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HVAC

Electric Or Hydronic Radiant Heat?

By on May 14, 2014
Electric Or Hydronic Radiant Heat?

Radiant heating systems, both electric and hydronic, are more popular than ever. You can take full advantage of radiant heat's benefits, such as improved air quality, uniform draft-free silent heat, space efficiency, as well as environment and energy control, by selecting the right system for your home.

Use the guidelines below to determine which system is right for you.

Familiarize Yourself with Each System and Its Components

A hydronic heating system will pump water or water-glycol solution through hoses placed under your floor covering.

In addition to the hose, you must install the following:

  • a boiler to heat the water
  • pumps, manifolds, and supply pipes to distribute the water
  • expansion tanks
  • air separators
  • a means of adding make-up water
  • a device to measure water temperature
  • at least one control thermostat.

An electric heating system will be made of either electric cable or cable attached to a prefabricated mat. The cable or mat must be embedded under your floor covering. Mats are typically available in 1-inch fixed width and varying lengths.

Your electric system will consist of the following components:

  • the heated cable or mat
  • clips for attaching the cable or mat to the subfloor
  • embedding material such as thin-set or self-leveling cement
  • at least one control thermostat
  • an electric supply.

Determine System Cost

You should factor operating costs in conjunction with initial equipment, installation, and maintenance costs.

In new construction, if you choose a hydronic system you will need to purchase and have a contractor install all of the parts outlined above. If you are remodeling and a boiler is already installed, you may save money on initial equipment costs.

If you choose an electric system, installation involves attaching the cable or mat to your subfloor, pouring the embedding material, and making the power connection. You can install the electric system yourself or use a contactor. However, if you do the installation, a qualified electrician must make your power connection.

Regionally, fuel costs vary widely. To determine your operating cost, call your local utility company for prices per kilowatt for electricity and per therm for gas. Also, request the conversion of kilowatt and therm prices to Btu for direct comparison of fuel charges.

Assess Coverage Area

Both cables and hoses must be snaked evenly throughout the area to be heated. Therefore flexibility is required for smaller spaces such as bathrooms.

Electric cables provide more flexibility and have a bending radius of 1 to 2 inches, while most hydronic hoses have a 2- to 3-inch bend radius. Mats are fixed width; therefore cables are the typical choice because you can install cables regardless of room dimension or existing fixtures.

Measure Available Vertical Space

Electric cable systems raise the floor level by approximately 1/4 inch to 1 inch, while hydronic systems raise it 1 inch to 3 inches. If you are remodeling and have existing fixtures such as cabinets, baseboards, and doorjambs present, electric cable is often the better fit.

Count Control Zones

A control zone is the heated area controlled by a single thermostat. Consider making each room a separate control zone. By controlling rooms on an individual basis, you can heat each room at the desired temperature only when necessary, which will help you save on energy costs.

As the number of control zones increases, material costs also rise. The materials used in an electric system are less expensive and, because connecting to a boiler is unnecessary, installation is less involved and labor costs lower.

Zoning will work well with both systems. However, unless your boiler is working at full capacity, your hydronic system will have the additional cost of waste heat (waste heat here refers to heating water in a boiler that won't be used).

Consider Climate

In warmer climates you may require heat only a few days a year or only in certain rooms. In such cases, your best choice may be an electric system. You'll have heat within minutes of startup and you won't have waste heat.

In very cold climates you may find the most efficient radiant heat system to be installing an electric system in conjunction with a hydronic system. By installing both systems you can use the boiler at full capacity during the coldest days of winter, with the electric system providing inexpensive individual room heat during warmer months.

Evaluate Floor Coverings

While both systems are designed to work with most floor coverings, electric systems must be embedded, making installation under wood overlays more difficult than with hydronic hose.

Conclusion

A well-installed electric or hydronic system should require little maintenance, provide years of reliable heating, and offer great benefits. (Hydronic systems have more parts, so choose your contractor carefully, as it may reflect in maintenance savings.) Ultimately, the key is to balance system advantages by weighing the benefits derived from each with your overall project goals.

Author Profile: Ada Cryer is the marketing director for Delta-Therm Corporation of Wauconda, Illinois.


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