Installing Radiant Heat Flooring
October 19, 2009 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Chicago home improvement filter: We'd like to get an estimate for installing radiant-heat flooring in our condo (6-flat built at the turn of the last century. We own a duplex down, with the primary living area being on the ground floor) or possibly replacing the HVAC with baseboard heating. Anything, really, because the conversion from whatever-it-was to the gas furnace HVAC it now is was badly done and the place is freezing all the time. Any business or contractors you recommend? Suggestions for going about this the right way? Dire warnings?

Our condo is two bedrooms, three baths, living room with a separate dining room and an enclosed sunroom. There is a small finished basement. The living room and dining room are hardwood floors; the rest of the house is carpet (except the baths and kitchen, which are tile). At a minimum, I'd like to put radiant-heat flooring in the kitchen and baths, but I'd like to find out if it's possible and financially-viable for us to convert the whole place to radiant-heat flooring or baseboard heat because the furnace doesn't do it. We've had the furnace inspected, cleaned, tuned, but it's not efficient. When it was installed, the duct-work was poorly placed (for one thing, the vents are at the *top* of extra-tall walls, so all the heat floats up to the high ceilings).

No, we have no interest in doing this ourselves. None. Not even touching up the paint afterwards. But I don't know where to begin finding someone to assess the possibility and doing the job for us. I have asked a friend--who is an architect--but he was not much help.
posted by crush-onastick to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
Assuming you're thinking of hydronic (hot water) radiant, I've had good experiences with American Vintage, specifically Marek. They've installed radiators and baseboard for me in two houses (both 100 years old), zoned my boiler, and installed a one piece 24' section of steel panel radiator. I've never had them install radiant in-floor heating, but in the last bid they did it was an option that I ended up not taking in favor of baseboard. They are very well organized and very clean, and unlike many HVAC shops they will do a full heat-loss calculation and floorplan, rather than just eyeballing it.

None of this will be cheap, especially the in-floor heating - double true if you are looking to add hot water heating and don't have a boiler. My advice would be to be open with your problems and let them propose solutions. They may be able to give you cost effective ideas that you wouldn't have thought of. For example, at my current house they recommended taking an existing oversized cast iron radiator and relocating it, saving hundreds of dollars.

I'm not sure if they do electric radiant. Although I've installed that myself under tiles and it is truly excellent, typically it is done as a mat directly under the tile - so that may mean ripping your existing tile up. It's also not very efficient as a room heating source, as far as I know - but my experience is somewhat limited.

They've done work for me in Bucktown and Lincoln Square, feel free to ask any more questions you might have or mefi mail me.
posted by true at 11:35 AM on October 19, 2009

So, you have several options with radiant heat. The more efficient method is using hot water/coolant fluid circulated through tubing installed below the floor surface, the other is electric resistance.

For piped floors, you can do a "wet" installation, which involves pouring a concrete or gypsum slab over PEX coils, or a dry install, using a aluminized subfloor like Warmboard. Wet install is probably out in your case, because there are structural issues with adding that much weight to an existing floor. The dry install is a possibility, although it's recommended that you insulate underneath the area where you install the coils.

Wood floors are also not considered optimal for radiant floors, and some manufacturer's won't warranty their products if they're used over a radiant installation. They're also nonoptimal because wood has some insulating properties, which is not ideal when you want to radiate heat. Concrete and tile are generally your best bets.

Electric resistance is generally not a cost effective way to heat, but if you just want to heat specific areas (like the bathroom or kitchen floor), it might be a good fit.
posted by electroboy at 11:41 AM on October 19, 2009

Meant to add, the short version is that it will be cheaper to have an HVAC professional rehab your existing system than to install a new system. Moving the vents or replacing the furnace will certainly cost a lot less than converting to hot water heat.
posted by electroboy at 11:43 AM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is what has worked for me:

Go to and post a detailed ad in the "gigs" section, describing exactly what you want, with photos for illustration if needed. Request estimates from licensed and bonded professionals with references. You'll get a lot of replies, some of them with detailed suggestions. Compare the 5 or so most professional sounding estimates and you'll have a better sense of what this will cost.
posted by dacoit at 12:35 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

The site (based in Chicago no less) is a great resource for this type of information. I often find useful tips and trails to good help/improvements info in their forum section and/or their links section.
posted by mctsonic at 1:22 PM on October 19, 2009

Response by poster: we had American Vintage and Fiebrandt Bros both in to give us estimates. Guy has nixed the idea of replacing the forced air with radiant because of the cost of--basically--rebuilding the condo around a new type of heating system. I'm not happy, but I don't think I have a choice. American Vintage really put together a nice proposal for alternatives to total replacement that might make the house warmer. Maybe if I get the chance to remodel the kitchen, I can put warm floors there, at least.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:05 PM on December 2, 2009

If you have a lot of wall or ceiling space, you might consider radiant panels. They're not as efficient as radiant floors, so you would probably still need to supplement with standard HVAC.
posted by electroboy at 8:20 AM on December 3, 2009

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