Radiant Heat Flooring – Warm Any Floor Type

Monday, August 1, 2011


What surface should you choose for radiant heat flooring? There really are no limits to what you can do. There is a misconception with a lot of people that you can only have concrete floors with radiant under floor heating. This is not the case. Also, you don’t have to have radiant floor heat embedded only in a concrete or gypsum floor. There are multiple ways now to add radiant warmth into a subfloor.

Crete-Heat Insulated Floor Panel System, available at barnworld.com.

A radiant heat system also doesn’t have to heat your entire home. It is becoming more and more common in bathroom or smaller remodeling jobs to install electric radiant heat systems. The electric system will be hooked up to a separate thermostat. Of course, you can still use hydronic radiant heat, which is heated water running through PEX tubing, but that would be ideal for larger projects or new construction.

The five flooring options that can be used effectively with radiant floor heat are concrete, tile, wood, laminate, and even carpet.

Radiant Heat Flooring for Concrete

Concrete is still the most popular option when using radiant heat. The reasoning behind this is simple. Most homes have to have a concrete basement floor, or an on-grade concrete floor. Since concrete is already being used, you simply embed cross-linked polyethylene, which is more commonly called PEX tubing. The tubes run through the concrete slab and circulate warm water. This turns the entire concrete floor into a radiator, hence the name radiant floor heat.

Most people think of concrete as a cold, hard, unforgiving substance. With a hydronic radiant floor heating system embedded into the concrete, this slab of rock turns into a warm and comfortable surface. In the past, copper was embedded into concrete, and the copper would often erode and leak. This is no longer a worry with PEX tubing. It is much more durable and flexible. Even as the concrete expands or contracts, the PEX handles the pressure with ease. It is built to last up to 200 years.

Some people leave the concrete as is and have that as their floor choice. You don’t have to do this though. You can cover up the concrete. The most common choice is tile, followed by carpet or laminate. Wood isn’t really an option to attach to a radiant concrete floor. For a great site about all things concrete, visit Meet Mr. Concrete.

Radiant Heat Flooring for Tile

Often, tile flooring is simply added right on top of a concrete floor that has radiant heat. This is an excellent way to have an amazing looking warm floor. The best part is though, this isn’t the only way you can incorporate tile with radiant heat.

A hydronic system usually runs through concrete which in turn heats the tiles above it. There is another system that works very well too. Electric radiant under floor heating systems are becoming more and more popular. When people have a subfloor, the electric mat or electric wires that radiate heat are placed between the backer board and the tiles. The backer board is placed first. Then you put some thinset down. The electric mat or wires are added and another layer of thinset covers the mat. Finally, the tiles are put into place.

Radiant Heat Flooring for Wood

Wood used to be out of the question for radiant heat. It is very hard to install a wood floor on top of a concrete base. This isn’t the case now, especially when you are working installing radiant heat into a subfloor.

The most common option when using wood as your finish floor is to use a hydronic radiant heating system and strap the PEX tubing onto the bottom of the subfloor. A lot of people worry that the wood won’t handle the increased level of heat that a radiant floor system offers. This isn’t the case. Wood floors have been used long before the introduction of air conditioning. They can handle warmer temperatures.

If you have the option of installing the radiant under floor heating system before the finish flooring, activate the radiant heat first. Put the wood on the floor but don’t nail it down. Then the wood will get used to the humidity and heat before it is installed.

Another way is to use a system like Warmboard where the aluminum plates are actually on top of the subfloor. This is an even better way to use hydronic radiant heat because the tubing and the aluminum conducts the heat much closer to the top of the finished flooring. This system is best to install during new construction.

Radiant Heat Flooring for Carpet

Probably the least common is using carpet. Carpet acts as a natural insulator. It doesn’t transfer heat really well. Because of this, the heat from below doesn’t rise as easily.

It is possible, so long as you make a few wise decisions. The first thing is to make sure you are using the correct mat that lies below the carpet. The denser and thinner the mat, the better the heat will radiate. Also, the carpet itself shouldn’t be very thick. Choose a thin carpet. Thick and shaggy carpeting won’t allow the heat to pass through as easily.

Radiant Heat Flooring for Laminate

Laminate flooring is a versatile option when it comes to radiant floor heat. It can be installed above concrete, or a subfloor. Laminate can also be used for a hydronic radiant system or as a part of an electric radiant floor.

Laminate floors float, which means they don’t have to be attached to the floor below. They simply lay down on top. You can use thinset to adhere them or different types of glue, but this isn’t always necessary. Moisture isn’t a big concern either for laminate, so that is why they can go right over the top of a concrete floor with embedded hydronic radiant floor heat. When you use an electric system, the top layer of thinset that is placed over the electric wires or mat is simply smoothed out. When the thinset is hard, then the floating laminate floor can be snapped into place.

With radiant heat you can choose almost any floor type. To look at different finished floor options, visit Flooring Specialty.

The Best Way to Incorporate Radiant Heat Flooring

  • For small remodeling jobs, especially in a bathroom, I recommend using tile and an electric radiant system.
  • For on grade heating (this means there is no basement), embed hydronic radiant tubing into the concrete. You already have to spend the money on the concrete floor, so this is one of the most cost effective ways to use hydronic radiant heat. You can put tile, laminate, or carpet over the concrete as well.
  • On subfloors when you want wood, the best option is Warmboard. However, this is also the most expensive option and can only be used for new construction. You can save a little money if you attach a hydronic system under the subfloor. Also, you can retrofit a current home with a hydronic system that is attached under the subfloor.


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