You never get used to it-the discomfort you feel when you roll out of bed and set foot on an ice-cold floor. But while some homeowners merely wince, stumble toward their slippers, and get on with their day, building pros recognize cold floors as a hallmark shortcoming of traditional heating systems like forced hot air. Forced-air HVAC, which surged in popularity during the postwar era, remained the dominant mode of residential climate control for more than 50 years. Recently, however, amid a tide of innovation, a number of new options have come onto the scene, each boasting performance and efficiency advantages over older, increasingly outmoded technologies. Of all the systems in common use today, one in particular-radiant heating-stands out for its ability to guarantee warm, welcoming floors while maintaining an overall level of wintertime comfort that even the latest high-tech equipment can't match.
Radiant floor heating isn't anything newfangled. In fact, with roots reaching all the way back to ancient Rome, radiant-heat technology has been undergoing continual development for centuries. Today, it's more than just a viable whole-home heating alternative-it's the system that many industry experts consider to be the new standard-bearer. But although radiant heating has been widely adopted in Europe and Asia, it remains relatively rare in the United States. That's all changing, though, as more and more homeowners learn that the virtually silent, dust-free, and energy-efficient performance of radiant heating surpasses that of competing technologies, including, among others, forced air. Read on for details on the benefits of a system that delivers heat from the ground up, across every inch of floor space, fostering even, encompassing, “everywhere” warmth.
HYDRONIC VS. ELECTRIC
First off, a point of clarification: Many homeowners labor under the misapprehension that radiant systems heat only the floor. That may be true of electric radiant systems, but hydronicradiant technology operates very differently. In an electric system, a network of cables installed under the floor generate on-demand supplemental heat. Such systems do a good job of making making the floor feel warm, but it's rare for homeowners to rely exclusively on electric radiant heating for their heating system. Why? Well, electricity doesn't come cheap. Hydronic systems, on the other hand, rely on efficiently boiler-heated water instead of costly electricity, enabling homeowners to enjoy affordable whole-home radiant heat. In a hydronic system, as hot water moves through tubes set into panels below the floor, heat radiates outward into the home, creating a qualitatively different kind of comfort.
Hydronic radiant heat isn't only a viable means of heating the whole house. Many experts argue that it's the best means of doing so, because by delivering heat from the ground up, radiant systems don't merely eliminate the problem of cold floors. They also deliver something forced air never could-uniform temperatures from wall to wall and from room to room. If you're familiar with forced air, you know that it's warmest-too warm, in fact-right near the vent, and becomes cooler the farther away you go. Plus, quite soon after entering a room, the conditioned warm air in a forced-air system flies to the ceiling, where no one can feel it. Under these circumstances, if family and guests feel totally comfortable, it's for only a fleeting moment. In contrast, by delivering warmth across every square inch of flooring, radiant heat provides steady, “everywhere” warmth that's concentrated not above your head, but at the level where you need it most.
Perhaps more than any other technology, forced air has popularized the notion that in the winter you can either save money or enjoy a comfortable home, but you can't do both. Why do forced-air systems cost so much to operate? One primary explanation: Ductwork, which is notoriously prone to leaking, especially at the seams, can lose energy, thereby compromising the overall efficiency of a forced-air system by 25 percent or more. With radiant heat, there's no such heat loss and, as a consequence, no wasted energy. Still, bear in mind that while radiant heat always offers efficiency benefits over forced air, some radiant systems deliver greater efficiency than others. It all depends on the design of the system. Historically, radiant-heating systems relied on gypsum concrete, but that trend has been changing. Warmboard, for instance, builds panels with aluminum, a material whose exceptional conductivity allows the system to heat quickly while saving homeowners an extra 10 percent to 20 percent each month.
AIR QUALITY AND QUIET OPERATION
Forced-air heating doesn't tick like baseboards or hiss like radiators. But when the system clicks on and the blower begins to blow, the rush of air through the ductwork creates a sustained “whoosh” not unlike the sound of an idling jet engine. One of the most appealing characteristics of radiant heating is that it calls no attention to itself whatsoever. Besides being virtually silent, the technology also goes a long way toward supporting indoor air quality. For allergy and asthma sufferers in particular, radiant heat can be like a breath of fresh air. Unlike forced-air systems and their dust-collecting ducts, radiant heating doesn't distribute airborne impurities throughout the home. Nor does radiant heating traffic warm, dry air through the house, reducing the moisture content of the air-a big relief for homeowners who were accustomed to spending the winter with red eyes and a scratchy throat.
Finally, radiant heating enhances not only comfort in the home, but also aesthetics. Indeed, for some, radiant impresses most not for the quality of its comfort or the efficiency of its operation, but for its complete invisibility. Whereas forced-air vents require clearance and, as a result, dictate furniture arrangement, radiant heating places no such limitations on the homeowner. True, there was a time when the technology didn't pair well with certain types of flooring. Today, however, modern panels from the most reputable manufacturers make radiant a compelling choice in any circumstance, even if the homeowner plans to put in wall-to-wall, thick-pile carpeting. Indeed, when it comes to the benefits of a heating system beloved by builders and homeowners alike, eliminating the discomfort of cold floors isn't the be-all and end-all-it's only the beginning.
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