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Radiant flooring helps cut heating bills

Homeowners looking for a more efficient way to heat portions of their home may find the answer resting at their feet.

Radiant floor heating warms a space from the ground up. This is welcome news to tootsies - and can also save on energy bills.

There are two predominant radiant heat methods. One option pumps heated water through a matrix of pipes. This works fine, but the water is heated by natural gas and may be expensive to install.

The second is a network of low voltage electric wires laid beneath tile or laminate surfaces. Yet rather than string a loose coil of wires by hand, the wiring is encased in insulative mats made to fit the configuration of your floors. The mat is rolled out and held in place by adhesive. Flooring is then laid atop the mats.

According to John Rose of Nuheat, a maker of the electric radiant floor systems, the system is not considered a whole-house heating phenomenon. Homeowners opt to install ''zoned'' wiring in areas most frequently used, such as bathroom, kitchen and family room floors. Twelve watts per square foot generates floor temperatures from 82 to 90 degrees.

''What makes this different from forced air heat is that we heat the objects that come into contact with the floor,'' Rose said.

This means the air temperature inside a home can be cooler yet the occupants actually feel warmer. Without near-continuous forced air heating, homeowners can trim natural gas heating bills by 30 to 50 percent, Rose said.

Rob Henderson knows all about the wintry, damp Pacific Northwest. Until recently, the Canadian resident had only to set a bare foot on his tile floors for a frigid reminder of the cold.

''All I know is that it's great in the colder months, and my neighbors spend a lot more money on heating than I do,'' Henderson said.

His most recent cold weather heating bill: $215 (U.S.) per month.

''It's great because I'm only heating the portions of the house we use. That cost efficiency is a nice advantage,'' Henderson said.

Radiant heating also sees good growth in nursing homes and assisted living centers where the elderly are particularly prone to cold temperatures. There are no cooling air drafts with closed-end radiant heat systems as there is with forced air heating.

Homeowners can expect to pay $500 to $700 for a typical bathroom, including installation.

Rose said operating costs are also lower - and reliability higher - because the system has no moving parts. Heat is regulated by a programmable thermostat that allows owners to turn off the system at night or while at work. The system can be set to turn on shortly before homeowners rise in the morning or return from work at night.

The best time to install these systems is during new construction or amid renovations when the existing floor is removed. It is not suggested under natural wood floors which can dry out from the heat. Under carpet is also not recommended.