HPAC Magazine

Why don’t my floors feel warm?

Simple solutions to avoid the dilemma of unfulfilled customer expectations.

February 1, 2015   By John Siegenthaler

Radiant panel heating has matured from the darling of the hydronics industry in the 1990s, into a respected technology that can provide excellent comfort in a range of applications.

Most of you reading this have probably designed and/or installed several radiant panel systems. In many cases those systems involved covering an entire floor area with some type of radiant panel construction detail: slab-on-grade, thin-slab, tube and plate, and so on. This has become standard practice in the industry and it works well when radiant floor heating is installed in houses with average heating loads.

However, as the design heating load per unit of floor area decreases, so does the average floor surface temperature. In a very well-insulated house, the average surface temperature of a heated floor may only be a few degrees above the room air temperature. The reason is that the floor does not need to get any warmer to satisfy the heating load as determined by the setting of the room’s thermostat.

For example: Consider a room with a design heating load of 3000 Btu/hr and a corresponding air temperature of 70F. The room measures 20 ft. by 15 ft. If the entire floor area was covered with radiant panel, the upward heat flux requirement at design load would be:

See Formula 1

The average floor surface temperature can be estimated using the following formula:

See Formula 2

 Where:

Tsurface = average floor surface temperature (ºF)

q = upward heat flux (Btu/hr/ft2)

Tair = room air temperature (ºF)

Thus, for the stated example:

See Formula 3

This temperature is a few degrees lower than normal skin temperature for hands and feet. The infrared thermograph of a thermally comfortable hand in Figure 1 shows fingertip temperatures in the low to mid 80s.

A floor surface at 75F surface would feel slightly cool to the touch of this hand, even though that floor is releasing sufficient heat to maintain the room at a 70F.

Forcing the floor to operate at higher temperatures would quickly overheat the space and likely lead to energy waste due to occupants opening windows or otherwise replacing overheated interior air with cooler outside air.

Also, keep in mind that the 75F average floor surface temperature would only exist on a design day, when outside temperatures are at or close to their lowest values. This average floor surface temperature will be even lower under partial loading conditions.

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

Even though a heated floor in a low energy use building may not be as warm as a heated floor in a more energy wasteful building, it will still be warmer than unheated floors in rooms heated by forced air systems or fin-tube baseboard. 

Furthermore, from the standpoint of thermal efficiency of the heat source, lower surface temperatures are a good thing. Heat sources such as a condensing boiler, hydronic heat pumps and solar thermal subsystems, will all operate at high efficiency in combination with low water temperatures. The lower the water temperature is, the higher the efficiency of the heat source.

A floor with a surface temperature just a bit warmer than the room air is also less susceptible to overheating due to unpredictable internal heat gains, such as those caused by sunlight, or gatherings of people.

The potential “fly in-the-ointment” is that the owner’s expectation of warm-to-the-touch floors may not be realized. As most of you can attest, unfulfilled customer expectations are a problem, even when the heating system is working at peak efficiency.

If the customer was informed that the floors would not feel warm, even though interior setpoint temperature would still be maintained and if they understood and agreed to this operating condition, there should not be any unfulfilled expectations. However, if the customer cannot think past all those cozy barefoot advertisements for radiant floor heating and still expects warm floors regardless of load, the result is likely to be serious disappointment.

The retort “but I paid for warm floors…” will surely be heard and the prospects for a good customer relationship are headed south. The fact that the mod/con boiler you installed is operating at 97 per cent rather than 92 per cent thermal efficiency is probably not going to smooth things over.

I recommend having a serious conversation with clients who are considering the use of floor heating in a low energy use building. Be sure you explain why the floors often do not feel warm to the touch and be sure you listen carefully to any concerns they may have regarding this. If the client’s primal instincts for warm surfaces are very evident, consider offering them some of the following alternatives.

WHEN LESS IS MORE

There are several alternatives to “full coverage” floor heating systems that provide a reasonable balance between heat source efficiency and the owner’s desire for warm surfaces.

One is to make the surface area of the radiant panel smaller by not covering the entire floor area with tubing. If the size of the radiant panel in the previous example were cut in half, the necessary upward heat flux would increase from 10 to
20 Btu/hr/ft2. This would bring the average floor surface temperature under design load conditions from 75 up to 80F. This warmer floor surface temperature is more likely to appease those looking for “barefoot-friendly” floors. Reducing the panel area to one third of the room’s floor area would boost the average floor surface temperature under design load conditions to about 85F, a recommended maximum for floors on which there is prolonged foot contact.

The design approach of not covering the entire floor area with tubing was common in the days when copper tubing was used for radiant floor heating installations (see sidebar). Each radiant panel was sized to the room load assuming a specific upward heat flux and specified supply water temperature.

A room with half the heating load of another room would get half as many square feet of panel area. Assuming floor coverings of comparable R-value, this approach allows the system to work with a single supply water temperature and eliminates the need for multiple mixing devices.

Another option that integrates well with low energy use buildings is radiant ceiling heating. Most heated ceilings deliver 95+ per cent of their heat output as thermal radiation. They “shine” thermal radiation down into the room much as a light fixture shines visible light downward.

Low mass radiant ceilings, such as the construction shown in Figure 3, can quickly warm up following a cold start. They are ideal in rooms where quick recovery from setback conditions is desirable. Low mass also means they can quickly suspend heat output when necessary, which helps limit overheating when significant internal heat gains occur.

For a ceiling panel constructed as shown in Figure 3, an average water temperature of 110F can deliver a downward heat output of about 28 Btu/hr/f
t2. Consider this panel installed in the low energy use building with a design heating load of only 10 Btu/hr/ft2. The panel would only have to cover about 36 per cent of the ceiling area to deliver the required heat output. This significantly reduces materials and installation labour costs. It also allows low temperature heat sources to achieve high thermal efficiency.

Another option is a system using panel radiators rather than site-built radiant panels. Panel radiators are available in a range of sizes and shapes and a correspondingly wide range of heat output ratings. The most common design approach is to size a single panel radiator to the design load of a typical room such as a bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. Larger spaces may require more than one panel radiator piped in parallel.

My suggestion is to size each panel radiator in the system to provide the design heating requirement of its assigned space, while operating at a supply water temperature of no higher than 120F. This keeps the operating efficiency of low temperature heat sources high. It also increases the percentage of radiant versus convective heat output and eliminates any safety concerns about occupants touching excessively hot surfaces.

A panel radiator with a surface temperature in the range of 100 to 115F will inevitably have people cozying up to it in cold weather. It will be a place where damp mittens, gloves and hats get placed for a quick drying. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a solution for those times when you just want to put your chilled hands, feet, or derrière against a warm surface.

Figure 4 is an infrared image of a panel radiator operating at a relatively low water temperature. Notice the temperature gradient from top to bottom and how it is relatively uniform across the face of the radiator. That is evidence of a well-
designed product.

NO WORRIES

I will leave you with a final thought on lower surface temperature heated floors. It comes from seeing how people that I have accompanied over the years have reacted when first told they are in a space with a heated floor. Many will squat down, put their hand on the floor and then stand up with a confused look on their face. They then say something like “the floor doesn’t feel warm.”

The question I then ask is: “Are you comfortable?” To which most answer “Yes,” or maybe even “Yes, I’m very comfortable.” The final advice I then offer is: “If you’re comfortable, don’t worry about how the floor feels.” Try it the next time you introduce someone to radiant floor heating. <>

John Siegenthaler, P.E., is a mechanical engineering graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a licensed professional engineer. He has over 34 years experience in designing modern hydronic heating systems. He is also an associate professor emeritus of engineering technology at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, NY. Editor’s Note: See John at Modern Hydronics-Summit 2015 in Toronto on September 10, 2015.

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