Story at a glance:

  • Radiant systems offer heating and cooling that is energy-efficient and easy to install.
  • Radiant flooring provides considerable design flexibility and warms chilly feet.
  • Forced air heating and cooling is integrated and common in homes with existing ductwork.

Between radiant and forced air heating and cooling, there are a world of differences—and the decision between the two is of great importance to both the comfort and the sustainability of a project. According to the US Department of Energy, “Heating your home uses more energy and costs more money than any other system in your home—typically making up about 42% of your utility bill.”

Because it is such an important part of the home but simultaneously one of the most expensive, finding the right heating and cooling system for your project is extremely important. After all, the utility bill reflects not only the financial costs of an imperfect system but also the environmental cost of high consumption.

In the radiant heat vs forced air debate, besides the decision of which fuel to generate heat, radiant and forced air systems each have their pros and cons. Although the space will be warm at the end of the day either way, a lot must go into deciding between the two.

What is Radiant Heating?

Viega

Photo courtesy of Viega

Radiant heating systems supply heat directly to surfaces in the home—wall, floor, or ceiling panels. Generally, electricity, hot water, or air make direct contact with the system’s surface and infrared radiation delivers the heat to the air and occupants of the room to warm up the space.

Because radiant systems use contact to transfer heat, they do not disrupt allergens in the home the way forced air can. Plus, the lack of forced air system means radiant heating and cooling requires a dedicated outside air system. This means they cut out all recirculated air that would come from forced air systems and lead to better indoor air quality and healthier spaces. Often radiant systems are healthier, particularly for sensitive individuals.

The lack of blowing air and whirring that can accompany forced air systems is also lost in radiant systems. Although old radiators are known to clang and bang when the hot steam rolls through, modern systems are often silent.

Pro: Radiant heating is significantly more energy-efficient and evenly distributed in comparison to forced air systems.

Con: Although operating costs are very small, particularly for installation throughout a home or commercial building, radiant heating can be expensive.

Best Use: Effective radiant panels can be installed on floors, ceilings, and walls so seamlessly as to be easily overlooked. Radiant flooring systems are especially effective, as they use the natural distribution of heat rising to evenly warm the space.

What is Radiant Cooling?

Messana Radiant Cooling, Chatham University, hydronic radiant cooling panels radiant heat vs forced air

Installation of the Ray Magic system, which uses radiant gypsum panels to cool and heat rooms. Courtesy of Messana

Just as radiant heating uses contact to contribute heat to make spaces cozy, radiant cooling uses contact to remove heat from spaces and chill them. Pipes and panels pump with cold water, which slowly yet surely neutralizes the heat in the space.

Just like radiant heating, radiant cooling is also significantly more energy-efficient than forced air systems. And, in hot summer months, that energy benefit is even more pronounced as air conditioners notoriously demand an exorbitant amount of energy. “If we want to save energy and reduce our carbon footprint, that’s where we need to focus—reducing the energy consumption in the HVAC device in summer,” Messana cofounder Alessandro Arnulfo told gb&d.

A common concern regarding radiant cooling systems is their ability to function in different climates—particularly humid ones. “Radiant works really almost anywhere a standard forced air system will work. Existing building control systems dehumidify the ventilation air to the point that a space never reaches the dew point but remains comfortable for occupants,” assistant product manager of Viega Adam Botts told gb&d.

To treat humidity in a space, a separate system is required. Rather than being inefficient, this actually means that in the hot summer months both the issue of humidity and the issue of heat are being controlled individually and exactly.

Pro: Particularly given the utility costs of the system it can replace, radiant cooling has a high payoff.

Con: In humid climates especially, spaces lacking good humidity control systems can see condensation form on and around radiant cooling systems.

Best Use: Radiant cooling works best when incorporated on ceilings due to the property of heat rising.

How Does Radiant Flooring Work?

Messana Radiant Cooling, Chatham University, hydronic radiant cooling panels

Radiant heating panels in the dorm rooms of Chatham University keep students comfortable year-round and are quiet and hidden, with no disruptive maintenance. Courtesy of Messana

Both radiant heating and cooling systems take up less physical space than forced air systems, making them easy to install under floors, adding only around half an inch of height, depending on the system. Virtually any material can then be placed on top of the radiant system, with no detriment to its effectiveness: tile, carpet, hardwood, or other engineered floorings.

“As long as your floor is being removed anyway, it’s a really simple installation,” Botts told gb&d.

While traditionally copper pipes embedded in concrete would be used in radiant systems, now PEX pipes offer a more reliable and sustainable vehicle for radiant systems.

Because heat rises, radiant flooring is especially effective for heating systems as the heat it offers rises and distributes evenly throughout the space. It is among the most popular versions of radiant heating due to its efficiency and lack of visual impact on the design of the space.

Pro: Radiant flooring is arguably the most efficient radiant system.

Con: It is more difficult and costly to install radiant flooring in a space that already has flooring. Radiant baseboards or ceilings then become more appealing.

Best Use: When combined with geothermal heat sources, radiant flooring is extraordinarily energy-efficient and reliable and pays off fast.

How Do Radiant Ceilings Work?

radiant heating vs forced air barcol air gbd magazine gbdpro

Federal Center South’s atrium has radiant heating in its aluminum ceiling frame, showing off the design flexibility of radiant systems. Photo courtesy of Barcol-Air

Radiant ceilings offer a solution for spaces with restrictive or existing flooring. But they are the same in terms of design flexibility. Even on ceilings, radiant systems don’t impede the visual design of a space.

Radiant ceilings are useful in commercial and educational spaces where quick and easy installation helps get the building up and running fast. The incorporation of a radiant system continues to allow for design flexibility. Radiant panels look and operate just like drywall panels, and therefore can be painted and affixed with lights, molding, sprinklers, or speakers just like a normal ceiling.

Pro: Radiant ceiling is easy to install and offers design flexibility.

Con: Being on the ceiling, this system is not as effective for heating as cooling since based on the distributional properties of heat.

Best Use: Creative applications of radiant ceiling cooling can be extremely effective and add rather than detract from the space’s design.

What is Forced Air?

lg vrf multi v5 radiant heat vs forced air

VRF HVAC systems incorporate air filters and exacting settings for air flow and temperature control. Photo courtesy of LG VRF

Forced air systems use ducts to transport and blow heated or cooled air into a space. Forced air systems can integrate both heating and cooling in one mechanism and are a very common form of heating and cooling in residential and especially commercial buildings. Buildings with central heat and existing duct systems often use forced air.

Forced air systems are a bit notorious for heating spaces unevenly and noisily, and the ducts take up a substantial amount of space in a home that could be used differently. But, forced air systems have undergone plenty of innovation over the years, and the newest technologies, including Variable Refrigerant Flow, offer impressive precision in temperature control and energy cost reductions. Some systems even operate nearly silently.

As long as the air filters are changed frequently and the system does not rely extensively on recycled air, forced air heating and cooling can benefit the indoor air quality. The systems promote air circulation throughout homes and commercial spaces.

Pro: Forced air heats, cools, and works to improve indoor air quality.

Con: Air ducts are prone to breakage and leakage and are overall less energy-efficient due to heat loss in ducts.

Best Use: Commercial buildings in particular may use forced air systems to heat a large or multiroom space all at once, at a lower installation cost than radiant systems.