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Dennis McClain Title 24 Column What about Radiant Heat?

One of my clients near Lake Tahoe, California engaged our company to perform energy calculations for a 3490 square foot mountain home. This two story house has large windows, great wall expanses and of course it’s in a cold climate. The architect said he was going to use RADIANT heating. I am concerned because of the limitations to a floor orientated Radiant Heating System.
I designed a house in Burlington, VT. with a full basement and there were serious heating issues to deal with. Radiant would provide the most comfortable condition but there was a 25,000 BTU/hour loss through the floor. Consulting the ASHRAE Handbook and several Websites, I found that it would be necessary to install 2" of insulation under the slab and at the slab/wall perimeter. This brought the heating load from 54,000 BTU/hour to 29,000! Using radiant hot water tubing in the slab enabled 4 zones in this 1100 sq. foot “walk out” basement. The cost was less than traditional forced air and a lot more comfortable. The only negative is the need to add a separate system for the air conditioning.
These days I assume RADIANT means hot water boiler and tubes embedded in the ceiling or floor. Most states will no longer allow the “electrical resistance” type of radiant heating. There are many types of Radiant heat, have you ever eaten at a restaurant with outdoor seating? Did you sit under a heater on a pole? That’s radiant. The old steam radiators produce radiant heat. You and I produce radiant heat. For this article, Radiant heating will refer to a hot water recirculating system with panels or tubes in the floor or ceiling.

Radiant heating is the best type of heating for a most applications, from a comfort standpoint. It has a more expensive first cost.

What is Radiant Heat? Normally it is the impact from infrared light energy waves which strike an object. The result is that the object heats up. These rays are at a frequency of 915MHz to 2450 MHZ (Million Hertz, or a million cycles per second).
How does it work? If you are sitting outside under a radiant heater, you will feel the heat hit your skin. Does the air around you heat up? No. Your table will, the ground will and your cloths will heat up and these objects can produce warm air around you. A RADIANT HEATING system for your house works the same. 100+ degree water is circulated so that the surface of the floor is about 85 degrees F or the ceiling will operate at a surface temperature of 100 degrees. These temperatures will allow the most comfort. This temperature differential causes a Radiant effect. The radiation is transmitted through the air and will heat what ever is in front of it.
Since heat rises, wouldn’t a floor system be best? No. If a ceiling system radiates down to the floor and furniture, these items will also re-radiate heat to surrounding items. What about under tables? The re-radiation effect will also heat those areas. The air around those items will also become heated. Floor systems are good but when carpeting or wood flooring is placed over the sub-floor the system BTU output is reduced by over 50%. What are the limitations of a floor system?


In very cold climates, radiant floors can produce about 42 BTU’s per foot when operated at 85 degrees F. This is excellent for most homes in the United States if taken at face value. The problem occurs when you factor in closets, cabinets, carpets, wood floors, permanent floor fixtures or covers. Carpets or 3/4" wood floors only allow 20+ BTU per square foot of usable heat. My example house in Lake Tahoe needed 93,930 BTU’s / Hour of heat divided by the usable floor area of 3490 x 70%= 2443 sq. ft usable floor area. This equates to 38.44 BTU’s per foot. I’m concerned that they will cover the floors. The home owners will not be able to heat the house. The designer must consider the possibility that the home owner will put carpet over some of the floors. I can’t see the homeowner removing all his throw carpets each winter.

In this case the designer must consider using ceiling or both floor and ceiling radiant heat.
Can you cool a house using the same pipes? Yes. Rig up a evaporator to cool the water, or consider mechanical cooling of the water and you will keep the house at a comfortable temperature in most climates. The cool water absorbs radiant heat and removes it to the outside. Ever been in a cave? Why is it so cool? Radiant heat is absorbed by the walls.
What about energy usage? Radiant heat/cool systems can be more efficient than forced air systems. Think of the “perimeter designed” systems and how cold air is blowing into the hottest areas by the windows. Wouldn’t this produce a larger Delta T (temperature differential) at that location? Wouldn’t you loose more heat or gain more heat with a larger differential at the perimeter? Yes. In most cases, radiant heat is best from a energy usage standpoint.

Are you interested in Radiant Heat? The Radiant Panel Association has a WEB site you can use. It’s kind of wordy but you might learn more concerning this excellent form of heating. to WWW.RPA-INFO.COM.
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