If you are looking to warm your floors with a radiant heat system, and have typed “radiant heat system” into a search engine, you might find yourself scratching your head at this point. There are dozens of products available to purchase, and there are even more companies telling you that their product is the best.
So which product is the best? Should you install a hydronic heating system that pumps hot water through your floors, an electric cable heating system, or a low voltage screen system? The answer lies in the type of project you are doing. Not every system is ideal for every project, but there is an ideal system for every project.
Hydronic Heating Systems
Hydronic floor heating is the oldest and most popular type of radiant floor heating. These systems are comprised of a boiler or hot water heater, pumps, manifolds, pex tubing, thermostat, and either gypcrete (a concrete-like material) or wood panels. Hydronic heating is the most complex of all radiant heat systems. These systems require trained professionals to design and perform the installation. Your best economies of scale are achieved for hydronic systems in large areas or entire homes because of their expensive components and operational costs.
Hydronic systems can be installed under any type of flooring. Most hydronic systems require hot water tubing to be installed in a 2 to 4 inch bed of light concrete and are best installed during the initial construction because of its weight load demands and adjustments to floor height. Recent low-mass products have been developed to avoid these challenges by fitting the tubing into pre-cut wood panels making hydronic systems more convenient and possible for most major remodeling projects.
If you want to heat smaller areas like a bathroom or kitchen, a hydronic floor heating system may not be the best value for your project. The complexity and cost of installing the system, along with the long-term maintenance and up-keep required, is not worth the small amount you will save in operational costs.
Electric Cable Heating
Electric cable heating systems, often called line or high voltage systems, are gaining popularity and are ideal for heating smaller areas (10-300 square feet) like bathrooms, kitchens, and sun rooms. These systems are comprised of a thermostat and a heating cable. On some systems, the cable will be shipped to you as a large spool of cable. These systems are often times less expensive, and give you the ability to space the cable how you want and customize a layout that will heat every square inch of your floor. Other systems have the cable attached to a plastic mesh or tape to create a mat to maintain its proper spacing.
Every available cable system is equally effective, and so when determining which system to purchase, you should look at the warranty of the product, along with the ease of installation. Some cables must be embedded in a separate layer of concrete or mortar, whereas other systems can simply be installed in the thin set. Most cable systems can only be installed under tile. However, on others, if the cable is embedded in mortar or concrete, any flooring can be installed on top of the concrete. When heating smaller areas, it is nearly impossible to beat the simplicity and price of an electric cable heating system.
Finally, there are low-voltage radiant heat systems. These systems are ideal for mid-size to larger areas (300-3000 square feet) and are comprised of a control box, transformer, heating screen or cable, and thermostat. The main advantage to a low-voltage screen (Zmesh) system is the extremely low profile of the heating element. Zmesh is a 12 inch wide bronze-wired mesh that resembles screen door material. This mesh is practically paper thin and does not buildup floors during the installation. Zmesh can be installed directly under any type of flooring including hardwood, tile, and carpet. Whereas most cable systems must be installed on top of the concrete board when installing tile, Zmesh can be installed underneath it. These systems are easy to install and don’t require maintenance like a hydronic system.
Radiant heat technology has made significant advances over the years and is an excellent way to supplement your existing heating system or be your sole source of heat. One good way to be assured that you’re being sold the best system for your project is to buy from a company that offers all of the available types of radiant heat.