Updated: Nov 1
Getting ready to build your custom home? Among the big decisions you’ll have to make is how it will be heated. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, space heating and cooling is the largest home energy expense, accounting for up to 45 percent of monthly energy bills. Choosing your home’s heating and cooling system will depend on your budget, the availability of fuel types in your area, and your personal preferences. You’ll need to first decide on the fuel that creates your heat and then determine how you’d like the heat delivered throughout your home.
The most popular options today are forced-air and radiant floor heating. Each has pros and cons that need to be considered before making your final choice. This article reviews the highlights of each to assist you in reaching the decision that’s right for you.
FORCED-AIR HEATING SYSTEMS
A forced-air heating system simply refers to units that use air blowers to carry warmth throughout a space. Forced-air systems are usually HVAC systems that are ducted, or split systems that are ductless. The configuration for ducted systems in many homes is an outside unit where the freon circulates and an inside furnace that uses gas or electricity to produce the heat. The heat is then pushed to all the rooms through ductwork and is delivered through the floor or ceiling depending on the design. A ductless split system has an inside and outside unit but there are no ducts, as the name implies. The heat is generated at the inside unit and pushed through the room by a fan.
Pros to Forced-Air Heating
Dual system: This is the only HVAC system that performs both heating and cooling.
Air quality: Forced-air requires air filters which improve air quality (when replaced regularly).
Air circulation: Central forced-air heating systems move air about the house, promoting circulation.
Rapid comfort: HVAC systems provide an almost instant response to the need for heat. If the system is powered by electricity, a bank of electric coils are energized to provide immediate heat. In the case of a gas system, the flame produces heat without a warmup period.
Cons to Forced-Air Heating
Air leakage: A major downside to forced-air heating systems is heat loss. The air from the furnace and air handler has to travel through a series of tubes to get to its intended room offering many opportunities for it to leak wherever there may be small openings in the ducts. Also, the ducts for this type of system often travel through cold attics or basements, increasing the chance that heat will be lost as the warm air travels to the rooms in your home. Insulating the ductwork can help with this, at an added cost of course.
Reduced efficiency: Heat rises, so with forced-air heating, it leaves the basement and floors cold in the house. If you only need your bedroom warm and cozy at night, your only option is to heat the whole house to get this accomplished.
Uneven air distribution: Poor or uneven air distribution creates cold and hot spots in your home. This can be the result of cracks or gaps near windows and outside facing doors, vents blocked by home furnishings or décor, not having enough vents or vents that are poorly placed, poorly placed thermostats, such as in direct sunlight, or having an under or oversized HVAC system to name a few.
Noise: It’s a noisy operation – the fan and the air being pushed through the ductwork will create noise at a volume that is noticeable. Forced-air systems make themselves known every time they turn on, and in smaller rooms, the additional noise can be annoying.
Relatively high maintenance: HVAC or forced-air units have to be serviced at least bi-annually to stay operating at peak performance. The entire system is mechanical, meaning there are multiple opportunities for equipment failure. As the system ages, the ductwork will need to be cleaned and possibly resealed to ensure that there are no leaks.
Mold, mildew, and allergy Issues: Blowing air stirs up particles and potential allergens within the home. HVAC systems direct the heated air through a series of ducts that, over time, accumulate layers of dust and bacteria which are then distributed throughout your home every time the system turns on. Filters do help reduce the amount of dander and other particles that are released into your home, but they cannot stop them all.
RADIANT HEATING SYSTEM
Radiant floor heating is a method of heat distribution, not the source of the heat, provided by electric, air, or water-based methods distributed through the flooring. The people and objects in the room are warmed via infrared waves rather than the heating the air directly.
Pros of Radiant Heating
Low cost: Studies have shown that radiant floor heating is as much as 30 percent more efficient than forced-air, and with the addition of a Smart thermostat, additional savings are achieved by establishing zones that can be individually controlled. These zones are heated only when being used, eliminating the need to heat the entire home to make one or two rooms comfortable.
Less wasted heat: You can adjust the heat level for individual rooms to the level you want with a programmable thermostat. Not only does this allow you to have the ability to customize your comfort room-by-room, it also translates into significant energy savings. (After all, there's no need to heat the basement all day long if you are not using it!)
Low maintenance: Radiant heat flooring systems contain fewer moving parts than a standard HVAC unit. The piping throughout the system will last decades compared to air ducts as well. Electric radiant heat systems are essentially maintenance-free since there are no mechanical elements to break down. And, since these systems do not move air, there are no filters that require replacement every month.
No noise: Radiant systems are silent.
Non-allergenic: Electric radiant heat operates without the use of fans – airborne particles, dust, and allergens are never an issue as they are not blown into your room.
Energy efficient: Radiant heat flooring eliminates the heat loss that occurs with forced-air’s rising-air heat (which also creates varying temperatures around the room) as the air warms, rises, cools, and falls again. And, if you install a hydronic (water) radiant floor system, the water can hold 3,500 times the heat than air can. This allows you to operate your radiant floor heated home six to eight degrees lower than a standard air-heated system.
Even heating: The average price to run a radiant heating system is much lower than traditional air heating systems. One of the primary benefits of underfloor radiant heat is the way a room is evenly heated. Over 50% of the heat developed is through infrared waves and the heat stays at the level of human activity. And, since the entire floor is heated, the whole room benefits from the enhanced balanced heat distribution.
Cons of Radiant Heating:
Single system - heat only: Radiant-floor heating systems usually do not include a provision for cooling, although the same tubing that circulates hot water in winter could potentially be used to keep you cool in the summer. While these dual systems are entirely possible, they are rare in U.S. homes. The common single-system providing only heat can be a major drawback as compared to the dual system of HVACs. However, homeowners that choose the radiant floor heating systems also install a separate radiant cooling system in the ceiling (where it is most efficient, since cool air falls).
Difficult to access: Radiant heating is installed beneath the floor, making it harder to access if repairs or maintenance is needed. However, electric-heated radiant systems require almost no maintenance.
COMPARING RADIANT HEAT TO FORCED-AIR
In the radiant floor versus forced-air debate, radiant floor heating usually wins because it provides a quiet, even heat that is energy efficient while eliminating the allergen problems associated with heating ducts. Moreover, radiant heating is the more efficient system so operating costs will be lower than a forced-air system.
Installation Costs: Radiant Heat vs. Forced-Air
Radiant heating systems do cost significantly more to install than forced-air systems; however, once installed, the costs for operating and maintaining the radiant systems are significantly less than forced-air systems. Keep in mind that you can have a forced-air system while also having radiant floor heating in specific rooms such as the master bathroom, kitchen, or main living room.
Radiant heating is typically one of the most energy-efficient ways to keep you warm when it’s cold. Rather than constantly pumping warm air into the home with an HVAC system, radiant heating focuses on warming the air already in the rooms.
CURIOUS TO KNOW MORE INFORMATION ON RADIANT HEATING SYSTEMS?
Radiant floor heating is actually one of the oldest ways to heat a home, going as far back as 5000 BC in Korea and China, and the Romans began perfecting this system in around 3,000 BC by creating layers of tile raised on pillars that allowed the heated air to circulate.
This style of heating disappeared with Rome but was revived in Europe in the 17th century when Sir John Stone used heated water circulated through pipes, first for greenhouses and then commercial spaces, leading to a refinement of the method as some of the first research into how radiant heat transfer worked was undertaken.
Radiant heating first came to the US during the Civil War when heated air similar to the Chinese concept was used to help warm hospital tents. And, although in 1907 it was discovered that small hot water pipes could be embedded in concrete or plaster, and the process began to be put into use, it wasn’t until Frank Lloyd Wright began to see the benefits of the system that it became more widespread in use.
Radiant Heated Floor Installation Cost Factors
As with any contractor job, quite a few factors impact the final cost of installing radiant floor heating, including project complexity and whether you opt for temperature zones.
Type of Power Sources for Radiant Heating Systems & Cost Per Square Foot
Radiant floor heating costs anywhere from $6 to $20 per square foot. To install this system in a 2,300 square foot home (the average size of a U.S. home) you should expect to pay anywhere from $13,800 to $46,000. The general rule of thumb is the more square-footage you decide to heat, the less you’ll pay per square foot.
There are several different types of power sources for radiant floor heating systems on the market. Depending on where you live, your preferred energy source, and your budget, you’ll want to research and choose between the five systems available today: hydronic, electric, geothermal, solar, and propane.
Hydronic floor heating systems cost around $6 to $20 per square foot. Hydronic radiant floor heating systems use hot water supplied by a hot water heater or a boiler to move through pipes to warm the home. Hot water tends to hold onto heat well, making it decently energy efficient and available for a large number of homeowners.
Electric radiant floor heating systems cost roughly $8 to $15 per square foot. While it uses more energy to constantly keep areas warm, the upfront cost is lower.
Geothermal radiant flooring systems cost around $4 to $12 per square foot. Geothermal radiant floor heating is available throughout the United States and doesn’t require direct access to springs and wells.
The cost to install a solar radiant heating system runs about $3.50 to $8.50 per square foot. Keep in mind that solar heating systems aren’t ideal for dark and gloomy areas in the winter because they rely on the sun to harness energy, so this option is best for climates with lots of sunny days.
Propane underfloor heating systems tack onto hydronic systems to heat the home. The cost of propane underfloor radiant heating systems is around $2,600 for the unit itself plus the $6 to $20 per square foot installation costs for the hydronic piping. Ideally, propane is a great option where gas usage has a lower cost than normal electricity usage.
If you want to install radiant floor heating throughout your home or in several rooms, you may consider incorporating “temperature zones”. Temperature zones allow you to set the desired temperature to heat a specific room or area, such as a primary bedroom and guest bathroom.
Adding a temperature control system will increase the project's total cost and the increase will depend on the number of zones you choose – a setup that requires a Smart thermostat (or programmable thermostat) to maintain the temperatures of each zone.
Radiant-heated flooring is for the colder months, but you’ll get the most for your money if you can use your system year-round. You can do this by adding a supplementary radiant cooling system that goes into the ceiling to help cool down the home during the warmer months. Cool air falls rather than rises, so radiant cooling requires overhead installation. Labor, the chiller, dehumidifier, and basic piping materials add another $35 to $45 per square foot to install radiant cooling. This pricing reflects only the portion dedicated toward cooling rather than the project's entire cost.
Rather than starting from scratch and using your own custom layout for radiant floor heating tubing, you can opt for pre-fitted subflooring. You’ll significantly decrease labor costs with this option because there’s no need to bend pipes and destroy your current flooring. (Keep in mind that this solution isn’t always available and may not be the best option for your home.)
One of the many advantages of building a custom home is to have a say-so in its essential design features, such as the type of heating used, which is an important decision to make. Now that you have a bit more information on Forced-Air Heating and Radiant Heating, you will want to consult with your builder on which heating solution is the best option for your new home.
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