Cost of Heated Driveway Systems vs. Portable Mats

Price Comparison of Two Snow-Melting Options

Man and woman in driveway loading car to go skiing.
Wouldn't you rather be skiing in the winter (or even watching movies on TV) than shoveling snow off of a driveway? For some, a heated driveway may be the answer. Noel Hendrickson/Photodisc/Getty Images

If the cost of heated driveways were lower, would more people own them? Probably. For those who have never heard of this snow-removal method, all of the relevant facts will be laid out below, including how they work and how much they cost. First, however, let's draw a distinction between two different products, both of which melt the snow on your driveway:

  1. Fully built-in heated driveway systems.
  2. Portable heated driveway mats.

    What is the difference? How these two products differ will be presented in detail below, but 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 2 feet wide and 20 feet long; the price is $1,600. At the other end of the price spectrum -- but still low-cost, compared to a heated driveway system -- is the 240-volt, 30-foot-long version, which sells at $2,520 (you can also have a mat built custom).

    What Are Heated Driveways?

    Heated driveways, also called "snow-melting systems," are a technological alternative to shoveling, salting, snow plowing, snow blowing and other snow-removal methods.

    With most snow-melting systems, tubing is run under the driveway (and walkways, patios and porch steps, too, if you like). Heated water is pumped through the tubing.

    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, melting away snow and ice. 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 radiant snow-melt systems, and pumps circulate it through the tubing -- 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.

    Note that, 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."

    How Do the Types With Manual Controls Work?

    Manually operated control schemes (or “on/off” systems) are the least efficient for snow removal, although they do a pretty good job of ice melting. They 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. 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 awhile for the rest of the snow to be melted, as the dead-air space temporarily keeps the radiant heat away from the snow.

    Avoid manually operated systems unless time is not an issue for you.

    How Do the Types With Automated Controls Work?

    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.

    Heated driveways that are automated use sensors that both keep track of temperature and detect moisture. Automated snow-melting systems stand ready at all times, avoiding the problems associated with cold-starts (as with manual controls).

    Their sensors tell them when it's time to get into high gear.

    Of course, if they operated at higher levels all winter, energy would be wasted. No need for them to throw maximum heat until it is both cold and wet outside -- that is, until the conditions are right for the arrival of their arch rival, the snow.

    What Driveway Types Permit Installation of Snow-Melting Systems?

    Could the installation of a snow-melting system be in your future plans? If so, then, before you have a new driveway installed, you need to know what types of driveways are compatible. 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. If you are weighing the pros and cons of the different types of driveways, including how they rate for ease of snow removal, you may wish to see my series of answers to frequently asked questions about the types of driveways available.

    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 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 retrofit into existing asphalt or concrete." Says Hacker:

    "We install snow melting systems in or under asphalt, in or under concrete, under concrete pavers, granite, bluestone or even in tar and chip driveways (though your description of how a chip and tar driveway is constructed is different than how we've seen it done in the Northeast). The better tar and chip driveways we've worked with start out with a full asphalt base and then have the hot tar and chip added on top.

    "We can also install low voltage systems as a retrofit application in asphalt or concrete. Since the element comes with a real, non-prorated warranty, we only install it in surfaces that are in excellent condition. Naturally, it makes no sense to install a 25 year element in an asphalt driveway that only has 5 years left in it.

    "With asphalt, we saw cut slots into the surface at spacing that will fit to the specific application, drop the element into the slot and then connect the element to the leads that will run to the location inside where the controls are located. Then we seal the slots with a hot asphaltic sealer so that the masons can then apply a top coat of asphalt over the system using standard equipment. Hand application of the asphalt is not used in this design as the element is embedded into the lower asphalt surface and is thereby protected from damage. Or, instead of the top coat of asphalt, this is when the tar and chip is applied.

    "Concrete is done very similarly but we use an expansion joint sealer to fill the slots and a top/slurry coat is not necessary, though it could be applied for esthetic reasons. When installing it under pavers or the like, the element is either embedded in the mortar or sand base under the paver or on top of a concrete base."

    If Comfort Radiant Heating is capable of such work at the time of this writing, it is reasonable to assume that other companies will eventually be able to follow suit. 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 (Both Up-Front and Operating Costs)?

    Some homeowners are intrigued by the concept of the heated driveway but wonder about the up-front cost (that is, what the price would be to have one installed). Just as important is the issue of the operating costs (see further below).

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

    1. Whether the heated driveway can be tied into your home’s heating system, or must stand on its own.
    2. What type of control scheme do you want -- a manual or an automated system? The latter are more expensive, and the cost goes up the more sophisticated they get.
    3. What is the heat source for the heated driveway, hot water or electricity? Systems based on hot water tend to be more expensive.
    4. The cost of materials varies from area to area, as it does for almost any construction project.
    5. How big a driveway do you have (want)?
    6. Will the installation crew be starting from scratch? Or will they have to tear up an existing driveway first (assuming retrofitting is not possible)? 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 removing an old driveway.

    Knowing that it is cheaper to start from scratch should give you an idea if you've considered having a heated driveway put in but have been concerned about the cost: namely, that if you will be needing a new driveway soon anyhow, this would be the time to pull the trigger on having a snow-melt system. The incentive is clear: You will save money. 

    We have had to deal in generalities so far in answering the question, simply because that is the nature of this sort of beast (it is always hard to give specifics that will hold up across time, geographical regions, and personal circumstances). But 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-$15/square foot," according to John Sweaney, design engineer at Watts Radiant. For example, if the total square footage of your driveway were 1000 feet, your up-front cost to have a snow-melt system installed under the whole driveway would be $10,000-$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 their health does not permit them to do their own snow shoveling.

    Consider the worries that can plague such homeowners during a snowy winter. Yes, they pay a snowplow contractor to plow the driveway after a snowstorm. But what happens when the contractor is unreliable? And 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 Johnny does not show up one day when he is supposed to in order to shovel, you could end up slipping and breaking a hip.

    Here's the bottom line: That is a lot of headaches with which to deal. So 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. This technology can offer great peace of mind for those who can afford it.

    And how much does it cost to operate snow-melt systems?

    The operating costs to run a heated driveway will vary greatly depending upon factors such as the severity of the winter. Another factor is whether you choose to purchase a system with manual or automatic controls. But a typical snow-melting system in Buffalo, NY may cost about "$0.25-$.50/ square foot" to operate each year, while the same snow-melting system in Richmond, VA would likely cost "$.10-$.25/square foot," according to Sweaney.

    A Cheaper Alternative: Heated Driveway Mats

    While the snow-melting concept has its appeal, the cost can be prohibitive. As we have seen, a full-fledged, built-in heated driveway system could easily cost $15,000 just to install, and it requires you to rip up your existing driveway (if you are retrofitting). 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 a One Percenter's product.

    Enter an alternative for the rest of us: the heated driveway mat. 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.

    Here are some quick facts about heated driveway mats:

    1. The product is 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 gizmo.
    2. Its power cord is moisture resistant.
    3. You plug the cord into a regular outlet.
    4. How long it takes to melt snow will depend upon how much snow you received and upon the heat setting that you are using.

    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 x 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.

    Check out HeatTrak's blog to learn more:

    1. http://blogs.heattrak.com/residential/the-benefits-and-drawbacks-of-heated-driveways
    2. http://blogs.heattrak.com/residential/everything-you-need-to-know-about-heated-driveways