Electric vs Hydronic Radiant Heating: Which One Do You Need

When you are building a new home or renovating an existing one, it is important to decide how you will heat it. Nowadays, many homeowners choose radiant heating instead of forced-air methods. But there are two popular radiant heating systems available, namely a hydronic radiating method and an electric radiating system. Which one should you install?

Both systems are more efficient and in the long run less expensive to maintain than forced-air and ducted systems. The differences between the two radiant systems include aspects such as the initial installation cost, the long-term running costs, ease of installation and use, and the space needed. Your specific circumstances will to a great extent dictate which type will be the best for you.

In this article, I’ll explain why radiant heating is becoming so popular and what radiant heat is. Then I’ll discuss the two popular types of radiant heating and compare the two systems with each other. 

Why radiant heating is becoming popular

Radiant heating is more and more being used in homes instead of the traditional forced-air heating method. This is because radiant heating has many more benefits compared to forced-air heating. Some of the main reasons why radiant heating is becoming so popular include that it 

  • has no visible hardware in living areas,
  • is energy-efficient and cost-effective,
  • is smart thermostat compatible, and
  • requires less maintenance than air-forced systems.

What is radiant heating?

To describe radiant heating can be difficult. You have to describe heat waves you cannot feel in the same way as you can feel the moving heated air with forced-air systems. But let me try to put it in layman’s terms.

A radiant heating system uses thermal radiation and electromagnetic waves to warm up your home. This is done by heating the floor and/or the walls directly. It is not warming the air in the room like forced-air heating. 

Radiant systems heat the floor and/or wall, and that heat radiates up and other objects in the room absorb the heat. Thus, the entire space warms efficiently.

In other words, heated floors and walls use radiant heat technology to make the floors and walls warm, and the heat from them rises and disperses throughout the room.

Two different types of radiant heating

In principle, there are two types of radiant heating, namely hydronic radiant heating systems and electric radiant heating systems. 

Let’s look at how the functioning of the two types differs;

electric and hydronic heating systems side by side compared
electric and hydronic heating systems side by side

Hydronic Radiant Heating Systems

A hydronic heating system in place
Image of a hydronic heating system
  • Hydronic systems need tubing under the floor or in the walls for hot water to circulate.
  • Hot water from a boiler is pumped through the tubing.
  • The hot water flowing through the tubing heats the floor or walls.
  • Heat disperses throughout the room. 
  • The water is in a closed-loop, meaning the cooled-off water is circulated back to the boiler with a pump to be heated again. 

Electric Radiant Heating Systems

An electric radiant system
An electric radiant system
  • An electric radiant heating system uses electric heating wires beneath the floor or in the walls. 
  • The electrical current is flowing through these wires and heats the floor or walls.
  • As long as electric power is flowing through the wires the floor and walls will stay heated.
  • Heat disperses throughout the room.

Comparison between electric and hydronic radiant heating systems

Question Hydronic radiant heating Electric radiant heating
How does the system heat the floor and/or walls? With hydronic radiant heating, water is heated in a boiler and then pumped to a manifold connected to the thermostat from where the heated water is distributed to the home’s rooms via embedded tubing under the floor or in the walls. It is a closed system and the cooled water is pumped back to the boiler to be heated again.   With electric radiant heating, thin electric heating wires or strips of electrical matting which are installed under the flooring or in walls heat the floor or walls. The wires or matting are linked together and connected to an electrical circuit and a thermostat. 
What happens when there is a power outage? The hydronic radiant heating system will stop working because the pump is usually working with electricity and will stop pumping the water through the system if there is a power outage.     The electric radiant heating system will stop working when no electricity is flowing through the heating wires.
How much does the installation cost? To purchase all the tubing, pump and manifold for a hydronic radiant heating system and have the system installed will cost anything from $3500 to $4500  The cost of the electrical wires or electric mats for an electric radiant heating system and the installation cost is approximately 3 times less than a hydronic system’s installation cost.
Is space needed, other than for the tubing and wires?  You need space where the boiler and the pump of the hydronic radiant heating system can be installed No extra space is needed if you install an electric radiant heating system.
Which system installs the easiest and fastest? Generally, it takes much longer to install a hydronic radiant heating system than an electric system, and it is difficult to install it in an existing house. The existing floor has to be taken out to install the tubing. Therefore the best time to install a hydronic radiant heating system is when a new house is being built.  It is much easier and quicker to install an electric radiant heating system than a hydronic system. It can easily be installed in an existing house without removing the original floor. The electric matt can be placed on the old floor and new flooring can be put on top of it.  
What are the running costs? A Hydronic heating system is 35 percent more energy-efficient than a ducted heating system. This makes it also about 15% more efficient than an electric radiant heating system
Less energy-efficient than a hydronic heating system and thus more expensive. 
Most electric radiant heating systems use 12 watts per hour per square foot, This Means a 100-square-foot room would use 1200 watts in total every hour. Although this is about 300 watts less than the average heater, it is still energy and money-wise more than the running cost of a hydronic radiant heating system.
Hydronic vs electric radiant heating

Conclusion

Both radiant heating systems are more efficient and in the long run less expensive to maintain than forced-air systems. And compare to each other the hydronic radiant heating option is more energy and cost-efficient than the electric system. 

I hope this article has given you more clarity on which system will suit your circumstances the best.

Charles John

A novice DIYer who learns about home ventilation. I am a mechanical engineer and have a basic knowledge of HVAC systems but I learn continuously to make myself the best blogger in that space.

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