Understanding the origins and advances of underfloor heating

Article Date: 29 May 2022

From adding a luxury look and feel to houses to increase their value, to improving comfort levels and reducing energy bills, underfloor heating is now a popular option for property owners. While today many consider this ingenious solution a modern invention, it is over seven thousand years old.

Although underfloor heating first arrived in Britain with the Romans, its world history stretches back even further to 5000 BC. In this blog, we’ll take an in-depth look at the origins of underfloor heating, including when it first saw use and how it has changed over time. We’ll also explore some of the latest innovations in underfloor heating design and the benefits users can enjoy when they opt to add an installation to their property.

Underfloor heating in ancient Korea

In 5000 BCE, the Koreans invented an innovative system that effectively channelled the heat emitted from a lit hearth beneath the stone floors in their homes. The original underfloor heating system was called ‘ondol’ or baked stone. While the original usage was typically rudimentary in nature, the process was further refined by 3000 BCE to incorporate multiple fires that not only heated floors, but also ovens for cooking. The Korean invention spread throughout Asia and in one form or another still enjoys continued use to this day.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Long after the Korean Ondol in 5000 BCE, the Ancient Greeks created their own version of underfloor heating building basements that supported rooms above robust pillars. Referred to as a hypocaust these systems allowed warm air to be funnelled to the upper parts of a building supplying heated floors and even walls, through a series of interconnected pipes.

The Romans are often credited with the creation of underfloor heating, however, in reality, they tweaked the hypocaust design before adding them to their bath houses and villas throughout Europe. As a result, by the 14th century, using underfloor heating via hypocaust was among the most adopted ways to warm spaces from homes of the wealthy to opulent palaces and indulgent Hammams (Traditional Turkish Spas).

Underfloor heating elements uncovered

Around the middle of the 19th century, basic central heating systems had begun to debut across Europe employing boilers and hot water transferred by pipes. During research into central heating, polyethene was discovered. While it served no useful purpose at the time, it would later become ‘polyethylene’, a product that became the basis for the pipes used in warm-water underfloor heating systems in the mid-60s.

Underfloor heating in the 20th century.

At the dawn of the 20th century, many major public buildings here in the UK continued to install hypocausts for heating. However, across the Atlantic, US architect, Frank Lloyd Wright had started experimenting with radiant underfloor heating equipment he had originally seen operating in Japan. The renowned architect, who is best known for his masterpieces like Pennsylvania’s Falling Water and the Guggenheim Gallery in New York later went on to install heated floors in his celebrated Usonian Homes in the 1930s. These pioneering prototypes were designed to provide mass production examples of expertly designed homes that were both easy to construct and affordable.

In 1960, north of the border, Canada experienced the first-ever underfloor heating systems that used water pipes, using the polyethylene piping technology that was pioneered in 1965 by Thomas Engel. As the decades progressed, the advances in this technology helped underfloor heating become more popular and by the 1980s, it was not an unusual inclusion in European homes.

UK underfloor heating from the 60s to the 80s

While the Romans may have introduced underfloor heating to British soil, it disappeared for centuries before returning in the 1960s. The re-entry of underfloor heating to UK homes introduced electrical systems, but the technology available at the time made them ineffective and expensive. Prone to mechanical issues, these systems were costly to run and were often unable to deliver the heat required for home comforts.

At the same time, warm water underfloor heating was gaining ground in Europe. The radiant heat quickly became a success and to this day it remains a popular choice, especially in the colder countries of Europe.

The UK’s first warm-water underfloor heating systems used water circulating PEX pipes and were manufactured and installed in the 1970s. While advances in material technology along with heat transfer have now opened a wide range of possibilities, essentially today’s solutions use the same principles. Systems circulate warm water at specific temperatures through flexible pipes made from plastic that are installed beneath the floor. As a result, almost every type of floor can be transformed into a large-scale radiator.

Modern underfloor heating solutions

Wet underfloor heating systems have come a long way since the 1980s. While originally, systems often raised floor levels by considerable height, modern retrofit underfloor heating can ensure that impact on living spaces is kept to a minimum.

Water-based underfloor heating systems work especially well with smart thermostats. These innovative options allow homeowners to split their property into different zones, with each room featuring its own individual thermostat. As a result, rooms can be warmed independently ensuring that household members can enjoy their ideal level of warmth. Additionally, when rooms are not in use, the heating can be switched off to save on energy bills. Smart technology also makes it easier to control underfloor heating and can be configured and activated from a mobile phone application.

An added benefit of wet underfloor heating is how well it works with low carbon and renewable technology. Systems can be powered by wind turbines, solar panels and the increasingly popular heat pumps that maximise the energy efficiency of underfloor heating systems.

Sheffield and Doncaster specialists in underfloor heating systems

Whether you’re planning to update your home with wet underfloor heating or are looking for expert advice on the best system to suit your heating requirements, we can help. For high-quality products and specialist guidance contact our dedicated team at the Underfloor Heating Shop today for all you need for a dependable installation.


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