What Makes Hydronic Heating Systems Worth The Cost?

Most new construction uses forced-air heating. These systems use a furnace to heat the air and a blower motor to distribute that heated air via ducts installed throughout the home. If the house also has a central air conditioning unit, both the AC and forced-air heating systems will utilize the same ductwork network and air handling unit.

Unlike forced-air systems, hydronic heating systems utilize water to transport heat through your home. The water may travel through baseboard heaters, radiators, or radiant floor heating. These systems often cost more to run, so why should you consider one, and are they worth the cost?

Radiation vs. Convection

Forced-air and radiant heating use vastly different physical principles to heat your home. You may recall that heat transfer occurs using three methods: radiation, convection, and conduction. Conduction rarely comes up (except when you stick your hand directly on a hot radiator!), but convection and radiation are critical to home heating systems.

With a forced-air heating system, you heat your home via convection. Convective heat transfer occurs in fluids — in this case, the air in your home. You can think of convection as mixing two substances. In theory, the air will eventually reach a consistent and even temperature. In practice, air moving through a room won't thoroughly mix, and you may notice hot and cold spots.

Hydronic and other forms of radiant heating instead rely on radiation. Radiation (or radiant) heat transfer occurs between objects through open space. Instead of heating the air, radiant heaters transfer their heat directly to you. As a result, radiant heating tends to feel more even and consistent, falling off steadily with distance from the source.

The Advantages of Hydronic Systems

Radiant heat transfer tends to make hydronic systems feel subjectively more comfortable and warm. For example, if you install radiant floor heating, you'll get to enjoy the feeling of a cozy, warm floor whenever you step out of bed or the shower. You also don't need to worry about how airflow affects your heating, so rooms should usually remain at a relatively consistent temperature.

Hydronic heating also tends to be more efficient than forced-air heating, so lower utility costs can help claw back some of your initial investment. The higher efficiency also means you can keep your thermostat setpoint a bit higher during the winter without worrying about the added cost blowing up your budget.

While installing a hydronic system can be relatively expensive, this form of home heating can also feel more comfortable and luxurious compared to more typical forced-air heating systems. Everyone's needs and budget will vary, but it's easy to see why hydronic systems are a worthwhile investment for many homeowners.

For more information about residential heating, contact a local HVAC professional.