​Underfloor heating: yay or nay?

Johannes van Graan Johannes van Graan
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There is just nothing quite like that icicle sensation embedded in one’s toes, is there? Yes, winter feet are an all too real occurrence once those temperatures drop. And aside from putting on an extra pair of fluffy socks and parking in front of the heater, there’s not much else to keep our feet warm… is there? 

Enter underfloor heating, a truly sensational feeling underfoot, even when walking barefoot around the house in winter! Although a lot of us might think this is a relatively new invention, the truth is that this amazing feature dates all the way back to the Neolithic period, around 6000 B.C. Archaeological digs in Asia and the Aleutian islands of Alaska revealed how inhabitants used fire smoke through stone-covered trenches excavated in the floors of their subterranean dwellings. The hot smoke heated the floor stones of their living spaces.

Naturally this system was complex, fragile and a bit dangerous, but since it resurfaced in the 1970s, it has evolved significantly to the point of becoming one of the most efficient means of indoor heating. 

But is it really better than sliced bread? Let’s discover this miraculous feat for feet together to see if it really is something to consider for next winter.

Pros and cons

The old milking shed: country Bedroom by Beech Architects
Beech Architects

The old milking shed

Beech Architects

The Advantages:

• Warm and toasty floors in winter – a major luxury! 

• Out of sight. 

• Works well with tiles and stone, so a big plus for bathrooms.  

• An efficient way of heating an entire room, as the heat rises slowly around the whole room. Radiators heat only a selected area, thus underfloor heating can remove the need for radiators completely (depending on the size of the heating system). 

• A very flexible heating option that can be fitted into a new room or added into an existing room (granted, a bit more upheaval if it is added afterwards).

The Disadvantages:

• Underfloor heating can take longer to heat up a room than radiators. 

• Very small systems won’t be able to entirely supplement a radiator system.  

• It can be costly to install (especially if retrofitted), maintain and run, especially if it is additional to your main heating system.  

• You are restricted to what you can place above the system, as they can’t be fitted underneath particular fittings or furniture.

Where to use underfloor heating

View from the lounge : modern Living room by Heat Mat Limited
Heat Mat Limited

View from the lounge

Heat Mat Limited

Underfloor heating systems can suit any floor level. 

Water-based systems are most easily installed where it’s possible to pull up floorboards (or where new floors are being inserted).

Electrical systems are likely to be more suitable for existing rooms, as the electrical mesh system is flatter and requires less room. One can even opt for electrical mat systems that can be used under rugs or carpets on existing hard floors. 

In the end, it is easier to add electrical underfloor heating to upper-floor rooms than the water-based alternative.

Which floor type?

Oak Natural Matt:  Walls & flooring by Quick-Step
Quick-Step

Oak Natural Matt

Quick-Step

Living in today’s modern times means we have a wide range of flooring systems that go perfectly hand-in-hand with this heating system. 

Most type of wooden floors can be used, although the majority of installers stipulate that the timber should have a top temperature restriction of around 27°C, and that an expansion gap needs to be left around the edges (usually hidden by a skirting board or trim). 

Stone, ceramics, sate and terracotta are very durable, yet heat-up time depends on the thickness of the tiles. Thick flagstones will take a bit longer to heat up, yet once they’re warm there is no difference in heat quality between thick or thinner floor surfaces. 

Only high-quality vinyls and laminates can be used for underfloor heating, so rather check with the flooring manufacturer or the heating installer before committing. 

Most carpet types can be heated this way, provided that the carpet and underlay have a thermal resistance of less than 2.5 tog. However, the majority of carpet styles’ thermal resistance is below 1 tog.

Electrical underfloor heating

  by HCS - Heating Cable System
HCS—Heating Cable System

Instalação do sistema directo de piso radiante electrico

HCS - Heating Cable System

This system relies on a network of wires under the floor that heat up. Depending on the room’s shape, you can opt for heating mats (which cover large areas and are cheaper), or individual wires which can be inserted into relatively any space. 

The wires are usually placed on top of an insulation layer that can fit under different floor types, but shouldn’t be under too-thick carpets. 

These wires are rather thin, making them easier and more cost-effective to install than a water-based system. However, they are slightly pricier to run, making them the better option for smaller areas.

Water underfloor heating

The water-based system is a network of pipes linked to your boiler that pumps hot water into your house. Because underfloor heating systems distribute heat more evenly, they require water at a lower heat level than a radiator, making your boiler more efficient. 

Installation, however, is more difficult than the electrical option, and therefore its costs are also initially higher. Because pipes are thicker than wires, your floor needs to provide enough room for the system, otherwise the ground may need to be raised slightly. This can provide some installation difficulty on older properties. 

Unlike electrical systems, water-based heating should not be installed without professional assistance.

The costs

 Walls & flooring by LIGNUM Möbelmanufaktur
LIGNUM Möbelmanufaktur

Dielenboden Esche, natur

LIGNUM Möbelmanufaktur

Underfloor heating costs depend entirely on what system you opt for and whether you install it into a new building (or at the same time that the building is being renovated) or an older one. 

Water-based systems cost significantly more than electrical ones. And while the water-based option will save you money in the long run, it won’t be a huge amount, making it more of a luxury option than a money-saver one. Given the considerable installation costs, you are unlikely to save much.

However, the majority of costs come from the installation, which is why that underfloor heating is ideal when building a new home or adding an extension.

Maintenance care

Your floor won’t need any special care, so treat it like any non-heated floor. If the heating system is installed properly, there should be no malfunction of any kind. 

With the electrical system maintenance, it all boils down to a functional test by the manufacturer after a certain period (this usually forms part of the warranty). Typically the most common problem is replacement of the thermostats, which is resolved rather quickly. 

The water-based systems require periodic maintenance. It is advisable to have a maintenance plan drawn up by professionals (this can usually be negotiated with the suppliers before installation). 

While we’re heating things up, we may as well take a look at: 8 Unique Fireplace Designs.

Would you consider underfloor heating, or do you get cold feet at the thought? Share your thoughts with us...
Whitton Drive:  Terrace house by GK Architects Ltd

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