DIY Heating Plumbing - Are you in hot water?

For those of us living in homes of moderate age hydronic heating refers to baseboard hot water heating. The typical setup for each room consists of a white (possibly covered with a number of coats paint) register covering a copper pipe covered with aluminum "fins" with a boiler pumping hot water. Most homeowners limit the scope of their diy heating plumbing work to cleaning and/or straightening the fins. More recently, hydronic heating in the form of radiant floor heating has become popular.

Radiant heating has a number of advantages: it can be more efficient than baseboard heating and may even be more efficient than forced-air heating (no heat is lost through the ducting). For those who suffer from allergies, the lack of moving air from a forced air furnace can also be advantageous. Hydronic based radiant systems use little electricity helping to control cost in areas with high electricity prices and can also be heated with standard gas and oil-fired boilers or with a variety of alternate energy sources including wood-fired boilers or solar water heaters (or a combination of the above).

There are two common types of radiant floor heating installations - wet and dry. Of the two, the dry installation is a more realistic diy heating plumbing project for the ambitious home handyman.

For dry underfloor systems the tubing and radiators are installed in the dry airspace beneath the flooring. Although it may need to run at a higher temperature (since it must heat the airspace below the floor as well) dry installations are typically less expensive and quicker to install. Some companies are now also offering special subflooring materials with the tubing and aluminum panels to evenly distrubute the heat built in. The materials may cost more but the savings in construction/installation costs and the lower operating temperatures for heating can rapidly make it worthwhile.


A wet installation involves embedding the piping for the radiant heating in either the concrete flooring or in a thin layer of concrete, gypsum, or other material over a subfloor. When installing these types of underfloor heating systems over existing subfloors care must be taken not to overload the load bearing capacity of the floor (make sure to consult an engineer). This type of installation might be a more of a plumbing project than the average diy handman wants to tackle.

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