Cost Comparison of Heated Driveway Systems vs. Portable Mats

Price Comparison of Two Snow-Melting Options

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If the cost of heated driveways were lower, would more people own them? Probably, especially those with driveways on the side of a steep hill since it can be next to impossible for them to get their cars safely up or down such drives just after a snowstorm. For those who have never heard of this snow-removal method, learn how it works and how much it costs.

Heated driveways, also called "snow-melting systems," are a technological alternative to shoveling, salting, snow plowing, snow blowing, and other snow-removal methods. The idea behind them is to have a hot surface waiting for those snowflakes as soon as they begin to fall so that snow accumulation in that area becomes impossible. Just as important is preventing ice build-up on your driveway or nearby walking surfaces, since slipping on ice can cause serious injury. However, let's draw a distinction between two different products, both of which melt the snow and ice on your driveway:

  • Fully built-in heated driveway systems
  • Portable heated driveway mats

What is the difference? What the cost-conscious shopper needs to know immediately is that a mat will be much cheaper to buy than a full-fledged system. The lowest-cost mat offered by one company, HeatTrak, is a 120-volt portable strip that is two feet wide and 20 feet long with the price resting at $1,600. At the other end of the price spectrum (but still low-cost, compared to a built-in heated driveway system) is the 240-volt, 30-foot-long version, which sells for $2,520 (you can also have a mat custom built).

Fully Built-In Heated Driveways

With most snow-melting systems, tubing is run under the driveway (and walkways, patios, ramps, and porch steps, too. Heated water is pumped through the tubing. This is known as a "hydronic" snow-melting system. The water in heated driveway systems is mixed with an anti-freeze (glycol). Heat radiates up from the tubing to the surface of your driveway and melts away snow and ice while drains catch the liquid run-off thereby produced, channeling the water away from your driveway.

What Runs a Radiant Snow-Melting System?

A boiler heats the water in most built-in snow-melting systems and pumps circulate it through the tubing. This is a form of radiant heating, which is well-known for indoor use, but this happens to be an example of its use outdoors. The whole process is regulated by controls, so that heat won't be wasted. Control schemes vary in sophistication. At the low end are manually operated "on/off" controls, while the more sophisticated control schemes are automated.

While most radiant heated driveway systems run this way, not all do. An expert from Heatizon Systems wrote in to call attention to a type of system that's not based on heated water. His company deals in radiant units that are based, instead, on "low voltage electric radiant heat technology". The technology is different, but the end result is similar. You end up with a grid (of wires, in this case) beneath your driveway that heats up the driveway surface to combat snow and ice.

Manually Controlled Systems

Manually operated control schemes (or “on/off” systems) are the least efficient for snow removal, although they do a pretty good job of melting ice. These systems rely on you to say to yourself, "Gee, I heard it's going to snow—I'd better turn the system on!"

The fact that they are cold-start systems is problematic as they won't melt the snow as quickly as automated systems. If a large amount of snow has already accumulated on a cold driveway by the time you manually activate the system, only a thin layer at the bottom of the snowfall will initially get melted. The result is a dead-air space that works as an insulator. In this case, insulation is a bad thing. It will take a while for the rest of the snow to be melted, as the dead-air space temporarily keeps the radiant heat away from the snow. As a general rule, avoid manually-operated systems unless time is not an issue for you.

Automated Systems

Unlike heated driveway systems with manual controls, automated systems run continuously, at low levels, until it starts snowing outside, at which point their controls tell them to begin operating at higher levels. Snow never gets a chance to accumulate with these systems, meaning your snow-melting needs are met more quickly.

Of course, if they operated at higher levels all winter then energy would be wasted. There is no need for them to throw maximum heat until the conditions are right for the arrival of their arch-rival, the snow.

Heated driveways that are automated use sensors that keep track of both temperature and detect moisture levels. Automated snow-melting systems stand ready at all times, avoiding the problems associated with cold-starts (seen with manual controls): Their sensors tell them when it's time to get into high gear.

Driveway Types That Permit Installation of Snow-Melting Systems

Could the installation of a snow-melting system be in your future plans? If so you need to know what types of driveways are compatible before you have a new driveway installed—not all types can become heated driveways!

Concrete driveways and asphalt driveways are both suitable for the installation of snow-melting systems. If you are attracted to a different type of driveway, you'll have to weigh its pros and cons (as compared to concrete or asphalt) before deciding. In the North, ease of snow removal is a factor certainly not to be taken lightly. 

Can You Retrofit Existing Driveways to Become Heated Driveways?

Yes. The option of having heated driveways installed is not limited to new driveway construction. Some companies specializing in heated driveways will retrofit an existing driveway with the tubing or wires required for a snow-melting system.

We are fortunate enough to have had Russel Hacker, owner of Comfort Radiant Heating, LLC, furnish additional information regarding advancements that have been made recently in snow-melting technology, especially concerning the problem of retrofitting.

Regarding the nature of Comfort Radiant Heating's business, Hacker writes, "We sell direct, distribute to other contractors, and also install only premium floor warming, primary heating, snow melting, and roof de-icing systems." One of their jobs made it onto Forbes.com's list of "coolest driveways," states Hacker. According to Hacker, Comfort Radiant Heating has "the only efficient heating elements that can be retrofitted into existing asphalt or concrete."

According to Hacker, Comfort Radiant Heating can already install their systems in or under asphalt, concrete, concrete pavers, granite, bluestone, or even in tar and chip driveways. The process involves cutting slots into the surface at a spacing that will fit the specific application, dropping the element into the slot, and then connecting it to the leads that will run to the location where the controls are located. The slots are then sealed with hot asphalt, joint sealer, or mortar (depending on the kind of driveway material composition) and everything is sealed over with asphalt.

It is reasonable to assume that other companies will eventually be able to match the capabilities of Comfort Radiant Heating. Until that time, however, it will be wise for the general public to assume—unless proven otherwise by the company with which one is dealing—that retrofitting and compatibility issues may still arise.

How Much Do Heated Driveways Cost Upfront?

Some homeowners are intrigued by the concept of the heated driveway but wonder about the up-front installation costs, as well as the operating costs.

The exact cost to purchase a snow-melting system depends on many factors, including:

  • Whether the heated driveway can be tied into your home’s heating system or must stand on its own
  • What type of control scheme do you want, a manual or an automated system? The latter is more expensive, and the cost goes up the more sophisticated they get.
  • What is the heat source for the heated driveway—hot water or electricity? Systems based on hot water tend to cost more up-front, but they may save you money in the long run. Another factor to consider is that electric systems tend to be more maintenance-free.
  • The cost of materials varies from area to area, as it does for almost any construction project.
  • How big a driveway do you have/want?
  • Will the installation crew be starting from scratch? Or will they have to tear up an existing driveway first either to get rid of it altogether (to change it to a material that can be retrofitted) or to retrofit it? This is a case where less is more because you will pay less if the crew doesn't have to commit time and resources to remove all or part of an old driveway.

    Knowing that it is cheaper to start from scratch should help if you've considered having a heated driveway put in but have been concerned about the cost. If you will be needing a new driveway soon anyhow, this would be the time to pull the trigger on both projects at once. The incentive is clear: You will save money

    To give you a more specific idea of up-front cost, let's assume you will purchase a manual system. Systems regulated by manual control schemes usually cost "$10 to $15/square foot," according to John Sweaney, design engineer at Watts Radiant. For example, if the total square footage of your driveway were 1,000 feet, your up-front cost to have a snow-melting system installed under the whole driveway would be $10,000 to $15,000. Again, though, that assumes that the installer can start from scratch.

    Sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it? And for homeowners in peak health, the potential benefits may seem hardly worth the cost—those less capable of strenuous physical work and who are reasonably well-off financially may have a different perspective, however, especially if a debilitating health issue does not permit them to do their own snow shoveling.

    Consider the worries that can plague such homeowners during a snowy winter. Yes, they can pay a snowplow contractor to plow the driveway after a snowstorm but what happens when the contractor is unreliable? Even the best contractor may not necessarily be in business next year (meaning you must break in a new one all over again). Then there is the issue of keeping essential areas outside the driveway clear of snow, such as walkways and porches. Sometimes you can find someone to shovel snow for you in these areas, but, again, such help is often temporary and not always reliable. If your hired hand does not show up one day as scheduled to shovel snow, you could end up slipping and breaking a hip.

    Here's the bottom line: Those are a lot of headaches to deal with, particularly when you might have other worries on your plate. As inconceivable as buying something so costly may be for some people, for others the up-front cost to build a heated driveway may be justified. At the end of the day, this technology can offer great peace of mind for those who can afford it.

    Operating Costs for Snow-Melting Systems

    The operating costs to run a heated driveway will vary greatly depending upon factors such as the severity of the winter. The colder your climate, the higher your operating costs are likely to be. Whether you install a hydronic system or an electric one, you will be using more energy to run the system in the Far North where it is coldest. Another factor is whether you choose to purchase a system with manual or automatic controls. Generalizing, we can say that a typical snow-melting system in Buffalo, NY may cost about "$0.25 to $.50/ square foot" to operate each year, while the same snow-melting system in Richmond, VA would likely cost "$.10 to $.25/square foot," according to Sweaney.

    If you live in a region where electricity is costly, this factor alone may sway you in favor of having a hydronic system installed instead of an electric one. You are stuck paying the electric company whatever it bills you when you have an electric snow-melting system but, by contrast, hydronic systems can run on a number of power sources including propane or natural gas.

    While the concept of a built-in snow-melting system has its appeal, the cost can be prohibitive. A full-fledged heated driveway system could easily cost $15,000 just to install, and it requires you to rip up all or part of your existing driveway and then there are the operating costs that follow. Add to these expenses any repair costs that you may incur, and it could be argued that this is something of a One Percenter's product.

    A Cheaper Alternative: Heated Driveway Mats

    Enter an alternative for the rest of us: the heated driveway mat. Heated driveway mats are a sort of sandwich, with one slice of slip-resistant rubber on top and another on the bottom, the filling in-between being the actual heating element. The power cord is moisture resistant and you plug the cord into a regular outlet. How long it takes to melt snow will depend upon how much snow you receive and upon the heat setting that you are using.

    Heated driveway mats make the most sense in regions that do not have heavy snowfalls. With this product, you're not melting snow along your entire driveway. Instead, the action is more targeted. The idea behind a mat is to use it to melt snow only along those areas of your pavement where the tires of your car will be traveling. Think of it as a product that makes tracks through the snow so that your car can pass. The mat is tough enough for you to be able to drive your vehicle right on top of it without damage. As a bonus, since a mat is portable, you take it with you when you move to another house.

    You can also buy smaller heated mats to melt the snow and ice on walkways, porch steps, etc. For example, HeatTrak offers a heated stair mat that measures 10 inches by 30 inches and that sells for around $60. If you owned a porch with, say, three steps, you would buy three of these and link them together (they come with built-in connectors that enable you to do this). One cord would then be run from this threesome to your outdoor electrical outlet. Easy as one, two, three!