Hydronic Radiant vs. Forced Air Heating Systems

Bryant heat pumpphoto: Pixabay

There are countless ways to heat your home and many variables, like what's your climate or how much money you want to spend? What are your energy options where you live, and are you building a brand new home or upgrading an old system in your existing place?

It can become daunting, but as a start, we will look at two popular options: hydronic radiant heating and forced-air heating systems. You can also compare these two systems to air-to-air heat pumps that we analyzed in detail.

In this article

How do hydronic heating systems work?

Hydronic heating systems use a furnace or boiler to heat water or a liquid, often with additives like antifreeze. The heated liquid is then pumped around a sealed system of baseboard radiators, regular wall-mounted radiators, or pipes under the floor in the ceiling or the walls. The system incorporates a manifold that allows you zoned control of the temperature in each area of your home.

How does forced-air heating system work?

 Forced air heating is one of the most popular methods of heating a home in North America.  Typically, they use a furnace or boiler and a large fan to pull air in from your home, drive it over a heat exchanger, and then deliver it around your home via ducting and vents. A ducting system can be installed in the walls, ceilings or floor, to suit your requirements.

This type of heating is generally used for whole-home heating and is more difficult to zone. However, it is possible to achieve zoning by installing multiple thermostats wired to the main control panel, which will, in turn, operate dampers in the ducting to regulate the flow of air to specific areas.

Pros, cons & issues

Advantages of hydronic radiant heating systems

  • Even heat distribution
  • Low energy consumption
  • Very quiet
  • Healthier air
  • Reduced allergy symptoms
  • No venting required, and irritating draughts
  • Enhanced comfort
  • Better efficiency with the lower temperature and heat loss
  • Due to design flexibility, they are great for new constructions
  • Low maintenance
  • The floor heating system doesn't occupy useful space
  • Zoned control

Disadvantages of hydronic radiant heating systems

  • Expensive (especially floor systems)
  • It takes longer to heat the system – not as responsive
  • Baseboard and radiator hydronic heating elements need space and might interfere with the furniture
  • Repairs on floor radiant systems are more difficult due to pipe inaccessibility
  • They are meant for heating primarily so that a separate air conditioning system would be required (including ventilation)
  • Very expensive for retrofits

What about retrofits?

Retrofitting hydronic heating to an existing home is a major task and involves high costs, time and upheaval. If you are fitting underfloor or in-ceiling piping, it will be messy and labor-intensive. Your floor will end up 3 – 4 inches higher than the original when the base, piping, and concrete covering are installed.

Even if you decide to go with baseboard or regular radiators, your contractors will have to run piping to each one in a loop, which is a time-consuming and expensive job. There could also be damage to décor, which will need to be reinstated.

However, the results are well worth the effort, especially with underfloor heating as the warmth reaches every corner of the room, isn't restricted by furniture or drapes and leaves your whole room free of clutter. It also means there are no hot or cold spots in your rooms; they are evenly heated with the convection of heat warming you, not the air. You can now fit hot water floor systems under most types of flooring, including laminate, hardwood, and carpeted floor, and not only in a concrete slab as it was originally.

Note: If you need HELP, contact your local licensed heat pump expert!

Advantages of forced air heating systems

  • The same ducts can be used for heating, cooling, and ventilation
  • Energy efficient with the use of natural gas
  • Operating costs are low
  • Responsive, heats air fast
  • Cost-effective
  • Proven technology makes them reliable

Disadvantages of forced air heating systems

  • Low indoor air quality
  • Not recommended for allergy sufferers
  • Noisy due to the powerful gas burner and electric blower
  • It doesn't distribute warm air evenly throughout the house, resulting in hot and cold spots
  • Energy loss through the ductwork
  • Takes up space
  • Regular maintenance recommended

What about retrofits?

Fitting forced hot air heating is much more economical if you already have a suitable and serviceable ducting system in your home. It is worth having it surveyed before you make a final decision because your old and leaky ducting will drastically reduce the efficiency of your system and drive up your energy costs. If you have to replace your ducting, it will add high costs and time to your project.

Some users don't like the 'draft' of warm air circulating through the vents, and even with higher temperature settings, it can still feel cooler. In addition, dust and allergens are pushed through the ducting, so they need regular maintenance to ensure they are clean and leak-free. Air is not a good transmitter of heat.

One benefit of using ducted heating is that you can use the same ducts to cool your home with air conditioning, thus saving additional costs if you later choose to add cooling.

NoteIf you need HELP, contact your local licensed heat pump expert!

Problems

If there is an issue with hydronic heating, especially with hidden pipes, it can be a major task to locate the problem and repair it. They are thoroughly tested during installation and use the latest materials, including high-grade copper and polyethylene PEX. Still, they are not easy to repair if there's a leak.

Hydronic systems use a mix of water and glycol, an antifreeze liquid, reducing the risk of freezing, just like in car engines.

These systems need regular draining and refreshing to flush out any detritus. This will ensure the system continues to run at peak performance, thus saving your energy costs.

With forced-air heating systems, there are filters and fans in the system as well as ducting, all of which require regular maintenance. Any obstruction to the airflow will increase your energy costs and reduce its efficiency, so it is a great idea to clean the system's filters regularly.

Additionally, ducting can collect dust and allergens, which of course, the forced air circulates your home, so the ducts must be cleaned regularly to minimize any detrimental effects, especially on children or anyone who suffers from respiratory impairment. Checking your ducting for leaks is also worth doing as they can allow warm air to escape into areas like attics or voids where it's wasted and lost to your home.

NoteIf you need your heat pump repaired, contact a PRO !

Guide cost comparisons

There are many things to be considered when costing these systems, including; location, size of the home, new installation versus retrofit, and type of unit chosen for heating.

This will only give a guide price with links to websites that will deliver accurate estimates for your specific requirements in your area. The following are an only a general guide.

Guide cost of hydronic heating compared to forced air heating for a 2000 sq. ft. home:

The cost to install a forced warm air system with ducting would be approximately $5,790 for the furnace and between $1,800 and $3,300 for the ducting. This makes a total cost in the range of $7,590 to $9,090 for a 2,000 sq. ft. home.

This is compared to the cost of hydronic heating, which does not require ducting and averages $28,000 for a 2,000 sq. ft. home, excluding the cost of the floor installed on top of the system.

Check out the calculators here.

Alternatively, for a slightly larger home (2400 sq.ft.) The guide costs would be:

A whole-home hydronic floor system costs between $14,000 and $48,000 for furnace powered systems and for electric versions between $19,000 and $36,000, including all materials and labor.

Single rooms cost between $6 and $20 per sq. ft. for a hydronic system and $8 to $15 per sq. ft. for electric versions. The running cost for both systems is $1 to $5 for 24 hours.

You could install hydronic radiant heating in a smaller part of your home or even a single room which costs between $1,708 and $5,923 on average.

You can get comparative costs here.

Which one should I install & why?

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Benefits & considerations

If you are planning a new build, it could be worth considering a hydronic heating system, as that is the time to install it easily. These systems are efficient, quiet, and reliable. They heat surfaces in your home, not the air.

You can zone heat your home for maximum comfort and energy efficiency, and if you choose the underfloor system, the heat fills the whole room, corner to corner, there are no dead spots or draughts. Plus, hot air naturally rises, so the entire room feels warmer. There is also the benefit of not having ducting moving potentially nasty things throughout your home, so it's cleaner.

You can mix and match the system to suit your exact needs and combine furnaces or boilers with most types of water heaters, including tankless and high output water heaters, to get the exact package you want. Another upside is that hydronic heating feels warmer even at lower temperature settings because there is no 'draughty' air movement to make things feel cooler. That will save your energy costs and enhance comfort.

It may be possible for a retrofit to install a hydronic system using radiators on the wall or with the baseboards, but remember to look good; the piping required needs to be hidden and insulated for maximum efficiency it can still be an expensive choice.

A slightly more cost-effective option with hydronic home heating will be to use ceiling-mounted units if floor units are out of the question. The downside is that because heat rises naturally, it won't be as efficient as floor-installed heating.

The savings in energy costs and your home's heating efficiency are major benefits for you to take into account.

A couple of additional considerations with hydronic heating systems

Firstly, they take longer to heat up initially and are not suitable for rapid changes in your heat requirements. The system is one large loop, so it is naturally slower to react. It works best where you maintain an even consistent temperature in your home.

Secondly, if you are looking to cool your home in the warm months of the year because hydronic doesn't use ducting, a separate system would be required to handle air cooling.

Conclusion

There are many benefits with either system described above and as we said at the top many other available ways of heating your home. Check out options at Energy.gov on their useful infographic and discuss your specific requirements with your local HVAC professional for accurate local information on your home's major investment.

It pays to get it right at the outset.

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