Warm Floors 101
You decided to install a ceramic tile floor in your bathroom, but you live in a part of the world where it gets incredibly cold during the winter. Now, when you walk across that floor, your toes curl up from the chill and you are seriously considering major back surgery to eliminate the sensation of cold that travels up your spine every time you go to the potty. Suddenly you awaken in a cold sweat, realize that it was all just a dream, and you that you must find a solution to your problem before you install that gorgeous new tile floor.
Well, your new tile floor doesn’t have to be like the one in the dream. Instead it can be “dreamy and warm”. All you have to do is add a component to the mix known as a “warm floor”. A warm floor is a type of radiant heating system that is reasonably simple to install and its addition can substantially improve your personal comfort on chilly mornings.
A radiant heating system uses a series of electric cables or small tubes of hot water embedded in a concrete floor, embedded in the mortar or mastic beneath a tiled floor, beneath carpet; or attached to the underside of a wooden subfloor. Instead of heating air and circulating it throughout the house, radiant heat warms objects such as: tile, carpet, hardwood, furniture, etc. Tile is the preferred surface as it radiates the generated heat better than the other types of flooring that we mentioned.
Folks who have radiant heat swear by it and they say that it is by far the most even and comfortable type of heat. Radiant heating companies claim that less energy is needed to transfer heat directly to people, rather than fill the entire room with heated air like a forced-air furnace. We feel that their statement is debatable. Truth is radiant heating costs at least fifty percent more than forced air heating. We agree that radiant heating has its advantages and that it is comfortable and efficient, but there are major drawbacks. Radiant heating cannot be accessed easily for repair. Because it usually is built in to the floor, repair or replacement – in many situations – can require removal of structural parts of the home – a very expensive proposition. Also, massive use of electricity in most parts of the country is simply not as energy efficient or as cost effective as gas fired heating. So, keep in mind that although we like radiant heating for special uses – like warming a tile bathroom floor – we feel that much consideration would have to be given before installing it throughout one’s home.
Electric heating cables can be embedded in the mortar or mastic under tiled floors. Some manufacturers offer the product in a portable mat that can be quickly and easily cut to fit the irregular shaped room – a great installation option. Also, such mats are great for renters because they are portable. Who would have thought that one could take warm tootsies with them during a house move?
By the way, the temperature of the floor in a given room is controlled by a wall-mount thermostat. In the old days these thermostats were nothing more than an on/off switch. Today they have been replaced with highly sophisticated digital controls that improve comfort and reduce operating cost.
For a mortar floor, electric cables are most versatile. First, double headed nails are driven into the wooden subfloor to a uniform depth (where the nail heads are about three-fourths of an inch above the floor and about 6 inches apart in two directions – think tic-tac-toe here). The cable is placed alongside the double-head of each nail and zip-ties are used to hold the cable to each nail. The cable is woven back and forth so that rows of wire – spaced (and held) at six-inch increments cover the entire floor. Mortar is poured to a depth of about an inch – completely covering the wire and the nails. The beginning end of the wire and the ending end of the wire have to end up at the same location and travel up inside the wall to the thermostat. It’s that simple. Tile is then laid over the mortar bed as it normally would be without any special consideration for the warm floor hidden beneath.
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