Australia’s south east experienced the coldest weather a few months ago. Many homeowners are eager to know if they can retrofit hydronic heating to their existing home. While you’ll often hear that it’s recommended to install a hydronic system during the building stage, it’s still possible to retrofit a system and reap the benefits of hydronic heating.
Checking for access to pipework
When building a new home, hydronic heating installers can place the pipework in the best positions to achieve maximum convenience and efficiency. However, with existing homes, installers need to work around your pipework as it currently stands, and find the best ways to reach it given the structure and foundations of your home. Because this is a more involved and lengthy process, it can end up being an expensive process.
Depending on how your home has been built, an installer may need to access the pipework via the ceiling and walls, or under the house. If there is sufficient crawl space under your home, you may be able to install underfloor heating pipes to the floor’s underside, in between the floor’s joists.
However, when there isn’t sufficient crawl space, all floor coverings will need to be removed to uncover the joists and lay new pipes from above.
When retrofitting hydronic panel radiators, it’s crucial you have underfloor access, as this is where the pipework needs to run. While fitting off of the new panels is easy, it’s possible the installer will need to rip up some of your flooring to gain complete access, so you will need to take into consideration the cost of re-laying and patching up parts of your flooring.
Assessing suitability of floor coverings
But beware – even if you can easily access all necessary pipework, your existing floor coverings may not be the most suitable for underfloor hydronic heating.
An underfloor heating system’s pipework needs to be able to effectively transfer heat to the floor surface. If the floor covering is not an efficient conductor of heat (i.e. it doesn’t store the heat well), then you won’t be able to feel the warmth coming through. Furthermore, unsuitable floor coverings like solid timber, can warp, bend or even crack due to the moisture and temperature changes in the system. Many installers will recommend ceramic and stone tiles, as they’re excellent conductors of heat. Make sure you consult with a flooring expert in your area before making this major decision.
It’s extremely important to discuss flooring options with your installer before you proceed with a retrofit of an underfloor system, as the wrong floor coverings could result in an inefficient system, or even damaged floors. In fact, selecting suitable flooring is the key to successfully retrofitting an underfloor system.
Investing in proper insulation
The importance of proper insulation throughout the home cannot be overstated. No matter how advanced or expensive your system is, it simply won’t work if all the heat escapes through the floors and walls. As such, it’s vital you invest in insulation battens to minimise heat loss. What’s more, hydronic heating works at much lower temperatures than other conventional heating systems, so even the smallest bit of heat loss can make a big difference to your household’s comfort.
Accommodating for the increase in floor height
In some cases, you might be able to install a special underfloor heating panel directly on top of your existing flooring, without the need of ripping it all up. While these underfloor panels are extremely convenient, they do add approximately 15mm to your floor height, and that’s before your new flooring has been applied on top. While this may sound like a minimal change, even just a slight increase in floor height can affect the placement of skirtings and the height of doors around the home. As such, you may need to do a bit of readjusting and planning to accommodate for this change, such as adding a step to adjoining rooms, or planning down wooden doors.
Finding the right time to install
Due to the expense of installing a new system, it’s important you give yourself time to do your research on which system is best for you, and to find a trustworthy installer. If you leave it too close to wintertime, you may find yourself making quick decisions without having done any proper research, which could have disastrous consequences. Plus, installation of some systems can be a lengthy process, and you don’t want to be shivering through the colder months without any form of heating at all.
For this reason, spring may be the most sensible time to begin your research and install a new system – be it a hydronic system or otherwise. Planning your installation ahead of the cooler months may also mean you can find cheaper deals and more competitively priced systems. Installers are also less likely to be booked out at this time of year, so you won’t have to wait as long to get going.
If you’ve missed the opportunity to install hydronic heating while building your home, retrofitting a system is nevertheless a viable option. But keep in mind that it isn’t as simple as laying down some pipework and switching it on. There’s extensive preparation involved, and it’s likely to be a costly exercise, given you’ll be ripping up floors and installing new ones. And if you’re retrofitting panel radiators, you’ll also have to factor in their purchase cost, which can be significant given most homes have several radiators.
With that in mind, many homeowners find that the initial cost of retrofitting a system is worth the comfort it delivers. Plus, hydronic heating is extremely energy efficient, and could help you make significant savings in household energy bills in the long term.
Remember, retrofitting hydronic heating is certainly a complex task, and should only be entrusted to the expertise of licensed professionals who have the right tools and experience to conduct a proper installation.
Chris Marshall is Sales & Marketing Director for Hunt Heating, a nation-wide provider of premium hydronic heating and cooling systems for homes and businesses.