Which is better – Underfloor Heating or Radiators?

When refurbishing or building a new home, there is a lot to consider when it comes to heating. Often the first decision is between underfloor heating or radiators and Nick Duggan of The Radiator Centre looks at the two options;


This really depends on the stage of the project in question.  If it is a new self-build home then installing underfloor heating is relatively straightforward as it can be added in before the final flooring/screed level goes in. It will also be suitably insulated beneath to help with energy efficiency.  However, to retrofit underfloor heating to an existing floor can prove costly, messy and time consuming as you might need to dig up the floor.  

In terms of installation costs, for installation at the same stage of the project, there is very little difference in the costs to install either underfloor heating or standard radiators.


The only way to make any heating system energy efficient is to improve the heat retention of the room or building itself by installing measures such as double glazing, fitted external doors, cavity walls, roof insulation and chimney cushions etc.  Otherwise, regardless of whether you have underfloor heating or radiators you will be losing heating and therefore wasting energy and money.  If a room is cold, it would be better to invest in some of these measures first before investing in bigger radiators or underfloor heating.

Whilst it is generally thought that underfloor heating has the edge in terms of efficiency, as radiator technology continues to develop and improve new energy-efficient radiators are being introduced all the time.  These radiators are more efficient because they use lower volumes of water, sometimes up to 90% less than conventional radiators.  Less water means less energy is required to heat it. For example, aluminium radiators have less water content and faster reaction times than their steel equivalents.  These models are designed to give the maximum amount of heat from the lowest amount of energy used.  


In terms of running costs, much of this comes down the energy efficiency and both systems have their merit.  The biggest factor affecting either option is the thermal performance of the home in which they are installed. If the home is losing heat via the fabric of the building due to poor insulation, energy and therefore money will be wasted, whichever system is chosen.  While it is generally thought that underfloor heating has the edge, this will also depend on whether either system is water-based or electric and the model of radiator.  


Piping for underfloor heating is generally expected to last 50 years, compared to 10-20 years for quality and well-looked after radiators.  However, it should also be noted that once underfloor heating is installed, if it goes wrong, it can cause significant upheaval with floors. It may even prove too problematic to fix. On the other hand, radiators are more easily accessible to change, upgrade and fix, in the unlikely situation of something going wrong.


Heat Pumps can work very well with either underfloor heating or radiators.  They generally work most efficiently when operating at lower temperatures and so are suited to most underfloor heating systems. The key consideration is making sure both are sized in accordance with the level heat the heat pump will generate. It is accepted now that radiators working on a ground/air source heat pump will need to be bigger than on a conventional system, but there are plenty of energy-saving products out that which will give the maximum heat from the minimal amount of energy. 


Underfloor heating means the heating is on almost all of the time during the winter, albeit running at a lower temperature for the vast majority of the time. This is so the floor does not have time to cool down, which would then result in a longer time to heat up again when needed.  This enables your floors to become a heat emitter providing a radiant warmth with an even spread of heat. Alternatively, radiators take less time to heat up than underfloor heating and depending on the type, these can be programmed to come on to bring the home up to temperature when needed.  They provide a more direct source of heat which will warm one area initially before circulating.  Which type of heat preferred really comes down to personal taste here. 


One obvious advantage that underfloor heating does have compared to radiators is that it takes up no wall space.  In today’s modern homes which often feature open plan living arrangements and large expanses of glass, this can be useful as wall space is lacking.  However, in these instances radiators should not be dismissed altogether as constant developments are such that they are taking up less and less space to achieve the same heat output.  Vertical radiators are available in an array of slimline sizes and curved radiators that fit into corners are now an efficient way of using underutilised wall space.  


Whilst underfloor heating is the understated option, some may choose to use their radiator as an interior design statement.  Modern designer radiators come in a huge range of stylish on-trend finishes and can be chosen to compliment the home interior or indeed can make a focal point in a room.  ‘Art’ radiators include such models with famous paintings or even a personal photograph applied to the heating panel, appearing more as a piece of art than a radiator. 


Lifestyle and the type of home in question will definitely play a large part in the decision.  It may also be that in some situations, a mix of the two systems is the best option, with underfloor heating chosen for downstairs and radiators preferred in upstairs rooms.  There are many factors to consider when choosing between the two systems and in the end what is the best for one situation may not suit another, so it’s worth spending some time or consulting with a heating specialist before making any decision.