wires are installed on, in, or under the subfloor. Then they’re hooked up to an electrical circuit and a control such as a thermostat.

When the control is turned on, electric current that moves through the cables or wires heats the floor.

With cable systems, a fairly large electric heating cable is wound back and forth on the subfloor. Concrete or gypsum cement is poured over it, resulting in a slab with the cables inside.

electric radiant heat diagram
Electric cables can be routed through a slab, similar to hydronic systems.

This base, perfect for finish flooring such as tile or stone, is flat, solid, and full of thermal mass for retaining and slowly releasing heat. If your utility company offers lower rates during off-peak hours, you can save money by heating such a floor during those hours; the floor will retain the heat and then release it slowly during peak hours.

Because of the high cost of electricity in most regions, electric radiant floor heating is generally reserved for bathrooms, kitchens, or small room additions that are expensive or difficult to heat by extending the existing heating system.

Radiant floor heating is at its absolute best in bathrooms with stone or tile floors that would otherwise be cold underfoot. Manufacturers suggest that a 120-square-foot room may cost only about 40 cents a day to heat, but the actual cost in your home will depend entirely on the cost of your electrical power. 

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Electric heating foil installs beneath flooring.

Most mats, foils, and panels are fastened between floor joists, laid between joists on top of fiberglass insulation, or embedded in the subfloor. A relatively new foil product, the Environ II System made by WarmlyYours, has a UL rating that allows safe installation directly beneath a carpet or laminate floor on the underlayment pad. In the universe of radiant floor heating, this is very easy and inexpensive to install and, because it is placed so close to the floor’s surface, it is very responsive and effective at heating.

NEXT SEE:  How to Install Radiant Floor Heating.

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About Don Vandervort
An avid builder and remodeler, Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years, as Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert for several years. Don founded HomeTips in 1996. Read more about Don Vandervort