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Most homeowners are familiar with radiant heating systems, even if they aren’t aware of the term. Hydronic floor heaters are common, and they use radiant methods to heat properties instead of pumping out forced air. Using radiant cooling methods to lower the temperatures in homes is also possible, but few residential properties currently use this method in the United States.
Find out more about radiant cooling systems, their pros and cons, and why they aren’t as popular as traditional air conditioning systems, even though the cooling process is more efficient.
How Does Radiant Cooling Work?
Radiant cooling works by using chilled surfaces to remove heat by thermal radiant exchange with people and objects rather than by the cooling effect of air convection. This usually occurs through hydronic systems, which have a network of chilled circulating water pipes running through them. The pipes absorb the heat energy in a room to lower the temperature.
Installation typically involves mounting the pipes on panels or slabs in the floor or ceiling of the room. Separate air systems for ventilation, dehumidification, and, sometimes, additional cooling can accompany them.
Types of Radiant Cooling Systems
You can choose from a few different types of radiant cooling systems. The two main methods are via chilled slabs or radiant panels.
The technical name is a thermally activated building system (TABS), as the slabs integrate with floors, ceilings, or walls. Slabs are less expensive and less obtrusive than panels. Their high thermal mass capacity can take advantage of daytime temperature swings, allowing the cooling to occur during off-peak hours. This can reduce energy bills.
Slabs in the ceiling can be more effective as warm air rises, so more come into contact with the cooled surface than if the slab is on the floor. However, floor fitting works well with a high amount of solar exposure, as this absorbs more easily than from the ceiling.
Modular radiant ceiling panels allow more flexibility in terms of external retrofit placement and are sometimes even attached to walls. They have a lower thermal mass than integrated slabs, allowing them to react rapidly to changing heat loads.
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Benefits of Radiant Cooling
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There are reasons radiant cooling methods are slowly increasing in popularity, and much of it comes down to how much energy they can save.
Research shows that radiant cooling can provide energy savings of as much as 30% compared to conventional cooling systems. Moving thermal energy with water and electricity is much more efficient than distributing it using air and electric fans.
Suits Hot, Dry Regions
The energy savings possible in hot, arid regions are more significant than in cool and humid ones. This makes radiant cooling systems a good choice in Southwest states.
Because radiant heating relies on a large, cool surface area, it gently draws heat away from our bodies in a more effective way than more uniform forced-air cooling methods do. This leads to more comfortable indoor conditions. Because it doesn’t involve any forced air, it reduces cold drafts, ventilation noises, and the movement of dust and other allergens.
Drawbacks of Radiant Cooling
When you look at how few homes in the U.S. use radiant cooling systems currently, it won’t come as a surprise that they aren’t without their drawbacks.
High Installation Costs
Installing a radiant cooling system can cost up to twice as much as the cost to install a traditional central air conditioning system. These costs should become lower as more homes use these types of systems. But, for now, the materials and labor costs for installing the panels, piping, control system, pumps, and other parts are consistently higher.
One of the biggest concerns about radiant cooling systems is the potential for condensation on the radiant surface. This is a particular problem in cooler, more humid regions, and it can lead to mold and mildew formation, and even water damage. Running a dehumidifier and having good in-home ventilation help, but this type of system is best for hot and arid regions. Avoiding the use of floor slabs in rooms with heavy carpets is a good idea too.
Lack of Professional Expertise
Because radiant cooling systems are relatively uncommon in the U.S., this drives prices up for fitting. Plus, there are few professionals available with solid working experience in installation, maintenance, and repairs.
Is Radiant Cooling Worth It?
For new build projects in areas without high humidity, installing a radiant cooling system could be a worthwhile investment. You could offset the high costs at the outset with the long-term energy savings and the comfortable environment this type of system creates.
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