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I am purchasing a new home, and designing some renovations to several rooms. The house has a gas boiler and radiators throughout the house. For the kitchen and upstairs bathroom, I will be putting in tile flooring. To save space, I am wondering if installing PEX tubing for radiant floor heating using the supply and return from the radiator is a possibility. Can this be simply installed in place of a radiator, or does the entire radiant floor heating system (thermostats, control modules, etc.) need to be installed as well?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

You may be able to use the existing radiator piping to some extent, but a number of other changes will be required:

  • Lower water temperature. Because the radiant heating runs under your entire floor, it is typically run at a temperature similar to a hot summer day (around 85 degrees Fahrenheit). Cast iron radiators are usually run at around 150 degrees F, which would be painfully hot to stand on. So if you are keeping any radiators, your system will need to support running at multiple temperatures. According to this piping schematic from hydronicpros.com the device that can both control your boiler and mix water for a lower-temperature section is called a "variable speed pump mixing control".

  • System balance. Changing the way a room is heated may take it out of balance with the rest of your home, leading it to get too hot or too cold. You'll want to get a professional to assess whether this will require additional thermostats / control modules, or whether there's a simpler way to balance things.

  • Under-floor access. For hot water radiant heat, you'll need to install PEX on the underside of the subfloor. I don't think you can do that without access from underneath. Probably not a problem for your kitchen but may add some work for the upstairs bath. Correction 2 Feb 2012: Actually, there are hydronic systems that can be installed above an original subfloor (inside a newly poured cement layer, under tile). These may cost more and would likely change the level of your floor, but are worth considering.

One alternative you may want to consider is electric radiant heating. Electric radiant is available in mats that are layered with thinset between the subfloor and tile. The mats can be custom made to the shape of your room, e.g. to flow around a kitchen island. The system will come with a temperature sensor and control that is typically mounted in a wall box next to the light switches for the room. In this case, you'd simply remove the radiators, and use electric heat for those rooms instead.

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One partial answer is to deliberately decouple the pex from the floor. E.g. if you have a crawl space, mount the pex a couple inches below the subfloor. Fill in the joist space below with paperbacked 4" insulation bats. (Less if you want the crawl space warmed.) The Pex now warms the air, which in turn warms the subfloor. This gives more even heating, but the floor does respond as fast to thermostat changes

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