Underfloor heating

Underfloor heating

. Heat can be provided by circulating heated water or by electric cable, mesh, or film heaters.

Underfloor heating can be used with concrete and wooden floors, with all types of floor covering (e.g., stone, tile, wood, vinyl, and carpet), and at ground level or upstairs. Choice of floor finishing requires careful consideration, because changes of floor finish may affect performance.


Thermal comfort

Radiant heating is arguably superior to convection methods because warm, buoyant air rises wastefully to the ceiling in convection-heated rooms, warming the upper body (often with some discomfort, particularly to the head) but leaving the lower body cooler.

In contrast, in-floor radiant heating warms the lower part of both the room and the body because when warm air convects from the radiant floor surface, it loses approximately two degrees Celsius at two meters above the floor. This imparts a feeling of natural warmth, since the limbs should ideally be warmer than the head. (The most acceptable indoor climate is one in which the floor temperature ranges between 19 and 29 °C and the air temperature at head level ranges between 20 and 24 °C.)

Humidification may still be needed for thermal comfort with a radiant system, but, for a given relative humidity, likely less humidification is needed than for forced-air heating. This is because forced-air systems, when improperly balanced (e.g., because of leaky ducts), can draw in outside air which typically has low moisture content in the winter. [cite web
title=Dryness in the Winter
publisher=Advanced Energy
] Asthma sufferers may benefit from underfloor heating because it reduces the airborne circulation of both dust and dust mites.


Underfloor heating is invisible from above and does not use valuable wall space with unsightly heating equipment. In a sense, the entire floor is a radiator, although, because of its area, it need not reach the high temperatures of a steam radiator. It has a particular advantage in public areas where exposed hot or sharp surfaces can be dangerous and unsightly.

Energy efficiency

Air-infiltration heat loss is reduced significantly compared to forced-air systems in which imbalance due to duct leakage can drive infiltration of outside air into the building. Heating cold air from the outside requires extra energy and decreases humidity, as discussed above.

If the boiler water temperature in a hydronic system is set to the relatively low temperature required by underfloor heat, rather than the higher temperature typically used in other types of radiators, the boiler may have higher efficiency and lower standby losses. However, this is typically only possible in a boiler designed for condensing operation; in many boilers, the water temperature in the boiler must be set higher, and reduced by a mixing valve. Depending on the piping layout and insulation, there may also be lower heat losses in the water distribution system because of the lower temperature.

Although electric underfloor heating can deliver almost 100% of the electric energy coming into the building to the heated space, overall system efficiency of electric heating is low because generating electricity from heat in a power plant is less efficient than using the heat directly. In addition, whereas hydronic underfloor systems (and even forced-air systems) can be incorporated as part of an ultra-efficient geo-exchange system, electric underfloor heating does not provide for this option.



Rooms heated by underfloor heating tend to have much warmer floors than those heated by radiator or forced air heating. Although many appreciate this, others who prefer the crisp, cool feeling of a polished wood floor may find such warmth unpleasantly clammy.


Although some consider a wall radiator unsightly, others prefer the old-fashioned look of a bright copper radiator kept in good shape, especially in a vintage house. Converting from radiator heat to underfloor heat can also mean expensive repairs to plug up unsightly holes in floors and walls.

The average humidity in a house heated by underfloor heating will not differ significantly from that in a house heated with wall radiators.

Energy efficiency

Although underfloor heating is generally less expensive than radiator heating, insulating flooring (such as carpeting or cork) can reduce the efficiency of underfloor heating to the point where a conversion to underfloor heating may not be financially prudent.


Modern underfloor heating systems are generally either warm water systems or electric systems. Systems can be poured into a masonry mix (called a poured floor system or a wet system) or fastened directly to the sub floor (called a sub floor system or dry system). The Roman hypocausts (see below) utilized heated air.

Hot water systems

In a hot-water system, warm water is circulated through pipes or tubes that are laid into the floor (usually a solid-screeded floor, although joist-based systems also work well). Various types of pipe are used including PEX, multi-layer (a composite of PEX, Aluminium and PEX) which is also known as Alupex (there is also a version using PERT instead of the PEX) and polybutylene (PB): copper pipes are not normally used.

Because it offers a good balance between cost and pressure drop, ⅝-inch (16 mm) diameter tubing is popular: ¾-inch (19 mm) and 1-inch (25 mm) tubing are relatively expensive, and ⅜-inch (10 mm) and ½-inch (13 mm) offer too much resistance, which means more energy consumption to pump the liquid through the pipe; and the ⅝-inch tubing is often the minimum size needed for effective thermosiphon.

In Europe, including the United Kingdom, 15 mm or 16 mm pipe is commonly used, with some companies offering 10 mm, 12 mm and 18 mm.

However, a system designed to use solar-heated water that circulates by thermosiphon is susceptible to blockage by air bubbles. They are hard to avoid where the tubing lies so flat or may have high spots. Bubbles in the water accumulate in the smallest high spots, finally blocking the flow. A small in-line centrifugal pump, 0.05 horsepower (37 W) in rating, can be used for purging. It will circulate water through the tubing fast enough to dislodge an air bubble. The purge pump only activates when the system stagnates and the solar collectors near overheating. When circulation is restored, the pump shuts off.

Gas, oil, solid fuel, or electric-resistance hot-water boilers can be used as the source of heat for any underfloor heating system, as can a number of other technologies. Condensing boilers and ground-coupled heat pumps are particularly well-suited as the operation of underfloor heating systems allows them to operate in their most efficient manner. Underfloor heating can run as low a temperature as convert|35|C, allowing a heat pump to run at a coefficient of performance in excess of 4.0, compared to the 3.0 with the temperatures needed for use with wall radiators.

Wet underfloor heating systems can also be used in reverse, where cold water from a chiller is placed in the system taking heat energy out of the building. However, care is needed to ensure that surfaces' temperatures remain above the air's dew point temperature. Otherwise, slipping hazards or mold growth are a concern.

Notes on installation of hot water systems

Thermal Concerns:
# Soil conductivities influencing downward heat loss.
# Insulation and vapour barrier details under slabs, cantilevered sections, under heated sub floors, above heated ceilings, behind heated walls and at header and trimmer joists..
# Isolating heated/cooled surfaces from ventilation and A/C systems, cold plumbing lines, appliances such as freezers, wine coolers, cold storage areas.
# Dew point control for radiant cooling systems

Building Material Concerns:
# Selection of wood flooring species, milling (quarter sawn or plane sawn) acclimation period, regulation of relative humidity for dimensional stability and surface temperatures for comfort.
# R values of floor assemblies
# Control/expansion joints and crack suppression in concrete and tiled surfaces.
# Emissivity of surfaces.
# Curing times and temperatures for poured floors (concrete, lightweight toppings).

Control System (see hydronic heating systems):
# Fluid temperature in heating and cooling plant.
# Fluid temperature in distribution network.
# Fluid temperature in the pex piping systems. A function of the spacing, load (Btuh/sf), upward and downward losses and floor r value.
# Operative temperature (average of mrt and dry bulb).
# Surface temperatures for comfort, safety, and material integrity.

Cost of hot water systems

Although it can be more expensive to install than radiators (it can be comparable due to the increasingly competitive market), wet underfloor heating often proves more economical in the long run, particularly in well-insulated larger properties. Energy savings of up to 40% can be achieved compared to conventional heating systems if a condensing boiler is installed, but even with a standard boiler up to 15% energy savings are normal cite web|title=Benefits of Underfloor Heating|url= http://www.heatingcentral.com/Benefits_of_underfloor_heating] . The efficiency of condensing boilers is enhanced thanks to water returning at a lower temperature.

By employing full lengths of piping without any joints, wet underfloor heating loops are practically maintenance free. The piping used can have a lifespan of up to 100 years. Reliable materials are critical because repair is difficult. The central heating equipment, pumps, and controls, like others, requires periodic maintenance and replacement.

Electric floor heating systems

Electric floor heating systems have very low installation cost for smaller spaces (1-5 rooms) because they are easy to install and have a very low start-up cost (A thermostat is all that is required and costs only about $100-$200). Although electric floor heating systems work well as a primary heat source, most systems are installed in the bathroom to add comfort and warmth to cold tile.

Electric floor heating systems are also typically installed in kitchens or in rooms that require additional heat (such as a cold basement, an addition or a kids' playroom).

Another advantage of electric underfloor heating over a warm-water system is the floor build up/height. Floor build up can be as little as 1 mm. The electric cables are usually installed onto an insulation board or directly onto the subfloor or padding (under carpet or laminate); then the floor covering is placed directly over the heating system or thinset.

Electric underfloor heating also benefits from faster installation times, with a typical installation only taking half day to a day depending on size to install. Also warm up times are generally a lot quicker than "wet" systems because the cables are installed directly below the finished flooring making it a direct acting heat source rather than a storage heater.

Electric system used to be supplied as one long continuous length of cable with the consumer having to weave the cable up and down the floor at a pre-determined spacing and making a return loop to complete the circuit. The main problem with this was that the installation was time consuming, and also the risk of hot and cold spots due to uneven cable spacing; the closer together the cable the more heat was given off, and vice versa. With today’s technology most modern cables have a built in return, meaning that you only have one end to connect instead of having to bring the end of the cable back to the start to make a full circuit. These are excellent and make the installation a lot easier. With the introduction of the built in return came the “cable mat”. These have revolutionised the electric underfloor heating market due to the simplicity of the installation. Cable mats have taken the hard work out of the installation by having the heating cable already pre-spaced on to a nylon mesh. All you have to do is simply start at your thermostat location and roll it out over the floor until it’s all used up. These save time and offer less risk of having hot and cold spots.

One technique is to lay the heating cable directly onto an insulated concrete floor and then apply tile on top of it. Where time-of-use electricity metering is available, this type of system can be turned on at night when electricity rates are low, and then allowed to warm the house during the day by relying on the heat energy held within the thermal mass of the concrete.

Sometimes, in order to mimimize floor buildup, a screen or carbon film heating element is used. These systems are normally installed onto a thin insulation underlay (approx 6mm) to reduce thermal loss to the sub-floor. Carbon film is used under various floor finishes, traditionally laminate flooring or engineered wood. Vinyls, carpets and other "soft" floor finishes can be heated using carbon film elements, provided a suitable overboarding system is used.

In comparison to combustion/hydronic systems, electric systems can be more efficient, if only the efficiency of the equipment in the building is considered. However, as discussed in the article on electric heating, the efficiency of generating electricity from fossil fuels is low, so overall system efficiency is significantly lower than combustion/hydronic systems. Electric systems have the advantage of needing no maintenance and can more easily be controlled to run when and where they are needed.

History of underfloor heating

In pre-Roman times underfloor heating was a rare and somewhat radical technology in a world that typically relied on open fireplaces. But not only were fireplaces inefficient in warming an entire room, they were dangerous as well from the risk of fire and smoke inhalation.


Roman world

Underfloor heating was first used by the Romans. Initially the preserve of the rich, underfloor heating became increasingly commonplace in public buildings and villas, particularly in the colder regions of the Roman Empire.

The Roman system was based on hypocausts, comprising ducts that underlay the floor (itself built on raised brick piles) and flues that were built into walls. Hot air or steam from fires circulated up through this system, warming the floor and walls, with heat passing into the rooms.

More specifically, the floor was laid out as series of concrete slabs supported by columns of layered tiles, with a furnace at the bottom of one exterior wall. By placing the fire here, the draught would take the heat under the floor, and up through the walls to chimneys located in the corners of the room. The height of the stack of tiles was about 2 ft (60 cm) as this was found to be the most efficient height for the air to travel through.

Once the air had passed under the floor, the air was drawn into the walls and up the flues by the action of the hot air already rising in the flues creating a partial vacuum and so pulling the air below into the walls. The walls were very often made of bricks with two holes horizontally through them. This had the effect of passing the air through the walls and into the flues, thereby warming the walls also.

In the Roman baths, the furnace was placed next to the hottest room caldarium in which three walls of this room were heated so that the room reached a temperature of up to 120 °F (50 °C). The warm room tepidarium only had one wall heated which made this room cooler than the caldarium.

The furnace was the heating source of the system and this was placed on the outside of the house, below the floor that ran under the room that was to be the hottest room in the house. One room was always hotter than the rest, as the air flowing under the floor would naturally lose some of its heat as it was traveling under the floor.

The Roman underfloor heating system was a labor intensive device that required constant attention to feed the fire and remove the ashes. (Again, it was originally only the wealthy that could afford to have it.) The fire would need regular attention from a household worker who would have to rake out the ashes with a long handled tool and, using the same tool, push new fuel into the fire.

The fuel was mainly small branches and twigs (up to about convert|3|in|disp=s|abbr=on in diameter and up to convert|2|ft|mm|disp=s|abbr=on long), which were placed 2–3 feet (610–910 mm) into the furnace opening. This would allow air to be drawn in and around the wood and so made sure the air flowed freely. Logs were not used as these burned too slowly to be effective, and too many would block the passage of air. The height of the fire was restricted to around half the height of the opening so that air could flow through the flames and so accelerate circulation and increase heat output. This was essential in the baths, where the maximum amount of heat had to be generated.

The hypocaust was recently voted the most important heating invention ever by the British HVAC industry. [http://www.modbs.co.uk/news/fullstory.php/aid/3189/Roman_hypocaust_acclaimed_as_top_H_V_product_ever_.html]

Islamic world

The hypocaust continued to be used in the Mediterranean region during late Antiquity and by the Umayyad caliphate. By the 12th century, Muslim engineers in Syria introduced an improved central heating system, where heat travelled through underfloor pipes from the furnace room, rather than through a hypocaust. This central heating system was widely used in bath-houses throughout the medieval Islamic world. [citation|last=Hugh N. Kennedy|title=From Polis To Madina: Urban Change In Late Antique And Early Islamic Syria|journal=Past & Present|publisher=Oxford University Press|year=1985|volume=106|issue=1|pages=3-27 [10-1] ]


In contrast to the eventual disappearance of the Roman underfloor hypocausts, underfloor heating has remained in use for millennia in Korea, where it is known as ondol. It is thought that the ondol system dates back to the Koguryo or Three Kingdoms (37 BC-AD 668) period when excess heat from stoves were used to warm homes.

Ondol continues to be a typical feature of the South Korean home, and is widely credited with making possible distinctively Korean customs such as removing one's shoes upon entering a home and sitting on its floor. (The "sitting culture" brought about by ondol influenced the design of hanbok, the traditional Korean outfit; hanbok trousers are loose and have enough room for people to easily bend their knees and sit for long periods of time, and traditional shoes were also made to be easy to take off and put on compared to Western shoes.)

In fact, when Western forms of heating, such as blowers venting hot air, became more widely used in Korea, many families began to miss the ondol system that had long been an integral part of Korean life. As a result, developers in Korea during the 1990s began to discard Western forms of heating, and started to incorporate ondol in new housing developments. Even the most modern Korean hotels offer guests the option of selecting a traditional ondol room with no beds.

Korean "ondol" technology

"Ondol", literally meaning "warm stone", comprised three main components: a fireplace or stove, which is also used for cooking and located below floor level; a heated floor underlaid by horizontal smoke passages; and a vertical chimney, located lower than the roofline, to provide a draft.

The heated floor comprised a network of underground flues that transported heat from the kitchen to each room. These flues were covered by thin, flat, wide stones two or three inches thick called kudul that lay underneath the floor. Kudul, literally meaning "fired stone", was covered with yellow earth, and the floor was leveled. To top it off, several layers of yellow paper sheets were pasted on the floor. This process was efficient since the heat and smoke generated during cooking would be transported automatically to each room in the house. Usually the kitchen would be built at a lower level (about one m), and the heated rooms would be in an elevated position to allow the flues to run underneath. Notably, with just one heating the floors would retain their warmth for extended periods, ranging from more than 30 days to three months depending on the design of the flue structure.

The traditional ondol rooms found in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula differed somewhat from those in the south. In the north the ondol-heated room and the kitchen were not separated by a wall. Heat from both the fireplace and the ondol floor kept the room warm. In the south, a wall separated the kitchen from the living room, preventing the smoke from disturbing people sitting there. Also, in a room heated by ondol, the floor at the far end of the room tended to be cool. (Elders such as grandparents or parents as well as guests were invited to sit in the warmer area as an expression of respect.)

The continuing legacy of ondol

In the early 1900s, when the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was building the Imperial Hotel in Japan, he was invited to the home of a Japanese nobleman. There Wright found a room that was different from typical Japanese rooms, with a warm floor covered with yellow paper -- a Korean ondol room. The Japanese gentleman had experienced ondol in Korea and, once back in Japan, had an ondol room built in his house. "The indescribable comfort of being warmed from below" impressed Wright.

Wright decided then and there that ondol was the ideal heating system and began incorporating it in his buildings. Wright invented radiant floor heating, using hot water running through pipes instead of hot air through flues. In Korea, ondol has likewise been adapted to modern technologies and changes in fuel. Modern Korean homes and apartments are built with heating pipes embedded in floors that are typically concrete covered with vinyl or oiled papers. Heated water circulating through the pipes, warmed by a gas or oil boiler, has replaced heated air, minimizing the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning or burns.

With its modernization, ondol has received international recognition and has become increasingly popular abroad, particularly throughout Asia. Moreover, a new type of ondol product, to which Western living patterns have given birth, is increasing in sales outside of Korea. Tolchimdae, meaning stone bed, has emerged as a hot seller in the furniture market beginning in 1998. Tolchimdae, which first appeared in the market in the early 1990s, is a stone bed filled with either carbon film or copper coils that are electrically heated. Its development was based on the concept of the ondol system. The new product is especially popular among older customers who want to enjoy ondol, but on a Western-style bed.


External links

* [http://www.sei.ie/index.asp?locID=1011&docID=-1 Ireland's Dwellings Energy Assessment Procedure] (DEAP)
* [http://www.warmup.com/blog/the-science-of-radiant-heating/ The Science of Underfloor Heating - Radiant Heating Explained]
* [http://www.underfloorheatingmats.co.uk/downloads.php Installation Help Sheets & Technical Downloads in PDF & Word]

ee also

*Baseboard heating.
*Underfloor air distribution
*Kang bed-stove

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