The first thing to know is: if you have carpet or want carpet, radiant heating is not such a good idea. The carpet will insulate the heat rather than radiating it through the room.
Radiant heating eliminates the use of ductwork needed for forced air heating. Also, there will be no baseboard heating fixtures or floor vents needing clearance to be effective. They are usually self-contained and do not require constant maintenance.
Tile or wood flooring is the best choice if you wish to heat your home with radiant heat. But with wood, the type of radiant flooring is important due to the constant heat exposure.
You have three types of radiant heat installations: radiant air floors (hot air delivers the warmth), electric radiant floors and hot water floors.
Air-heated: This is the least cost effective because air does not hold the heat well. Some air heated radiant floors have a supplemental solar energy component, but that means it will only draw heat during the daytime, when the demands for heat are usually lower. This is rarely installed.
Electric radiant floors: These usually have cables built into the floor. They perform best when used with a huge thermal mass such as concrete. Signing up with your power company’s “Time-of-Use” rates program allows you to charge a concrete floor during off peak hours.
Hydronic radiant floors: These are liquid systems that are the most popular and cost-effective, especially in cooler climates. These heating systems use boiler heated water through tubing laid under the floor. You can have a whole house heating system, or a zone system, where you can direct the heating into areas or rooms that are often used; and reserving heat from areas that are not commonly used. The downside of this system is: you will need to purchase and install a boiler if you don’t already have one.
Ceramic tile is the best choice for heat conduction, as it breathes. It also best for storing heat. Vinyl and wood are also good, but do not breathe as well as tile. As noted above, if you decide on wood flooring, it’s best to get a laminated wood instead of solid wood to decrease the chances of shrinking and cracking from the effects of heat.
Carpet: while the warmest covering outright; if you want radiant in-floor heating, carpet will stifle the heat being generated from underneath. And that’s what carpet is designed to do: insulate the elements above and below the carpet pile from each other.
Cement flooring: This style of flooring is becoming quite popular, due to its design versatility. You can literally design and finish your cement floor to look any way you wish. Adding underfloor radiant heating is simple, with just a few additional steps needed when installing concrete. Concrete does conduct the heat nicely; but on “shoulder” days in between seasons, your feet might have a cold awakening some mornings. Throw or areas rugs will help.