Radiant Heat vs. Forced Air, Which is Best for My Pittsburgh Home?

This is a hard question to answer, but here’s our advice:

If the sky’s the limit when it comes to your budget, we would suggest a radiant heating system. A radiant heating system will provide more even heating and is more energy-efficient for your home.

However, radiant heating systems are much more expensive to install than forced-air systems, so if you’re like most Pittsburgh homeowners, a forced-air system will be the better option for your budget.

Other factors you should consider when making the choice between radiant or forced heating, include:

  1. Upfront vs operational costs
  2. Versatility of the system
  3. Your indoor air quality needs
  4. The level of comfort you want

Below, we’ll go into each of these considerations in more detail, so that you can get a better idea of whether radiant heat or forced air is the best option for your Pittsburgh home.

But first, let’s take a look at how these systems work in the first place.

Want a professional’s opinion? We’ve got you covered. We have a lot of experience helping Pittsburgh homeowners install and maintain their heating systems, and we’d be happy to provide you with expert recommendations as well. Learn more about the heating services we offer or…

How do radiant heat and forced-air systems work?

Forced-Air System:

A forced-air system is exactly what it sounds like…a heating system that heats air and blows (or forces) that heated air around your home.

Forced-air systems work by pulling in cold air from your home, heating it and then forcing that air throughout your home via ductwork.

The most common forced-air heating systems include furnaces and heat pumps.

Radiant Heat:

Unlike forced-air systems, radiant heating systems don’t heat your home’s air but instead heat your home’s surfaces.

Radiant heating systems heat your floor, baseboards, walls or ceilings using a network of pipes that are heated via electricity or hot water (from a boiler or water heater). That heat makes direct contact with those surfaces and is transferred to you via radiation.

Think of radiant heating like warming yourself over an electric stove. There is no hot air blowing on you, but you can feel the heat coming from the surface itself.

Now that you have a better idea of the difference between radiant heat and forced air, let’s look at the factors you should consider when deciding which option is best for your home.

Factors to consider when choosing between radiant and forced air

Factor #1: Upfront vs. operational costs

There are two major costs to consider when installing a new heating system: upfront cost and operating costs.

Upfront cost:

Radiant heating is significantly more expensive to install than a forced-air system is.

Radiant heating typically ranges from $14,000-$48,000 depending on the type of system (electronic, air-heated, hydronic), whereas furnace installations usually cost $4,500-$9,000 and heat pumps range from $2,500-$10,000.

Operating costs:

Even though radiant heating systems are much more expensive to install than forced-air systems are, they’re much more efficient than forced-air systems. This means the cost to operate a radiant heating system is going to be less expensive month-to-month.

Why are radiant heating systems more energy-efficient?

As we mentioned above, forced-air systems heat your home’s air and then blow this heated air throughout your home via ducts. Ductwork tends to be inefficient because, over time, the heated air inside the ducts can be lost due to:

  1. Leaks
  2. Holes
  3. Poor connections between ducts
  4. Poor insulation around ducts

In fact, according to Energy Star, 20 to 30 percent of the air that moves through a duct system is lost due to leaks, holes, and poorly connected ducts.

With a radiant heating system, you don’t have ductwork and therefore don’t lose any heat to cracks, leaks or insulated ductwork, making radiant heat a more efficient type of heating.

Factor #2: Versatility of the system

Forced-air systems are more versatile than radiant heating because they use the same infrastructure for heating and cooling, whereas a radiant heating system can only be used for heating.

For example:

  • Heat pumps actually work as both an AC and a heating system, so you only need to install one system for both heat and air conditioning.
  • Furnaces can only heat your home (they do not provide air conditioning), BUT your air conditioning system will use the same infrastructure (duct system) that your furnace uses.

On the other hand, if you install a radiant heating system in your home, you’ll also need to install an entire duct system and an air conditioning system which can get pretty expensive. On average, ducts cost about $1,000 to $5,000+ to install.

Factor #3: Indoor air quality needs

Homeowners with allergies tend to prefer radiant heat to forced-air systems.

Because radiant heating systems don’t circulate air around your home, this means they also don’t circulate allergens and pollutants that are in your home’s air. Typically, this helps reduce symptoms related to allergies.

HOWEVER, just because radiant heating systems don’t circulate allergens doesn’t mean that allergens aren’t present in your home’s air. Radiant heating systems don’t purify your home’s air of allergens, they simply don’t circulate those allergens around your home.

With a radiant heating system, you’d probably want to install an air purifier in your home to actually increase the air quality and reduce the number of pollutants in your home’s air.

With a forced-air system, you can also install an air purification system or a more potent air filter to help catch more pollutants and allergens.

Factor #4: Level of heating comfort you want

Radiant heat provides more consistent heating throughout your home than forced-air systems do.

This again has to do with the fact that radiant heating systems heat surfaces rather than air.

With a forced-air heating system, heated air is blown out of vents. This can create a disparity in the temperature of the air around your home. For example, right where hot air is being blown out of a vent, the air will likely be very warm. However, the other end of the room will probably be cooler. Additionally, hot air rises, so the temperature near your ceiling will probably be the warmest area of your home and in “lower” areas (where you likely are), the temperature will probably be cooler.

With a radiant heating system, surfaces are heated evenly, so regardless of where you are in your home, the temperature is the same.

Still unsure which type of heating is best for your home? Contact Calfo, we can help.

We know that deciding on a heating system for your home can be stressful, especially if it’s a large financial investment.

Our team has years of experience serving Pittsburgh homeowners, and we’d be happy to take the time to evaluate your home and current system to help you determine which type of heating is best for your budget and household.