Homeowners in the United States who have discovered the benefits of electric radiant heating most often use it to supplement conventional heating systems or to heat individual rooms, such as a den, basement, or room addition.

However, proponents of electric radiant heat say the technology is quite capable of whole-house heating in even the coldest climates and that it provides a comfort level superior to that of conventional systems.

Home heating isn’t the only use for electric radiant heat. Homeowners in the northern United States and Canada are using electric grids installed beneath driveways and walkways to melt ice in the winter and heating cables to keep roofs and gutters free of ice and snow.

Even so, hydronic radiant systems that circulate heated water through a network of pipes embedded in floors or ceilings is much more common in the United States than electric radiant heating.

However, electric radiant heat is used in many parts of the world, and interest in North America is growing, said Lawrence Drake, executive director of the Radiant Panel Association.

“Electric radiant floor heating is used in both Europe and Asia,” Drake said. “Although comfort is a primary benefit of electric radiant heat, it often is marketed for its efficient use of electricity where electricity is the only utility available or is the most affordable source for heating. Electric radiant floor heating has a strong presence in the Netherlands and other areas that rely heavily on electricity.”

Methods include heating cables, woven mats, metal mesh or electrically conductive plastics embedded in or under floors. Ceiling- and wall-mounted radiant panels also are available.

Factors that have slowed acceptance of electric radiant heat in the United States include lack of awareness that this type of home heating is an option. Of those who know it is available, many still have the perception that heating a dwelling by electricity is too expensive. Because conventional heating and cooling systems share common components, some homeowners may balk at investing in electric radiant heat and a separate air conditioning system.

In the United States today, Drake said electric radiant heat is considered by many to be primarily a luxury for bathrooms and heating between hard-surface floors.

“Education is the challenge,” Drake said. “Builders who are concerned about their bottom line must be convinced that upgrading to an electric radiant system is worth the cost. For now, homeowners and architects are driving demand for electric radiant heat.”

After all costs and benefits of radiant heating are weighed, perhaps comfort becomes the biggest selling point.

“Once homeowners have radiant heat, they can’t imagine being without it,” Drake said. “There’s no blowing air, you simply are surrounded in comfort. Floors generally feel neutral in temperature. As outside temperatures drop, floors become warmer, providing heat and enveloping the room in comfort.”

To date, Drake said most radiant promotion has been found in home improvement television shows and magazines.

“Demand in the U.S. remains very market driven, and homeowners or buyers who want it are highly motivated,” he said.

As natural gas and heating oil prices rise, electricity cost is less of a factor, and reduced maintenance costs over a radiant system’s life help pay back the initial investment. Some utilities are offering incentives and rebates for installing radiant systems.

Manufacturers of electric radiant heating products say interest and demand is growing steadily. One company, Danfoss Inc., North America, has exhibited at the last two NECA shows, winning a Showstopper award in 2005.

Proponents, including manufacturers, believe there is great, largely untapped potential in the market for electrical contractors.

Danfoss Inc., North America, Toronto, Lyle Moroz, vice president, electric heating division: “Although there is a wide range of installers, including electrical contractors, plumbing-HVAC contractors and even tile installers, at Danfoss, we believe the electrical contractor is in the best position to install these systems. It’s a great business opportunity for these contractors, and they should be trying to claim this market segment as their own. The potential is enormous. It’s probably at least a $500 million market for the contractors in the U.S. and growing at a rate of 15 to 20 percent per year.

“My perception is that because it is a cross-trade product, this pushes electrical contractors away. Coordination and understanding on the flooring, concrete and heating side makes it more complicated. In my opinion, the risk is worth the reward for enterprising electrical contracting companies.

“The biggest issue that has held back acceptance is awareness—only 5 percent of the general public is aware of the possibility of electric radiant heating. Second is a general perception that electric heating is expensive. There was a time when electricity costs were much higher than similar natural gas costs, but this equation has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Furthermore, radiant heating systems consume much less electricity than generally thought. Also, many jurisdictions are implementing time-of-day pricing, which makes electricity costs much cheaper overnight, half the daytime rate. Taking advantage of this principal can make electric radiant heating much less expensive than gas or oil.”

Delta-Therm Corp., Wauconda, Ill., Ada Cryer: “Electrical radiant heating is a growing market, but the U.S. lags behind because consumers don’t understand the benefits. And there is a bias against using electricity for heat. They also are concerned that, once embedded, the cable/mat will fail, and they won’t be able to repair it.

“However, indoor electric radiant systems should be able to gain a wider acceptance because they can be installed in both warm and cold climates. Indoor radiant heating is used on a modular basis no matter the climate for garages, basements and room additions, etc. For condos, each unit can be built with a stand-alone heating system that doesn’t require furnace or boiler space and so [it] maximizes the living space.

“For outdoor de-icing, electric resistance heating cables convert 100 percent of their energy into heat and are operated on demand. Electric resistance heating cables don’t contain mechanical components that require a service contract as hydronic systems do. The tighter bend radius of electric cables are ideally suited for outdoor de-icing compared to trying to get a hot water supply line and cold water return line of a hydronic hose system on a stair tread, for example.

“We work mainly with electrical contractors on commercial projects, but there are times that we are working with mechanical installers because of project specifications. Indoor floor warming projects are often small remodeling projects in a bathroom and are done by tile installers. But there are some pretty large residential projects. If the tile installer or HVAC person is already considered the heating expert, the electrician may only be asked to bring in power and not install the entire system.

“We believe that we will continue to see more and more electric radiant heating systems being installed residentially and commercially, and it may expand into more acceptance of using electric systems as primary heat sources.

“Electrical contractors are not taking advantage of opportunities offered by radiant systems. That’s why a lot of tile contractors and do-it-yourselfers are installing them residentially. To change that, contractors should learn features and benefits of electric radiant systems, where they can be installed and how to install them.”

Orbit Radiant Heating, Perkasie, Pa., Ron Herd, president: “The actual installation of radiant home heating cables can be done by just about anyone that has the mechanical aptitude and is able to follow directions closely. However, it is imperative that all service wiring and final electrical connections be done by a licensed electrician per local and National Electrical Code requirements. Because Code requirements do involve electrical contractors, why not take full advantage of the opportunity and handle both sales and installation of the entire project? Entire control gives the electrician the ability to reap a stronger profit margin.

“If the electrician is indeed promoting and installing electric radiant heating systems, I would tend to believe that they are taking advantage of all the opportunities available. Once the electrician understands the product, it’s easier to capitalize on all of the product benefits.

“Using electrical radiant heat to melt snow is easy to understand, and results can be seen. Interior heating and floor warming is new to most homeowners, and the hard part is achieving understanding of the concept of installing radiant heat in the floor as the most practical means of heating as far as comfort and efficiency are concerned. Once this hurdle is overcome and users experience the comfort of radiant heat, they never want to go back to the conventional way of heating.

“There are many benefits. Electric heat is 100 percent efficient. All energy used is to generate heat. Think of radiant floor heat as a giant charcoal briquette that comfortably maintains its heat. Radiant heat creates warmth from the ground up, and that will physically and mentally make those in a room more comfortable. So it isn’t necessary to overcompensate the thermostat to keep warm. In most cases, it is possible to lower the setting and still maintain a very comfortable environment.

“One very clear reality to electric radiant heat is that the initial cost of the product is normally one third of the initial cost of any hydronic system. The installation cost will also be considerably cheaper than the cost of installing a hydronic system.

“As for maintenance, compare zero dollars for an electric system with hundreds of dollars per year covering maintenance contracts and replacement parts for hydronic boiler systems. I would say without question that electricians, if educated properly, can take full advantage of the opportunities electric radiant heating provides an open and fast-growing market.”

GRIFFIN, a construction and tools writer from Oklahoma City, can be reached at 405.748.5256 or up-front@cox.net.