It can be a jarring feeling when you first wake up on a winter morning and place your bare feet down on a floor that is icy cold. The problem is that some materials retain heat better, while others lose it quickly. At the same time, there are certain products that can actually insulate an environment, making the entire area feel more warm and cozy. There are also a few tricks that can be used to improve the comfort of already existing surface coverings.
Natural Properties of Flooring Materials
Some flooring materials are warmer than others, so if this is an issue in your home, pick flooring materials that are naturally warm underfoot.
Carpet: This is the most iconic and popular warm flooring solution, and it is often employed in bedrooms, family rooms, and living room areas. Products with longer, thicker threads will tend to have the most benefits in the winter, protecting the space against the outer chill while also insulating the room against heat loss. A good-quality carpet pad beneath the carpet, such as dense foam or wool will not only make a carpet feel warmer, but it actually improves the R-value (its resistance to heat loss) in a measurable way. Unfortunately, carpet not a good choice for some living space, such as spaces prone to water and moisture.
Cork: An unexpectedly warm and inviting choice, this material is made up of numerous tiny air pockets that fill the entire dimensional structure of its build. These act like cushions of insulation, preventing hot air from getting out, and cold air from getting in. It is also relatively easy to install, available in tiles and sheets that can be laid over most any subfloor, as well as directly over existing flat floors in good shape. As with most flooring materials, thicker products will be better at holding in the heat.
Vinyl: This is a resilient tile and or sheet material that is resistant to stains, water penetration, and discoloration, with very little maintenance required. It does not inherently possess any features of warmth or cold because it is so thin. However, it can be paired with padded underlayment consisting of materials such as cork or foam to combine its durable functionality with their inherent insulating properties. So-called luxury vinyl flooring planks (LVF) will be somewhat warmer underfoot, thanks to its construction. While vinyl can be a good choice in spaces such as bathrooms and kitchens, the cost of the underlayment needed to make the floor warmer can also greatly increase the price of the materials.
Laminate: Like vinyl, laminates are a neutral material when it comes to transmitting heat. A layer of dense foam padding under the laminate can help warm up the floor somewhat. In slab situations, raising up the subfloor off the concrete with a layer of plywood over sleeper strips before installing the surface flooring can also make it warmer to the feet.
Ceramic tile and natural stone: Inherently, these are some of the coldest flooring options available, since both ceramic tile and stone are very good at transmitting heat. While this quality causes them to get chilly in the winter, it also has an important benefit. When paired with radiant below-surface heating systems, these surfaces can become toasty warm, and may actually be a delightful feature throughout the cold season.
Tips for Warming Up Floors
There are a number of ways that floors can be warmed up, some fairly simple, others that must be integrated when the flooring is first being installed or when it is being replaced.
- Rugs: This is a simple yet timeless solution to cold winter flooring that can actually do a lot to make space feel warmer and more inviting. Area rugs can be placed strategically to create conversation corners and reading nooks, which can be carved out of pieces of a larger room. They can also be employed near beds, doorways, and in bathrooms where people tend to be barefoot, coating the area in a blanket of comfort.
- Floor and rim joist insulation: In first-story floors built on joist platform construction, the joist spaces built over unheated basements or crawlspaces may lose heat through the floors themselves. Insulating those floors with fiberglass batt insulation will warm them up. The rim-joist areas where the flooring platform rests on the foundation can also be a source of cold air circulating through the joist cavities below a floor. Insulating these rim joists and headers can help make floors warmer.
- Underlayment: There are a variety of flat, resilient flooring options such as vinyl, linoleum, and laminate that will take on the feel and temperature of whatever surface they are installed over. If they are placed directly on a concrete subfloor then they will inherit all of the naturally chilly properties of that material. Even with plywood subfloors, there can still be a drafty feel during winter’s chill.
The solution to this is the use of a below-surface underlayment layer. This is installed above the subfloor but below the surface covering, and it usually consists of cork, foam, rubber, or some other natural insulating material. This can help to improve the warmth of the walking area, and it also adds genuine R-value to the floor to cut down on energy costs. Underlayment can also reduce sound transmission to and from the rooms below.
- Radiant below-surface heating: The most surefire way to improve flooring warmth is with an under-floor heating system that radiates heat through an underlayment between the subfloor and surface flooring. The purpose of a radiant heating system is to emit warmth directly upwards into a floor, actually making it toasty beneath your feet. At the same time, that heat also rises up into the rest of the room, efficiently controlling the temperature of the space. Radiant heating systems generally work best with highly conductive materials, such as tile and stone.
There are two major types of radiant below surface heating systems. The most common consists of coils of wire that are heated electrically. There are also hydronic systems that use long thin tubes filled with water that is heated. Electric systems are much easier to install and are less expensive. Hydroponic systems are more often installed during the actual construction of the house. They are expensive to install but offer more efficient long-term operating costs.