Hydronic vs. Electric – Which is Best for You?

Heated Liquid or Electric Current? (Comparing Hydronic and Electric Snow Melting Systems)

A General Overview and Guide for First Time Buyers

If you're unsure of which typs of radiant heating technology to install, this article should help you understand the basic differences between the systems, and how those differences would impact you. You can also go online and learn more about hydronic and electric radiant heat technology. Hydronic and electric radiant heating systems are both popular, viable forms for heating driveways, ramps, steps, floors, and even roofs. There is ample information on the web that will help you gain a general understanding of hydronic and electric radiant heat systems.

An electric heated driveway during the installation and afterwards.

The next best thing you can do is talk with an objective radiant heat expert at an established company that offers both types of systems. Consultants who work for reputable companies will be happy to answer your questions and explain the differences between the two technologies. Ask questions to determine the requirements of each system so you can plan accordingly. (For example, a hydronic system will require a "mechanical" room to house the boiler, pumps, and manifold, etc.

The initial objective for prospective buyers is to find an established provider that not only offers both technologies, but includes services such as a dedicated installation support staff, free professional installation training courses, and detailed AutoCAD system layouts. The second objective is to find an experienced installer and electrician. Since your provider works with numerous installers, they should be able to recommend an experienced, favorably reviewed installer in your area. Finding the right installer is crucial. Regardless of purchasing the best driveway heating components available, a radiant heating system is only as good as its installation, so industry-leading products will be of little benefit if the system is not installed correctly. Your correct choice of installer is every bit as vital as choosing the right radiant heat provider. Again, this is why installation training and installation support are so important for consumers. Make sure your provider offers these services.

Evaluating Hydronic and Electric Systems, and Finding the Right Provider

The web is cluttered with radiant heat businesses claiming to offer "the best systems". Hydronic radiant heat components and system engineering varies greatly among providers, as do electric systems and their associated support services. The majority of radiant heat providers are competent businesses with quality products, but there are always exceptions, and fewer businesses still that offer both top-notch hydronic solutions as well as premier electric snow melting systems and support services.

Although we endeavor to remain impartial, we also strive to provide information beneficial to consumers. With this in mind, we suggest that consumers use a company like Warmzone as a point of reference in terms of its extensive product line and support services, ranging from a responsive, helpful phone staff to systems that include all the key aspects of genuine customer support. Remember, many providers claim to offer installation support, when in fact, callers are simply directed to an available sales consultant or employee when the need arises. Unlike these businesses, Warmzone is a rare provider that not only offers free, accredited installation training courses, but houses a dedicated installation support staff with its design team. Having an electrical expert or professional system designer at your finger tips proves invaluable for onsite installers who require immediate responses to their questions. Therefore, it is to your advantage to use a company like this as "the ideal" when evaluating the factors associated with purchasing and installing a heated driveway.

Below is some general information outlining the basic differences between hydronic and electric heated driveways. Hydronic and electric systems both utilize three key components, but these are about all they have in common. The installation and operation of these systems are quite different. But each system utilizes three basic components:

Heated hydronic driveway beong installed.

A heating element - Heat cable or PEX tubing

An activation device - Aerial- or ground-mount snow sensor

A power supply/controller (contactor panel)

Now if you’ve reached the point where you are seriously considering installing a heated driveway or sidewalks, you’ll discover that there are many options to choose from, and the process can be quite daunting. Once you've done a little homework on your own, find an experienced, trusted radiant heat provider, to further explain the differences between hydronic and electric radiant heat systems. But the decision is yours, so don't hesitate to ask all the questions you need.

What are the differences and what is the best solution for your snow melting needs?

Talking with an experienced radiant heat professional will help. But be sure that the “professional” you’re consulting with carries both hydronic and electric radiant heating systems. If he only offers hydronic systems, he’ll naturally try to convince you that you need a hydronic heated driveway, or the same with electric systems. So, Step 1: Do some online research. Step 2: Talk with a reputable company that offers both technologies and ask questions about the costs and characteristics of each system.

Hydronic Snow Melting Systems

General Overview

Hydronic radiant heat systems use a closed-loop of special PEX tubing that specially treated water, heated by a boiler, is pumped through. Hydronic systems can often be installed to use your existing boiler or water heater. The liquid that is heated and pumped through the tubing consists of a special mixture of water and propylene glycol (anti-freeze).

The liquid is heated to a temperature between 140 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit before a series of pumps and supply-and-return manifolds circulates it through the network of specially manufactured PEX tubing embedded beneath the concrete, asphalt, or stone paver surface. The tubing ranges from ½ to ¾-inch in diameter, and can be carefully curved to accommodate the layout of your driveway. To ensure the long life of the system, this tubing is uniquely designed to resist chemicals and corrosion without becoming soft at high operating temperatures or brittle in cold outdoor temperatures.

Perhaps the most significant difference between a hydronic system and an electric heated driveway is the mechanical components required to operate the system and their subsequent installation. Hydronic snowmelt systems require a designated "mechanical room" to house the boiler, pump(s), manifold, valves, and controller. Given the equipment necessary to operate a hydronic radiant heating system, the installation can be considerably more intimidating and expensive than that of its electric snow melting counterpart.

Homeowners must be aware of this as they consider their radiant heating options. However, although the initial purchase and installation cost of a hydronic snow melting system can be much higher than that of an electric snow melting system, the operating costs can be lower. Because boilers can use propane, natural gas, oil, electricity, or even solar collectors, large hydronic radiant heat systems may operate more economically than large electric snow melting systems (depending on your local utility rates). Your installer may also be able to find a boiler that uses the most economical fuel source in your area, further helping to minimize operating costs.

Heated paver sidewalk after a snowstorm.

Electric Snow Melting Systems

General Overview

Electric radiant heating systems can also be installed in virtually all types of common mediums such as concrete, hot asphalt applications, and under brick and stone pavers. The heating cable is available in rolls or pre-spaced in mats that can be rolled out over the area to be heated, making installation quick and easy. The cold leads of the cable are run to the contactor panel and the snow sensor is mounted according to the design supplied by your provider. An electrician then connects the sensor and heat cable to the supply source.

The electric snow melting system boasts a faster response time than hydronic systems and is also very energy efficient. The installation advantage also swings in favor of the electric radiant heat system, which is typically cheaper, easier and quicker to install.

Versatile and Easy to Customize

The flexible heat cable makes electric heated driveways remarkably versatile, so they can be easily customized to heat odd shaped driveways, patio layouts, outdoor steps, ramps, and so forth. To reduce the power demands, installation and operating costs, many homeowners opt to only install two 24-inch-wide heated tire tracks instead of warming the entire driveway. Electric radiant heating systems offer consumers a virtually unlimited range of installation options, because the heating cable is so easy to install around corners or small, tight areas.

But the question remains: Should you install hydronic radiant heat or electric heat in your driveway?

Only you can decide whether to install a hydronic or electric snow melting system, but for what it's worth, consider this information offered by some contractors who have installed radiant heat systems. Because of the lower installation cost of an electric system, combined with the hydronic system’s minimal operational savings on small and medium sized driveways, construction professionals and experienced installers generally recommend electric radiant heat for most homeowners. Installation is generally cheaper and faster, and there is no need for a designated mechanical room to house the boiler, manifolds, and pumps, etc.

Additional advantages of electric snow melting systems are that they operate silently and use renewable energy. In today’s environmentally conscious world, the “clean” operation of electric radiant heat is an attractive option to some. But perhaps the most significant advantage that homeowners are enthused about is that electric heated driveways are maintenance free. The systems use no moving parts, so there's no need for routine maintenance checks. Considering the unending chores associated with owning and maintaining a home, it’s no wonder why this feature is particularly eye-catching.

Both hydronic and electric heated driveways offer fully automated snow melting service, and both technologies are widely in use today. Talk with an experienced system designer or radiant heat expert about your specific snow melting needs, and learn more about which system would best meet your unique snow melting and budget needs.