Believe it or not, under-floor radiant heating actually dates back to prehistoric times. Recently, archeologists digging in the Aleutian Islands came up with solid evidence validating how thousands of years ago, inhabitants channeled smoke from fires through stone-covered trenches dug under the floors of their dwellings. This hot smoke heated up the floor stones, which then radiated into the living spaces. The principal behind this process was and still remains quite simple, the floor radiates heat to a person’s feet, warming that specific person all over.

From this ancient technique, fast forward to today and discover that two modern floor-warming systems have evolved. One is hydronic heating, which uses tubing to run hot water beneath the floor, along baseboard heaters or through radiators to heat the building where it has been installed. The other is electric radiant floor warming, which has become very affordable and quite easy to install, which incorporates an electric heating element to warm up the surface above it. Even though this second method has become widely popular in the last decade, there still are many end-users who construe this particular warming process as something difficult to install. Quite frankly, electric radiant floor warming is not a product that should overwhelm anyone. In fact, it is not difficult at all to install. If distributors, retailers and contractors know more about this system, they all will be able to enjoy selling it — and, recognize more profits in doing so. There are research statistics available documenting that virtually all homeowners who have electric radiant floor warming systems absolutely love having them.

Basics to consider

Here are some basics, to begin with: heat energy, emitted from an electrically warmed floor, warms people and other objects in the room rather than directly heating the air within that space. Because of this, the temperature of the internal air within radiant-heated buildings is generally lower than buildings heated via conventional methods. Yet, the same degree of body comfort is achieved, so the temperature perceived by those in the room is actually the same. As a result, the amount of electricity used to warm a room equipped with radiant floor warming is much less than one would expect, making the system very energy-efficient. Another major advantage of radiant floor warming is that it decreases the circulation of air inside the room. By doing so, the spread of airborne dust and other particles such as allergens is minimized greatly. It also should be noted that, unlike with many traditional heating systems, warmed floors do not lose energy through ducts.

Electric floor warming is now considered to be a very attractive added feature when someone is in the process of selling his or her home. Today’s homeowners might be tempted to install trendy granite countertops or stainless steel appliances, yet such items combined can actually cost 15 to 20 times more than the simple, smart installation of a floor warming system.

There is good reason, however, to consider electric floor warming over its alternative. Note that the hydronic process, which generally speaking has hot water running through flexible tubing, is a total home heating system. It requires a boiler to heat that water, and is typically used only in new construction because of its specific plumbing configurations. On the other hand, UL-approved electric floor warming is designed to be installed directly under the tile or stone flooring for both new construction or remodeling projects. Installers may simply thin-set this material down to the substrate, while adding virtually no height to the floor (roughly 1/8 inch [3mm]). This cannot be done with hydronic heating.

Installing radiant floor heating

Certainly, a strong selling point is that the installation of an electric in-floor warming system does not require any special tile installation procedures. The sub-floor should be prepared as for any conventional tile installation according to applicable standards. Very importantly, it should be clean of any debris or sharp objects that could damage the heating element. Loose boards should be repaired and any gaps or fissures should be filled so that the heating mat will be installed over a smooth and even surface. Concrete, mortar beds, exterior glue plywood, existing ceramic tile and stone, cement terrazzo and cement backer board provide ideal substrates for radiant floor heat installations. For the most part, electric floor-warming components consist of a heating mat with cables, (not unlike those found in electric blankets) which is installed right beneath the tile and stone surface, and a wall-mounted thermostat. Today’s simple-to-use, digital and programmable thermostats generally have been designed for installation in conjunction with the same company’s floor warming cable mats. It makes sense to use a heating element as well as a thermostat from the same firm, as well. That way, users have the confidence of purchasing a product with components covered by a “single-source.”

Surprisingly to many, the entire installation process is easier than you might think. To begin with, one should make a scale drawing of the floor plan, mapping out the “walking area” where the heating mat will be positioned. It should not be placed under or closely adjacent to cabinets, tubs and showers. Additionally, it should be at least 6 inches (150 mm) away from wax toilet seals. If needed, technical assistance is quickly available from key manufacturers, whose support staff generally can determine the optimal layout and quantity of the heating mat. There are software layout tools available, as well. For example, some select radiant heat manufacturer engineers have created simplified software layout tools which makes adding radiant floor heating virtually effortless, allowing even a beginner to complete a floor heating layout in minutes.

Once the heating mat is put in place and all electrical work is complete, what comes next is the tile installation. While most electric floor warming systems on the market today are compatible with any tile finish, there are certain installation products that work better than others. In particular, high-performance ANSI A118.15-compliant latex thin set mortars are designed for optimal performance when used in conjunction with electric floor warming systems. In addition, the use of self-leveling underlayments can also be used to encapsulate electric floor warming systems when the substrate requires attention. Finish off the tile installation with a high-performance ANSI A118.7-compliant cement-based grout or easy-to-use epoxy-based grouts for even better performance and ease of maintenance.

It is important to the end-user to select an electric floor warming system with comprehensive warranty coverage that includes both labor and materials. Clearly, they don’t want to invest in a floor-warming system that does not perform for a longstanding period of time.

Electric floor warming (both in mat type or loose wire configuration) is a cost-effective heating solution when properly used. For those of you in the tile and stone sectors, it represents a wonderful product that makes a great looking installation become a very comfortable installation as well. Keeping your customers warm and content results in positive feedback, great referrals and ultimately, repeat business.