I spent last weekend in my capacity as an "expert" at a large home-building consumer show. These events are clearly big business nowadays, with thousands of customers visiting hundreds of stands that represent all manner of clever building systems and products, but also with lectures and seminars on various aspects of home design, and a one-on-one expert "surgery".
Green issues are increasingly apparent in so many of the products on display and how they are presented and sold. I must admit, however, to a creeping unease at some of the science being put forward to justify the green credentials of many products, and whether the theoretical models actually reflect the reality of how we live in our homes.
I was struck, as I wandered around the show between sessions, by the amount of stands trying to push various types of domestic heating systems. Energy efficiency is, of course, an important aspect of your choice of heating system and many of the systems involved green energy sources such as solar collectors or "geo-thermal" heat exchangers that you bury in the ground to recover the latent heat in the earth. This is all great stuff, and everyone seems delighted that such things are increasingly popular.
However, I was suspicious when I was confronted by a heating salesman who made a green case for under-floor systems over radiators on the basis of "thermal mass".
I used to love the idea of under-floor heating. There are no radiators to clutter up the walls and you get an even heat with warm feet and a cool head – in theory it is fantastic. Earlier this year I moved into a rented flat while my house was full of builders, and the flat had under-floor heating, but to my surprise, I have to admit that I went very cold on the whole thing.
The "thermal mass" argument suggests that because the heating system heats up the whole floor, this heat is retained efficiently over a long period. However, our experience was that this system was very difficult to control as it had a very slow response.
Often, we would come in to find the flat roasting and ended up opening windows – in mid-winter – to cool down. Other times we'd find the flat was cold (probably because we'd left the windows open after being too hot) and the place would take an age to warm up again, even with the heat turned up full. Hardly an energy efficient system.
It certainly struck me that, for all the benefits of warm feet on a stone bathroom floor (which is undeniably pleasing), there was an equal and opposite discomfort. Sitting as a family on the floor of the living room after Sunday lunch to play a board game became uncomfortably hot.
I suppose that the lesson is that you need to choose a system that suits you. Some people will go for a radiator system throughout their house, with the exception of the kitchen – where finding walls for placing radiators is always difficult – and for bathrooms they specify under-floor heating, for that "warm feet" syndrome.
There are now plenty of boiler systems that can cope with supplying both types of heating systems. Alternatively, some people install electric under-floor systems in specific areas.
Generally speaking, the running costs of electric systems are much higher, but gas (for heating the warm water systems) has become much more expensive than it was. Plus, the installation cost of an electrical system is considerably less.
The other thing to bear in mind is that radiators are no longer just the ubiquitous ugly ribbed metal panels they once were. There are some wonderful sculptural radiators for feature areas, and more usefully there are simple, flat panel radiators that can be made to any size – tall and thin or long and low, depending on the room.
Hugo Tugman runs the design service Architect Your Home – www.architectyourhome.com
Project: under-floor heating
How much will it cost?
The new breed of electrical under-floor heating system, where there is a heated wire mesh laid into the adhesive beneath a tiled floor, is cheap to install – sometimes as little as a few hundred pounds, plus your tiling. Beware the running costs, however: they can be startlingly high. To have a new warm water, gas-fired, under-floor system fitted throughout a house would be likely to cost in the region of £8,000 to £10,000.
How much hassle is it?
In an ideal world, under-floor heating needs to go down before the flooring. In a refurbishment project, it often means lifting the floor up, which will usually render the rooms in question out of bounds while the work is in progress. With the water systems, it is recommended, and sensible, to pressure test the whole system before putting the floors back down. This will preclude the possibility of doing certain areas of the house at a time.
What's the first step?
Try to gain some experience of the different options, rather than just falling for the sales patter. If you are thinking about an under-floor system, find out if any friends or relations have something similar, and spend some time in their house to see what you think.