Radiant In-Floor Heating: A Comprehensive Guide

By Amanda Lutz Updated May 13, 2024

With radiant in-floor heating, you can pump heat directly into your home’s flooring. Not only can you enjoy a toasty floor on cold winter mornings, but also that warm air rises to more effectively heat your entire home. You can get more cozy comfort and better manage your heating costs with an in-floor system than with conventional ceiling vents.

However, radiant in-floor heating isn’t a standard option for most homes that have existing HVACs or heat pumps. To get it, you’ll need to retrofit your home’s floors or build it into a new construction. In this guide, we explore the benefits, three of the most common types of radiant in-floor heating systems, and the costs so you can make the right choice for your home and budget.

What Is Radiant In-Floor Heating?

Radiant in-floor heating systems generally consist of a series of winding tubes or pathways under your floors, through which heated water, hot air, or electricity can run to generate warmth. The tubes run in tracks that cover the entire surface between the floor and subfloor so there are no cold spots. 

These systems rely on radiant heat, or heat waves that transfer from a hot surface to an adjacent cooler one. But they also provide convection heat, as the heat will gradually extend from the floor to the air throughout the home. Radiant heat works by directly transferring thermal energy via radiation or electromagnetic waves, and it’s a popular, energy-efficient alternative (or supplement) to furnaces and forced-air heating systems. 

Depending on your home’s specific system, it might heat up air or water that runs through a series of pipes laid just under the floor. That heat radiates to the floor’s surface, where it starts to heat up the rugs, the furniture, and even your feet as you walk across the floor.

Radiant heat provides more immediate warmth and comfort. The floor will feel pleasantly warm to the touch, and this type of system doesn’t rely on air circulation to disperse heat throughout the house. 

More and more homeowners are adding radiant in-floor heating systems to their homes—as well as radiant in-wall heating and heated driveways—because of the efficiency, comfort, and smart temperature control. 

Some of the key benefits homeowners experience when they install radiant in-floor heating include more consistent comfort, lower energy bills, and the financial rewards that come with home improvement. Radiant in-floor heating is more energy efficient and can lower your energy bills because the floor provides more warmth even at lower overall thermostat temperatures. 

Heated floors are becoming popular in virtually every region. But they can provide significantly more advantages in areas with colder climates and long winters, including mountainous areas where the air gets chilly overnight.

Types of Radiant In-Floor Heating Systems

Radiant in-floor heating systems can make being at home more enjoyable, but choosing the right system makes all the difference. For example, if you’re retrofitting a large preexisting home with heated floors, then you’ll have fewer options than if you’re having your home custom-built. 

Three of the most common types of radiant in-floor heating systems are hydronic systems, electric systems, and air-heated systems. Consider the benefits and drawbacks of each type and decide which one is the best fit for your circumstances.

Hydronic Systems

Hydronic systems consist of a series of plastic pipes that are laid out under your floor. Hot water heated by a boiler or a separate water heater circulates through the pipes. The heat energy disperses from the pipes through to the floor, and the water runs back to the boiler, which heats and circulates it again.

Consider these advantages of hydronic systems: 

However, it’s also important to consider these drawbacks of a hydronic system:

Electric Systems

Electric systems are a popular alternative to hydronics. Rather than running hot water through plastic pipes, these floors have a series of wires running across a mat that you install under the top layer of the floor.

Electric heated floors provide these advantages:

But electric radiant floor heating does have some downsides. Consider:

Air-Heated Systems

An air-heated system pushes hot air through ducts in the flooring, and the heat from the air transfers into the floor. It’s a forced-air system that can circulate air, pushing newly reheated air through the ductwork again and again. This offers some of the benefits of both hydronic and electric systems.

Some of the key advantages of air-heated systems include the following:

At the same time, homeowners need to be ready for the drawbacks:

How Much Does Radiant In-Floor Heating Cost?

Radiant flooring can make a big difference in your home’s heating system, but the project itself can be relatively inexpensive. According to project averages collected by Angi, expect to spend around $3,800.* However, it’s not uncommon for projects to cost as little as $1,700 or as much as $6,000, depending on materials and the space size.

The labor makes up approximately one-third of the project costs. Depending on the type of flooring you choose, you may need to hire plumbers, electricians, and flooring contractors.

One of the best predictors of the cost of installing radiant flooring is the type of flooring the area has. Tile can cost around $30 per square foot, while laminate flooring costs $17.50. This is because different flooring materials have different thickness levels, conductivity, and installation costs.

The floor’s surface area also matters. The smaller the space, the smaller the project cost—both because you reduce the amount of materials you need and because you can rely on cost-effective options like electric heated flooring.

*All cost data in this section via Angi.

Is Radiant In-Floor Heating Energy Efficient?

Installing radiant in-floor heating systems offers two main benefits: comfort and energy efficiency. When you use radiant heat to warm your home’s floors and rooms, you need less energy to increase and maintain the temperature.

Compared to other popular types of heating systems—such as baseboard heaters or forced-air general heaters—radiant in-floor heating can make the floor hotter while consuming less energy. Hot air rises, so your home’s energy usage will be more efficient when the heat originates on the floor rather than the ceiling. Radiant heat also feels warmer, so you can feel cozy and comfortable even if the thermostat is at a relatively low temperature.

If energy efficiency is your primary goal, then it’s also important to look at the systems themselves. Hydronics are generally more energy efficient because water can effectively store and transmit heat throughout your floor. Electric systems, meanwhile, are an efficient choice for small spaces because they can more quickly heat the floor. 

Our Recommendation

Radiant in-floor heating is a popular improvement you can make to your home, especially if you live in a cold area. Radiant heating is energy efficient and makes your home more comfortable. If you’re interested in radiant heating, we recommend choosing the right type for your preferences: a hydronic system for larger spaces, especially if you’re building a new home, or electric systems if you’re renovating or only need to heat a small space.

Radiant In-Floor Heating FAQ

How does radiant in-floor heating work?

Radiant in-floor heating works by pumping heated water, hot air, or electricity through channels under the flooring. Hydronic heating systems pump hot water from a boiler through plastic pipes under the floor to reach the ideal temperature. Electric systems have wires running through a mat to transmit heat, and forced-air heating systems use a series of air ducts to push heated air under the floor.

Is radiant floor heat expensive to run?

Radiant floor heat is not expensive to run. The heated water, air, or electric mats are well-insulated so heat only transfers through the floor with minimal waste. They are more energy efficient than general forced-air systems, and hydronic in-floor heating systems are the most efficient heated flooring system option.

Does radiant floor heat use a lot of electricity?

Radiant floor heat does not use much electricity. Heating a space of 100 square feet requires approximately 1200 watts per hour, which is less than the electricity usage of space heaters and house-wide heating systems.

What are the disadvantages of radiant floor heating?

The disadvantages of radiant floor heating include the expensive installation process, the need to repair or replace the flooring above the heating systems, and the risk of potential leaks if you choose a hydronic system.

Are heated floors safe?

Heated floors are safe. In fact, they are safer than many other types of heating, such as wood stoves, forced-air systems, and fireplaces. You can even install electric or forced-air flooring systems that eliminate the risk of water leaks.