Buyers Beware – Problems of Older Homes with Radiant Heating

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I just looked at a 30-year-old townhouse with clients this past week. Highly popular 2-level floorplan, corner unit, lots of natural lighting, and really decent sized rooms. The clients were excited and talked about making an offer. It was at this moment that one particular feature gave me quite an uneasy feeling: the entire first floor was heated with radiant heating.

Why the uneasiness? Well, the floor felt very uneven in some areas, perhaps a sign of past repairs. Also, this home was built in the 80’s, when the much-dreaded “Poly B” was most widely used across Lower Mainland.

This can spell many future headaches and restless nights, not to mention thousands of dollars in repair costs. If you are thinking about buying an older home with floor heating system, it is strongly recommended that you doing some fact finding first.

First of all, what exactly is radiant heating?

The most commonly seen floor heating used in lower mainland is a “hydronic radiant system”, where hot water circulates throughout the home in one underfloor piping loop, essentially turning the whole floor into a big, flat radiator.

There are many upside to this method:

There’s no unsightly baseboards that burns your feet or hinder your creative placement of furniture.

You won’t have to live with dust-filled ductwork that blow bacteria and dusts all over the home and get you sick come winter time.

The air is not dried up and “stale”.

And the best feature of all – You get to enjoy an evenly warmed home with that cozy feeling of a home bathed in the sun of an August Sunday afternoon.

Now, here are some bad things that may come with it.

The most common system employs hot water piping buried within a layer of concrete under the floor.

Combine that with the widely used, and wildly problematic Poly Butylene (Poly B) pipes between 1970’s and 1990’s, you have the perfect recipe of a ticking time bomb under your home.

Poly B piping can deteriorate under high heat, and every time there’s a pinhole leak in your piping, you need to hire professionals to find the leak, dig up the flooring, address the leakage, then replace the floor material. Sounds troublesome? Because it is.

“What if I just spend the money to get the system replaced?”

Very nice thought, but your neighbours in the strata may not want to put up that $10,000 special levy. You’re usually not allowed to replace your own as it can impact the strata insurance policy coverage. Because of the huge cost and different degrees of problem each owner experiences, it might take months or years before owners reach to an agreement to have all the piping replaced in the strata.

What will most likely happen? You may have to put up with the long and tedious process every time there is leakage in your home. If you’re lucky and only your neighbours experience the leakage, then your only worry for now would be the likely jump in strata insurance premium.

The takeaway.

If the home you fall in love with happens to be a townhouse equipped with radiant heating, and built before or during the 90’s…. Try and look for tell-tale signs in the strata meeting minutes, and seriously consider hiring an experienced plumber/radiant heating professional as part of your inspection due diligence. If there seems to be consistent occurrences and the strata does not seem particularly motivated to take on a major replacement project, consider just moving on to the next townhouse. This is one of those issues where you can’t simply ask for money from the seller and make it go away.


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