Design & DIY

Installing radiant heating in your cottage

If you’ve winterized your cottage—or if you spend a lot of time there in the fall or early spring—chances are you know the unpleasant shock of setting your toasty warm feet on an icy floor.

Fortunately, you can eliminate frozen toes and heat your entire cottage with an in-floor radiant heating system—an ancient technology that’s popular in Europe and rapidly making inroads in North American houses and cottages alike.

It turns out that the Romans didn’t like cold feet either. Neither did the ancient Koreans. So both civilizations used systems that heated floors from underneath, running hot air through pipes beneath their floors.
Nowadays, many radiant heating systems are hydronic, using a heated liquid that usually circulates through durable polyethylene pipes. And while most home installations are in-floor in specific rooms – a bathroom, bedroom or kitchen—folks who are building cottages and houses from the ground up are increasingly choosing a whole-home system.

Radiant hydronic heating has several advantages over traditional forced-air systems, according to Craig Stewart, president of Garthside Ltd., a heating and cooling company in Penetanguishene, Ont.

“The primary advantage to radiant heating is the consistency of comfort throughout your home,” he explains. “When the system is properly installed, it’s warm everywhere—there are no cold spots. Because there’s no ducting required, you gain ceiling space and design flexibility. Radiant heating can also be cleaner than forced air, since you’re not blowing dust and allergens around the house.”

That consistency of comfort can also lead to energy savings—with no cool spots to warm up, you can set your thermostat lower. As well, you can easily set warm and cool zones, using less heat in parts of your cottage that you aren’t using.

For cottagers, there are a few specific things to keep in mind when installing a radiant system, whether in a single room or throughout the building.

“The most important thing to do is find a contractor who’s qualified to install these types of systems and can provide a proper design,” says Stewart. “You need someone who can assess what kind of heating system you’ll need, how much pipe will be required, and how to account for seasonal occupancy. We get a lot of calls for systems that were improperly installed and aren’t working two years down the line—and it’s a lot more money to fix them after the fact.”

A cottage installation will require a glycol solution in the pipes, rather than water, to prevent freezing. Incorporating a control system will ensure the liquid circulates throughout the winter. And depending on the size of your installation, you may need a separate boiler, although some small systems can be hooked up to a standard water heater.

Finally, the up-front cost can be daunting. A professional installation can cost between $9 and $15 per square foot, depending on your heat source, the size of your space, and whether you’re retrofitting an existing space or working on a new construction. That being said, a radiant heating system can add value to your cottage—a good thing to keep in mind if you’ll be selling in the future—and may help reduce your energy bill in the long run.
If you’re renovating or building a cottage, Stewart says that even you’re unsure about radiant heating now, it’s possible to rough-in where a system would go and then hook it up later.

“If you’re already doing a renovation, a rough-in won’t add that much to the cost—and it gives you flexibility for later,” he points out. “I renovated my basement a few years ago, and I’m kicking myself—with cold feet—that I didn’t rough-in a system! And now, in the middle of winter, I’m really missing a nice warm floor.”

At a glance:

•    Consistent, comfortable heat throughout the house or across the floor
•    No ugly ductwork; greater design flexibility
•    Reduced allergens and dust circulating through air
•    Can also be installed under a driveway or outdoor path to melt snow
•    Increased value of house or cottage
•    Can reduce home heating costs over time

•    Up-front costs can run between $9 and $15 per square foot
•    Best suited for porcelain or stone tile, polished concrete, and engineered wood—can be less effective with hardwood or carpet
•    Radiant heating systems just provide heat, not cooling or make-up air
•    May need to install a separate boiler if existing hot water heater can’t handle the demand