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Underfloor Heating: A Beginner’s Guide

Underfloor heating pipes installed
(Image credit: Wunda Group)

If you are planning to build your own home or extend your existing property then underfloor heating is well worth considering. It will effectively turn your whole floor into a radiator, and offer improved comfort levels and less demand on your boiler than a traditional radiator system.

This is due to underfloor heating having a lower operating temperature (around 40°C) than a radiator system, which normally operates at around 65°C.

Underfloor heating works really well with renewable technology like heat pumps and can help to prevent cold spots and draughts in your home. It also eliminates the need for radiators, which in turn offers greater design flexibility when it comes to layout and furniture placement. It’s also a great solution if you are planning to embrace open plan living.

While it is best installed at the time of building, underfloor heating can be retrofitted into an existing property, but you will need to opt for a low profile option.

This ultimate guide explains what underfloor heating is, how much it costs, which floor structures and coverings it works best with and how best to control the system too.

If you are looking to install your own system, check out our step-by-step guide to installing underfloor heating.

What is Underfloor Heating?

Underfloor heating involves the installation of pipework in the floor, so that the whole floor acts like a radiator, warming the room from the ground up.

There are two main types:

  • ‘warm water’ or wet underfloor heating (which we will focus on in this article)
  • electric underfloor heating

In basic terms, a wet underfloor heating system features pipes, filled by warm water and powered by a boiler or heat pump, concealed within the floor, and typically embedded within a screed.

Diagram of typical build up on a concrete subfloor

This diagram shows a typical build up on a concrete subfloor (Image credit: Homebuilding & Renovating)

If you are opting for a whole-house underfloor heating system, there will be separate pipe runs into each room. This allows you to control when those rooms or ‘zones’ are heated and for how long, preventing you from having to heat unoccupied spaces.

(MOREBeginner’s Guide to Heating Your Home)

How Much Does Underfloor Heating Cost?

Underfloor heating costs from around £20/m2 to £40/m2 installed. These figures will vary depending on the size of the property, the amount of heating the building needs and whether it is a new build, renovation or conversion.

Retrofit will be more expensive, especially if existing timber floors need to be taken up or concrete floors excavated.

Underfloor heating is more expensive to install than a comparable radiator system — it typically costs 20% to 50% more.

Radiators are cheaper to buy, they are well understood and there is a huge choice when it comes to size, style and installers. But they are less efficient and take up floor space. Perhaps the biggest problem is that in larger rooms they can produce a temperature difference of up to 4°C across the room.

People want more energy-efficient houses and a system that gives a 15% reduction in energy demand (compared to a radiator system) cannot be ignored. And that is to say nothing of the greater comfort and the increased floor space that it brings

What Thickness of Screed Do I Need to Use with Underfloor Heating?

The thickness of the screed in which the warm wet pipes sit will have a dramatic impact on how the system is used.

A thick screed will give a longer reaction time (the time taken to warm up and cool down), while a thin screed will have a quicker reaction time.

Laying screed over warm underfloor heating pipes

Here, screed is being laid over warm water underfloor heating pipes to the correct depth, in this install using products by the Wunda Group (Image credit: Wunda Group)
  • If the pipes are housed in the concrete floor slab (sometimes the case for new homes), this is could be 150mm thick and give a reaction time of over four hours. In this situation, it is best to run the system all day, at a lower room temperature — say 15°C or 16°C — to provide background heating to the whole house. Highlight heating, such as a woodburning stove, is a good idea in the rooms that are occupied)
  • A standard sand and cement screed would typically be 65mm to 75mm thick and the UFH could take upwards of two hours to heat the room or cool down. This situation may be well-suited to rooms where we spend a lot of time, such as lounge or kitchen, but might be less acceptable in a guest bedroom
  • With thinner flow screeds, we might expect a thickness of 35mm to 40mm and a reaction time of around 30 to 40 minutes — the system can be run in a similar way to a radiator system. Flow screeds offer better thermal conductivity than sand and cement, and being thinner and lighter means that they can be suitable for both renovations and new builds

Which is right and best will depend on the construction of the house, your occupation habits and how the UFH system is to be used.

Which Floor Coverings Work Well with Underfloor Heating?

  • Tilesstone or similar are generally accepted as the optimum covering. They absorb heat rather than insulate and allow that heat to radiate into the room
  • Timber flooring will tend to insulate and reduce efficiency, but thinner profile engineered timber has little noticeable impact on heat output. Solid timber is notoriously tricky with underfloor heating — it needs to be acclimatised for around a month
  • The Carpet Foundation carried out research in conjunction with the Underfloor Heating Manufacturers Association which shows that some carpets can be used with UFH. The research showed that a carpet and underlay with a thermal resistance of less than 2.5 togs does not have a significant impact on efficiency

Whatever floor covering is to be used, it is a good idea to tell the underfloor heating designer so that the pipe layout can be properly specified.

Underfloor Heating System Controls

Underfloor heating pipes installed

Underfloor heating pipes are laid in different zones/rooms/areas, allowing the homeowner to control the temperature in each separate zone (Image credit: Wunda Group)

Underfloor heating system controls feature two main parts:

  • a digital zone control that will be used to determine the temperature of each room/area
  • the manifolds and valves that the zone control operates

The zone control will be placed somewhere where the homeowner can make adjustments, while the manifolds will be placed out of the way – under the stairs or in a cupboard – so as to be unobtrusive.

There is no regular maintenance regime associated with underfloor heating, but if things do go wrong, it will typically be with the control systems rather than the system itself.

Can I Retrofit Underfloor Heating?

One of the key challenges when installing underfloor heating in existing houses is the depth of the system. Once insulation, the screed and final floor covering have been installed, the floor height may have been raised by some 150-200mm.

There are low-profile systems, developed specifically for that situation, that can be installed directly onto existing floors that offer significant savings in retrofit situations.

Low-profile systems tend to have smaller diameter pipes and run at a higher temperature. The impact of this is that the floor will heat up and cool down far more quickly than conventional UFH.

Where UFH is added to an existing radiator system then a different control system will be needed. Luckily wireless thermostats (some of which can be controlled with a phone app) make installation far easier.

Choosing the Right Underfloor Heating Supplier

Ultimately, the efficiency and success of an underfloor heating system will depend on the quality and design. Choosing a supplier who offers a good design service and aftercare is important. A specialist underfloor heating company is often best placed to achieve this.

If the design is wrong it is unlikely that the homeowner will know until they have lived in the house for a whole heating season — by which time it might be too late.

Finally, if you are choosing to pair underfloor heating with a heat pumps, it is a good idea to choose one supply and install company. Both are complex systems and getting the whole heating system to work in perfect harmony can be tricky.

underfloor heating pipework

This underfloor heating pipework was installed by Underfloor Heating SystemsThe Henco PEX/AL/PEX (RIXc) pipe was clipped onto a membrane (laid over PIR insulation) and will work with a heat pump to heat this new build bungalow in Herefordshire  (Image credit: Underfloor Heating Systems)

What is Electric Underfloor Heating?

Electric underfloor heating is often cheaper and easier (particularly in existing homes) to install than wet UFH. However, the running costs can be three times higher.

It is often a good idea to install electric underfloor heating in a small, single area like a bathroom or en suite, where it may be difficult to install wet underfloor heating.

One of the most common – and worst – uses is in a conservatory. Typically these areas need a lot of heat and are used for relatively long periods of the day (compared to a bathroom).

Then running cost becomes the key issue and the extra trouble and expense of a wet system is well worthwhile.