The two basic categories of heated flooring systems are electric and hydronic. Radiant air systems are also available, but they are not as cost effective and are seldom used in residential applications. The main consideration in choosing the best heated flooring system is whether the system will be installed in a new or existing structure. Products are available for both applications, and various installation techniques are used.
Hydronic systems are the most popular and cost-effective type of heated flooring system. These systems produce radiant heat through the floor. Hot water is pumped through tubing that laid in a pattern under the finished floor. Regulating the flow of hot water is done by a system of pumps, valves and thermostats. Hydronic systems can use a wide variety of fuel sources, such as gas, oil and wood.
An electric heated flooring system will cost more to operate than a hydronic system. These radiant systems are easier to install in existing residential space. They operate similarly to an electric blanket, and the advantage to using this system is its quick response. This is probably the most practical system to install in a room that is not frequently used. Many electric systems are provided in the form of mats that are laid under the finished flooring.
The basic heating elements of a heated flooring system are either tubes or wires. Tubes carry hot water, and wires carry electric heat. Both systems are easily installed in new construction applications. The heating elements can be encased in poured concrete or installed under subfloors. The finished flooring can be tile, vinyl, carpet or laminate flooring.
Hardwood flooring is not suggested for this purpose, because the wood tends to split and crack from the dry heat produced. Both systems are better installed in a substance that will retain the heat. Concrete is probably the best choice, and a thin layer of concrete can be poured over existing floors. Installing the system under plywood is optional, but the plywood itself will act as an insulator between you and the heat source.
Ceramic tile and stone are the best heat retention products for finished flooring. Carpet and laminate flooring will also act as insulators. Some electric systems are available that can be installed between the floor joists under the existing floor. These heated flooring systems are do-it-yourself friendly and easy to install but might be costly to operate. These products might be ideal as supplemental heat sources to provide comfort in a commonly used area.
The best heated flooring system typically is the hydronic system, if the application and your budget permit. The electric radiant system might be best suited for additional and supplemental heat. Electric systems are less expensive to install and more expensive to operate. Both systems should be installed by a qualified contractor.