A lot of people wonder what kind of heater they need for their hydronic radiant floor heating system. The problem is, there are too many variables for a perfect answer.
In some cases, a boiler is needed and only a boiler will do. In other cases, you can certainly use a water heater and it will also be more efficient than some boilers.
In yet other cases, the right tankless water heater is great for radiant floor heating since it only heats the water when you need it and it provides it quickly.
Which one is best for you will depend on how big a space you need the radiant flooring to cover and if you need the hot water for other applications.
In this article, I will go over how each option should perform for your radiant floor heating system and in what circumstances so you can understand which one is going to do the job for you.
Boiler vs Water Heater for Radiant Heat
Many people use these terms interchangeably, but the reality is that they are very different. They both heat hot water, this is true, but their function is different.
- Hot water heater – A hot water heater is used to give you domestic hot water for your appliances like dishwashers and washing machines as well as fixtures like showers and sinks. They are either a tank or tankless style and can be gas or electric.
- Water boiler – A boiler is used to heat just the water as it boils the water and turns it to steam. These are for closed systems usually called hydronic systems and they are just for heating. They can be used with radiators or radiant floor heating.
There is a third type, called a combi water heater, that can actually do both. It is designed in a way to use different zones. You can send hot water to your heating system like an infloor heater or use it to wash your hands.
So, which one do you need for radiant floor heating?
You actually have a choice between them as you can use a water heater or tankless for radiant floor heating and not just a boiler.
Check out this article about the best thermostats for radiant floor heating to get the most out of your heating system.
Radiant Floor Heating Water Heater
Water heaters are good for radiant floor heating systems because they maintain a low temperature. You really only need a maximum of 120°F for your radiant heat floor.
That temperature is safe and comfortable as well as being efficient.
You will need to be aware of the incoming groundwater temperature as cold water will drop the overall water temperature. It may take a little longer for the radiant heating system to warm when using a water heater with water colder than 55°F.
To have your water heater heat your floors, you’ll need the right water heater and a hot water circulating pump which I will get to in just a minute.
When you are not trying to heat different zones, then a water heater will work. Where you get into trouble is when you have different zones that require less, more or no heat than the others.
With a water heater, you are better off when you have one zone with the same temperature throughout.
What Water Heater is Good for Radiant Floor Heat?
The radiant floor heating system you use should be a high efficiency unit. The best kind is one that has a sealed combustion chamber and an external heat exchanger.
The reason for this is to have the two water uses separate. In the summer, water will stagnate in the water heater floor and if it mixes with your regular water it won’t be good. Legionnaires disease is a real threat when water sits in pipes for too long.
This keeps the two separate for their intended use.
What you can also do to avoid this is to set a timer on your hot water circulating pump to run 10 minutes per day to flush out any stagnant water. Or, set up an external heat exchanger for your ordinary water heater if you are not looking to upgrade. Then you’ll just need to run a loop from that to back into the water heater so the water doesn’t mix with your domestic use water.
Here are a couple of good water heaters that can handle your hydronic radiant floor needs as well as domestic.
- Efficiency: 0.90-0.94 EF
- Recovery rate: 20-Gallon GPH at a 90-Degree rise
- Thermally fused upper element provides protection against dry-firing
- Full-flow, brass drain valve
- Standard replacement parts
- Permaglas glass coating protects steel tank from corrosion and maximizes...
- Dynaclean diffuser dip tube helps reduce lime and sediment buildup while...
- CoreGard anode rode aluminum anode with stainless steel core protects tank...
- Durable, tamper-resistant brass drain valve
- Meets all current regulations set forth by the National Appliance Energy...
A major caveat is that many water heater manufacturers will void the warranty if you use it as an infloor heater. That is not its intended purpose even though you can use them effectively for radiant floor heat.
Another thing to remember is that they don’t usually have the BTU that can heat up a big house and supply the domestic water at the same time. If you only need one zone and not the whole house then these will work fine. You’ll also need an expansion tank for when the hot water heats up so it doesn’t end up coming out of the pressure relief valve.
Since it is a closed loop, the expanding hot water won’t have a release so you need the expansion tank to give it somewhere to go.
- Protects Your Heating Systems; Prevents Dangerous Pressure Build up;...
- Features a Solid Carbon Steel Construction with an Exclusive Polypropylene...
- Each Tank is Factory Leak Tested and NSF61 Certified
- Max Operating Pressure 75 PSI; Temperature 210°F
- Low Profile Tank Design with Full Membrane Depth Eliminates Stretching of...
Below you’ll see a good one that has a timer and is easily installed on any water heater.
- TLC = Timer, Line Cord, 6-Foot
- Flow range: 0 - 9 U.S. GPM, Head range: 0 - 6-Foot
- Motors: Single phase, 115V. Supply Voltage:115-120 VAC, 60 hertz, Contact...
- Connection: 3/4-Inch M by 3/4-Inch FNPT.Maintenance-free, low energy...
- The Grundfos circulator pumps, Series UP, are specifically designed for...
If you already have a hot water recirculating pump but it doesn’t have a time, there is no need to replace it. Instead, use this Taco Smart Plug to control when you need the pump on. It even records your water use patterns so you know when you need it most.
- Made by: Taco
- Country of Manufacturing: Mexico
Boiler for Radiant Heating Systems
Since a boiler does one job, to heat in a hydronic system, they are ideal for the job. Many people don’t like to use boilers because then they need to have two systems. One for the heating and one for the domestic water use like appliances and fixtures.
The reality is that they are built for this purpose and will have a full warranty if something goes wrong since they aren’t being asked to do a job they aren’t designed for.
A key in finding the right boiler for radiant floor heating is to find one that doesn’t drop the temperature too quickly.
Well this causes a caustic condensation to develop. A condensing boiler will release the exhaust through a flue at around 60°F so it is cool enough to vent with PVC. The acidic discharge is condensed to water and returned into the boiler to avoid a drop in efficiency as well as special venting being needed.
Below is the Rinnai Condensing Boiler, which is compact, efficient, and a great choice for your radiant floor heating system.
- Hot Water Heater: Heat the whole house with this boiler featuring a fully...
- Smart Features: This smart heater features spark ignition technology and an...
- User-Friendly: Super quiet operation offers ease and comfort; adjust the...
- Space-Saving Design: Compact wall-mounted design of this water heater saves...
- Guaranteed to Last: 12-, 5-, and 1-year residential and 12-, 2-, and 1-year...
If you need to radiant floor heating in a garage that can get really cold when it is not in use, or are trying to heat a driveway, then you’ll need a boiler since you will need to use antifreeze fluid mixed with the water.
Combi Boilers for Radiant Heat
A combi boiler is the best of both worlds and is how I suggest you heat your home and take care of your domestic water needs. They are designed to do both jobs well, are very efficient, and are ideal for radiant floor heating systems.
They are small so the installation is easier as you have more options as to where to install them.
They are super efficient as they act almost like tankless water heaters and deliver hot water quickly without a lot of heat loss.
For radiant heating, they have enough BTU to handle large areas and different zones if you set up a manifold. And most of them also have a circulating pump already built in so they save you some money on that plus less to install.
Below are the two that I highly recommend for radiant heat.
- Rinnai M160CN - Natural Gas Condensing Boiler
- Flexible venting options with approved Concentric, PVC, CPVC, Stainless...
- Stainless steel primary boiler heat exchanger for unmatched performance and...
- Compact wall-mounted design saves space over traditional boilers
- Features an integrated modulating pump, and outdoor reset sensor (in the...
- Min gas input: 18K btu, max gas input: 199K btu
- Energy factor: 0.95
- Max flow rate: 9.2 GPM
- Max gas input for space heating: 120K btu
- 11:1 turndown ratio
Tankless Water Heater for Radiant Floor Heating
Lots of people are turning to tankless water heaters for their radiant floor heating systems and to supply the domestic water needs.
They take up very little space, are extremely efficient and can operate at temperatures lower than a traditional boiler without creating toxic condensation. One big downside, however, is that when you are heating your floor, the tankless is running non stop. This can shorten their life from 15 years down to around 5.
Get a tankless water heater with at least a .90 energy efficient rating for radiant floor heating. You can go as low as .82 but you’ll see better savings with the higher rating versions.
There are natural gas or propane tankless water heaters available so you can find one that works with your fuel source. Electric water heaters will work too, but they will only be good for very small areas.
Best Electric Water Heater for Radiant Floor Heat
If you choose to go the electric tankless water heater route, there are a few options. The one we like best is Rheem RTEX-18.
It comes with a very high energy efficiency rate, which will save you money in the long run. It also comes with an external thermostat that works with its LED screen.
The flow rate is only 4.4 GPM, so it’s best suited for a 2 or 3 person household.
For more information on sizing you tankless, go here.
- External digital thermostatic control with LED display (+/1 degree...
- Most advanced self-modulation, adjust power to meet hot water demand
- Durable Copper immersion two heating elements, field Serviceable. Flow...
- Simple installation – bottom 3/4 inch NPT water connections
- Threaded for easy replacement, simple installation, digital temperature...
Best Overall Water Heater for Radiant Floor Heat
Most likely you’ll need more heating power for you radiant heat system than most electric water heaters can provide.
When you have a high heat load where you need a lot of BTU/hour, then a tankless with a high GPM is going to get the job done whereas you may need multiple boilers to handle the heat load.
Below is the unit I highly recommend as you get the highest Gallons Per Minute (GPM) out of any tankless heater. You will need a high GPM tankless if you live in a cold climate to make sure you can get the hot water you need at the right temperature.
- Energy and Space Efficient: Space-saving design conserves energy as it...
- Optimal Water Pressure: Up to 11 GPM hot water flow rate for a powerful,...
- Instant Heating: ThermaCirc360 technology provides faster hot water with a...
- Guaranteed to Last: 15-, 5-, and 1-year residential for heat exchanger,...
And keep in mind you’ll need a recirculating pump unless the model you choose has an internal one already built in.
How Big of a Water Heater Do I Need for Radiant Heat
The average water heater output you need for radiant floor heating is 25 BTU per hour, per sq ft. Your first floor will require anywhere from 15-20 BTU/hr/sq ft, while your second floor will average anywhere between 20 and 25 BTU/hr. By adding up the load factors (BTUs), you will know how big of a water heater you need.
To get a more concrete number, here is a chart with some common load factors based on location of your radiant floor heating system.
Then you need to multiply the load factors by the area you need to heat. The result will be the heat load. Here’s a handy calculator for measuring your radiant heat needs:
|Room Type||Load Factors (BTU/hr/sq.ft)||Qty||Total for Fixture Type|
|Total Load Factors||
Simply take all the spaces you need to heat and the calculator will add up the load factors. This will give you the BTU/hour that you need to determine how big your water heater or boiler needs to be.
If you have over 60,000 BTU/hour needs then you should look into a high GPM tankless or get multiple boilers.
Is it Legal to use a Water Heater for Radiant Heat?
Before you decide on which type of source for your hydronic radiant floor, make sure you find out if it is allowed to use a water heater and not a boiler. In some states like Michigan, you cannot. Any heater used for space heating has to be labeled as such and can’t be used for domestic hot water either.
Some localities require a closed loop system to avoid legionnaires disease.
Even in areas where it is permitted to use a water heater instead of a boiler, many manufacturers will void the warranty if something goes wrong when you use it as a boiler.
Hopefully, after reading this article on water heater vs boilers for radiant floor heating systems, you have a better idea about what you need. Although there are many types of radiant floor heating systems, boilers and water heaters both get the job done.
Finding the right hydronic radiant floor heating system is not easy to make as there are so many variables as you no doubt have gathered. But hopefully you are better positioned to make the right decision.
Nick Lopresti is the founder of YourH2Home and a home improvement expert. He has years of experience writing about various home improvement topics, mostly as it pertains to water systems.