Heated Concrete Floors: A Homeowner's Guide

Hunker may earn compensation through affiliate links in this story.
Heated concrete floors are a warm and comfortable option for colder climates.

A radiant floor heating system doesn't just leave you with warm toes when you walk around on a cold winter morning. It can actually heat your whole room or home, depending on where you install the floor. In fact, using radiant heating in your concrete flooring offers many benefits over a traditional forced-air heating system.

About Radiant Floor Heating

Radiant flooring heating systems heat a space from the floor up as air warmed near the floor naturally rises and fills the rest of the room. There are two types of radiant floor heating available: electric and hydronic (hot water).

Electric radiant floors are constructed of either cables or mats that are embedded into a concrete floor (a wet installation) or wire mesh mats mounted on top of the subfloor, covered in an insulating material and then topped with flooring such as tile, laminate or certain hardwoods (a dry installation). Because electricity can be so expensive, electric radiant floors are generally only cost effective when installed directly below the flooring or in something of significant thermal mass, like a concrete slab, which retains heat well.

Hydronic radiant floors are more expensive to install because they involve more complex systems that involve laying PEX, or flexible plastic tubing, across the floor and then connecting the tubes to water pumps that push the water through a boiler or water heater, which will heat the water according to the temperature set on the connected thermostat. These can also be laid installed through wet or dry methods.

While the upfront cost of such systems is more expensive than electric radiant flooring systems, they take less electricity, and water heaters and boilers can be powered by cheaper energy sources such as solar, gas, wood or oil.

Benefits of Radiant Heating in Concrete Floors

There are many reasons to choose a radiant heating system over other heating systems, including reduced allergens, increased energy efficiency and reduced maintenance. When you're deciding whether a heated concrete floor is right for your home, there are some advantages to consider:

Radiant heating is installed beneath your concrete floors.
Image Credit: Vladdeep/iStock/GettyImages
  • Increased efficiency: Energy.gov notes that radiant heating is far more energy efficient than baseboard heating and as much as 25 percent more efficient than forced-air systems because there is no heat loss through air ducts. Depending on the system, homeowners can even limit their heating system's use to cover only the rooms or heating zones where it will be needed. Whereas these systems can lose efficiency when topped with an insulating floor covering like carpet, concrete floors help ensure the heat source operates at maximum efficiency.
  • Cost effective: Naturally, that reduced energy use doesn't just mean heated concrete floors are good for the environment. It also translates into reduced heating costs. Similarly, the lack of necessary maintenance can save you money if you have an electric system.
  • Little to no maintenance: While hydronic systems have boilers, water heaters and pumps that need to be serviced, the floor itself will require no maintenance because there are no moving parts. As for electric radiant flooring, there is actually no maintenance required, and as a result, many companies selling electric radiant heating systems offer lengthy warranties.
  • Allergen-free: Whereas forced-air systems can push allergens through the air, radiant heating does not circulate the air at all. Moreover, radiant floor heating also prevents the air from becoming dry like many other heating methods, preventing dried-out airways that make colds and allergy attacks feel worse.
  • More even temperatures: When using other heating systems, you'll likely notice that the heat is mostly concentrated by the heating source, leaving the rest of the room cooler. With a radiant heat system, the floor heats up evenly, and because heat travels upward, the entire room will have a consistent, even temperature.

Cons of Radiant Heating in Concrete Floors

While having a heating system built right into your concrete floor offers many benefits, there are also downsides to using radiant heating systems. Some of the biggest problems with radiant heating include:

  • High installation costs: Because the process is so complicated — requiring coordination between the heating specialist and the contractor installing the concrete —

    radiant floor heating system installation can be rather pricey, with hydronic systems having a higher upfront cost since they are more complex. While increased energy efficiency means these systems should have a relatively low operating cost over their lifetimes, they do require a substantial initial investment.

  • Difficult repairs: While it's rare for radiant heating systems to experience problems, if they do have issues, it can be difficult to identify why. Systems installed in concrete floors will require breaking the floor open for repairs. This means you'll not only have to factor in repair costs for the heating system but also for your floor as well.

  • Slow to heat: Electric radiant floor heating systems can take an hour to heat a room, and hydronic systems can sometimes take hours to heat. That being said, heated concrete floors stay warm for a long period, so it's possible to take advantage of time-of-use billing programs by heating up the home during off hours and turning the power off during peak rate times.

Radiant Floor Heating Installation

There are two basic ways to install radiant flooring in a home: wet and dry installations. These methods are largely similar whether they involve electric or hydronic systems. Wet installations are installed in a concrete slab, whereas dry installations are placed on top of a subfloor and covered in an insulating material, and another flooring surface is then laid on top of the heating equipment.

Radiant heat can installed in electric or hydronic systems beneath cement flooring.

If you want to have a concrete floor fitted with a radiant heating system, you must use a wet installation method. Unfortunately, it is impractical if not impossible to retrofit an existing concrete slab to accommodate a radiant heating system. While new, ultra-thin heating systems have made it possible to install electric or hydronic heating elements in a thin layer of new concrete or gypsum installed on a concrete or wood subfloor, this concrete layer will not work as a floor, and you will need to top it with tile, linoleum or radiant-flooring-approved hardwood. In other words, if you want concrete heated flooring, you'll need to install it while building a new home.

With wet installations in new homes, first a compacted aggregate base will be laid, which will be topped by a vapor barrier, and then insulation and a layer of rebar or wire mesh will be installed to provide support. Next, the PEX tubes, electric coils or mats will be installed. The heating specialist will then use air pressure to check the system for leaks if it is a hydronic system. If working with an electric system, they will test the current. A final layer of concrete will then be laid above the tubes or coils, and once the concrete has fully cured, the system will be connected and powered up.

Dry floor installations involve laying hydronic PEX tubes, loose electric cables or a mat fitted with electric cables below the finished flooring. There are multiple ways to perform a dry install depending on whether or not you have access to the floor joists and the type of system with which you are working. Sometimes, the cables or PEX tubes can be secured directly to the bottom of a wood subfloor from below the floor, and then the spaces below can be filled with insulating material. Other times, they may be laid on top of a wooden or concrete subfloor and then covered in a thin layer of cement or gypsum.

For a hydronic system, you can purchase a grooved board system fitted with slots for PEX tubing and then cover the whole floor with an aluminum heat transfer plate. Thin electric mat systems fitted with built-in aluminum insulation can be installed directly on a concrete subfloor that has been covered with an insulating underlayment, and flooring can be installed directly above.

While tile is the most popular flooring used above radiant heating systems, almost any flooring can be laid on a dry installation except for those that are wet by nature, such as concrete. It is also best to avoid those that are insulating, such as carpet. Good alternatives include linoleum, vinyl, engineered hardwood or select hardwoods that have been specifically approved for use with radiant flooring.

Finding a Professional Installer for a Radiant Heating System

Whether working with a dry or wet installation method, hydronic systems must be connected to a boiler or water heater, a heat exchanger, a heat sensor and a thermostat, whereas electric systems must be connected to a power source, a heat sensor and a thermostat.

While most electricians can handle installing an electric radiant floor heating system, hydronic systems require heating specialists with experience handling heating, electrical and plumbing work. It may be difficult to find someone in a remote area who is qualified to install or work on a hydronic system, but you can start by searching online for "hydronic radiant heating" followed by your city name.

Make sure a pro can handle doing a wet or dry installation for a hydronic or electric system depending on your needs, and always check reviews before setting up an appointment. Also, be sure to ask about the following:

  • Sourcing the system: No single company manufactures all parts for a hydronic system, so a qualified installer should know where to acquire all necessary parts.
  • Multiple heating zones: These allow you to fine tune the amount of heat used in different rooms around your house, maximizing your comfort and energy efficiency simultaneously. Find an expert comfortable with this.
  • Outdoor reset control: This slowly raises and lowers the volume of water in the PEX tubing based on outside temperatures. Anyone qualified to install hydronic systems should be familiar with setting this up.
  • Schedule availability: Because wet installation requires both the heating contractor and concrete installer to work together, it's important to ensure both contractors will be available around the same period of time.

Mistakes to Avoid With Radiant Floor Installation

While the first step to ensuring your radiant flooring is installed properly is making sure you have a qualified professional, there are some other things you should keep in mind to ensure you end up with a heated concrete floor with which you're happy.

  • Get a good water heater: If you're working with a hydronic system, you'll either need a boiler or a water heater. While some people assume a boiler would be better because they operate at higher temperatures, water heaters are far more affordable up front and can actually save money in the long run. In fact, because boilers are designed to provide boiling hot water for radiators, they can actually be damaged by cold water and must be fitted with special components to work with lower-temperature water, which is required for radiant heating systems. Water heaters are designed to work with cooler water and can be operated at lower temperatures as needed, saving energy. There aren't water heaters designed precisely for hydronic heating systems, and not all water heaters are up to the task, so be sure to look for a system that has long-lasting materials, a high-enough BTU rating to keep your home warm (consult with your heating professional) and a high efficiency rating.
  • Insulate your slab: Always insist that your installer use insulation underneath and around the perimeter when installing a new slab. That's because the cold ground and air can steal heat from the slab. In fact, an insulated slab will retain 70 percent more heat than an uninsulated one.
  • Inspect the work: Before the final layer of concrete is poured, always review the heating system. Verify the coils will end up no more than 2 inches below the concrete surface, or the heat will not properly penetrate your floor. If using a hydronic system, ensure there are no leaks.

Costs of Concrete Floor Radiant Heat Installation

Because of the increased difficulty involved with installing hydronic systems, the installation of these will generally be a little more than electric systems, with the installation and materials of hydronic systems averaging around $13 per square foot, and installation of electric systems coming in at around $11 per square foot. Overall, the cost for a heated concrete floor will come out to between $15 and $30 per square foot depending on which heating system you use and how much embellishment you add to the concrete flooring (with options such as etching, staining and polishing).

Hydronic systems will also require a hot water source, so if your system cannot be hooked up to an existing water heater or boiler, a new one will need to be installed, which can cost an extra $770 to $1,450 for a water heater or $3,500 to $7,700 for a boiler.

references

Jill Harness is a blogger with experience covering architecture, design and decor trends from around the globe. As she lives in what would politely be called a "fixer upper," she is particularly interested in writing about DIY projects and repairs. Most of her home design writing can be found at www.homesandhues.com. You can find out more about Jill's experience and learn how to contact her through her website, www.jillharness.com.

View Work