What’s the best way to utilize in-floor heating in a temperate climate like Charlottesville’s?

Heated floors are basically a luxury in a moderate climate like Charlottesville's, and are found mainly in higher-end custom homes. Heated floors are basically a luxury in a moderate climate like Charlottesville’s, and are found mainly in higher-end custom homes.

Heated floors are less popular than they used to be, according to local builders, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have their place.

“In this climate it’s not economically real feasible as a primary heat source,” says Wayne Stinnette, vice president of Abrahamse & Company Builders. But “you see a lot of in-floor heating in higher-end custom homes. It may be argued that no heating system provides a greater sense of comfort than radiant heat. In-floor radiant is invisible and clean.”

So if you absolutely must keep your tootsies toasty, remember the following tips to stay budget-friendly.

Don’t turn it on yet

Radiant heat, be it from an old-school radiator or the under-floor systems that first became popular about 15 years ago, takes a while to get going. Where forced air through ductwork can warm you up tout de suite, heat from liquids running through pipes in your subfloor must first warm the surrounding base.

“With a radiant floor, there is a time lag. It’s not instantaneous,” says Jeff Sties, owner of green building firm Sunbiosis. “If you have a system that has already been installed, check your owner’s manual for maintenance [direction], keep it in good working order and wait till you get to that point that you want to have it on all the time. That might be December or January.”

Pick your spots

Different types of flooring are better suited to playing nicely with in-floor radiant heat. Sties says wood floors are dicey—but not out of the question—and masonry-type floors with some thermal mass are best. That means floors like those you’ll find in bathrooms, kitchens, mudrooms and foyers.

“If you have slate or tile, that material will retain heat and radiate it into the space,” Sties says. “Wood is a natural product and while well-sealed, it has moisture, so when you heat that wooden floor, it can shrink and crack.”

Sties says hard wood like oak and engineered wood are best suited to in-floor heating. But make sure you consult manufacturers’ guidelines before going forward, and find a contractor who’s worked with heated wood floors in the past.

Consider the source

Since heated floors are basically a luxury in a moderate climate like Charlottesville’s, there are a couple ways to go about obtaining them. An antifreeze-like liquid running through pipes is most common (and most effective in colder climates), but electric sources like those you’ll find in baseboard radiators are also available.

“Electric resistance heaters are expensive to run and operate,” Sties says, so they’re rarely used to heat homes anymore. But according to Stinnette, electric floor heating is sometimes used in bathrooms or other places where it can be turned on and off for one-time use.

“It’s an inefficient way to heat, but it can augment your comfort when you get out of the tub wet,” he says.

Accept redundancy

If you’re heating a home in a climate like that of central Virginia, you pretty much have to have forced heat. Not only do ducted systems work on call, but they also provide the dehumidification necessary in these parts, according to Sties.

That means if you’re using radiant in-floor heat, you’re going to have to install it as a redundant system—not exactly a cost-effective strategy, most builders agree.

“The systems were very popular 10 to 15 years ago when they first came out,” Sties says. “But redundant systems…get expensive. I don’t have many clients asking for them.”

On top of providing an expensive route to toe-comfort town, there’s one other reason homeowners might opt for radiant heat. The systems can act as an emergency backup in case your main heater goes down. So there you go. Fun and functional.

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