Imagine stepping into the bathroom first thing in the morning to experience not icy cold tile, but a toasty warm sensation. You can have that luxury by installing a radiant floor heating system beneath the tiles. The heat rises up through the flooring to warm everything in the room, including you. Since these systems don’t force warm air, blowing dust about and causing dryness, your sinuses, skin and hair will thank you.
While most heating systems are installed when a home is built, you can also add a radiant floor heating system to an existing home. Here's what to know.
Types of radiant floor heating
Also referred to as subfloor heating, radiant floor heating comes in two main types: electric and hydronic. Electric systems use heated pads or mats to conduct heat through the floor, while hydronic systems generate heat by running hot water through tubes below the floor. Here are some key differences.
Easier to install and less expensive than other options.
Perfect for retrofitting.
Affordable option to add supplemental heat to one room.
No need for added plumbing or a boiler.
Not a primary heat source; typically used as supplemental heat in cold areas of the home.
Can be more expensive to run than other options.
Electric radiant floor heating is an ideal way to add radiant floor heating to just one room or a few rooms. Because this option doesn't require additional plumbing, installation tends to be relatively simple. However, you might have to cover the costs of a new floor covering, too. Electric mats or pads are usually installed under the flooring material and above the subfloor — the hard surface below your flooring — so your old floor covering may be removed during installation.
Can be used to heat the entire home.
Generally less expensive to run than electric.
Difficult to retrofit.
Typically acts as whole-house heating; can't easily be installed in just one room.
Requires a boiler to heat the water.
Hydronic radiant floor heating, which conducts heat by running hot water through tubing embedded in concrete or fixed under a wooden subfloor, is the most cost-effective whole-house subfloor heating option and commonly used in cold climates. But because it requires a boiler and additional plumbing, installation can be much more expensive, especially when retrofitting. When added to existing homes, these systems are typically installed on the underside of the subfloor, which can be complicated.
Nerd tip: Air-heated radiant floors — which pump hot air through tubing embedded in concrete below the floor — are a third type of subfloor heating. But this option is rarely installed in U.S. homes, in part because air cannot hold heat well, and both electric and hydronic systems are more efficient and cost-effective, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
What does radiant floor heating cost?
The cost of radiant floor heating depends largely on what type of system you're installing and how much square footage you're covering. For electric subfloor heating installation, the national average cost is $11 per square foot, according to the home services website HomeAdvisor; for hydronic installation, it's $13.
“We regularly install electric subfloor heating in new tile installs, particularly for bathrooms and mudrooms where it acts as supplemental heating for those areas,” says Josh Beisley, an estimator for Building Specialists Inc. in Virginia's Roanoke Valley. He says that in the area he serves, adding electric heating to a typical bathroom costs $1,500 to $3,500. It’s more costly to retrofit subfloor heating than to add it during the initial construction, he notes.
By contrast, hydronic systems are usually installed to flow throughout a whole house. For a 2,400-square-foot home, HomeAdvisor says a hydronic radiant floor heating system would cost between $14,000 to $48,000 in materials and labor time.
Additional work or materials can add to your overall price. For electric radiant floor heating, if your project requires an additional circuit, you’ll need an electrical permit, and an electrician would have to do the work. For a hydronic system, you'll need a boiler, a circulation pump, a number of valves to distribute the water and a thermostat. Installing a boiler, if you don't have one, could add thousands to the project. Consequently, most hydronic systems require a plumber or HVAC contractor.
Planning your radiant floor heating project
Choose the right system
The first step to planning your radiant floor heating project is to choose a system that’s right for you. Begin by answering the following questions:
Will this system be for the whole house or just select rooms? If you're adding radiant floor heating to just one or two rooms, an electric system would make sense.
What additional costs might apply? As examples, you might have to replace floorboards or add plumbing.
How big of a project are you willing to take on? Unless you’re building a new home or have gutted an older home, retrofitting a hydronic system is expensive and complicated. To warm your toes in the bathroom, electric is a simpler, generally less-expensive option.
Create a budget
How much are you willing to spend on your subfloor heating system? Once you have a figure in mind, consult with an experienced flooring contractor for an estimate.
The contractor will consider all angles and be able to help you examine things you may have overlooked, decide the best approach and materials for your situation and provide solutions to work within your budget.
Do your research
Because installing radiant floor heating can require working with various specialists, you ideally want to work with a contractor who can oversee the entire project. To find someone you can trust:
Ask friends who have installed subfloor heating for referrals. Or, check listings on credible sites like HomeAdvisor or the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, also called NARI, if you can’t get a referral from your community.
Visit a retail flooring showroom and ask if their installers also put in heating systems.
Read the reviews and testimonials of any contractor you’re considering. Check the Better Business Bureau for ratings and complaints.
Meet in person. Invite the contractor to your home to estimate the job. Ask to see references, their contractor’s license and insurance certificates to make sure they’re current.
Ways to save on radiant floor heating
Limit the scope
Adding electric radiant floor heating to just a few small rooms that need extra warmth is a simple and cost-effective way to reduce both installation and operating costs.
Choose your floor covering wisely
Covering your radiant floor heating system with carpeting makes it less effective at conducting heat and warming your home. It can also increase your energy costs. Instead, opt for hard floor coverings. The Department of Energy notes that ceramic tile is the most common and effective floor covering for radiant floor heating.
Do some of it yourself
Because installing radiant floor heating is a complex project, it's generally not feasible to take a do-it-yourself approach to the whole project without proper training and expertise. However, you might be able to find a contractor who will allow you to do some of the work yourself. That way, the contractor can handle getting the permits and more difficult tasks, and you might be able to reduce costs.