Radiant heated driveways, also called snow melting systems, are installed just beneath a driveway’s surface and used to remove snow and ice without having to shovel, plow, snow blow or salt the driveway. They keep the pavement warm enough to melt falling snow so it doesn’t accumulate. They also keep the driveway too warm to allow water to freeze into slippery, dangerous ice.
With snow removal, time is of the essence. If you don’t remove snow shortly after a snowfall, walking and driving on the fallen snow can compact the snow, making it more difficult to remove. Compacted snow sometimes becomes as slippery as ice, increasing the risk of people slipping and cars sliding.
Even if you don’t live in a region that gets lots of winter storms, you might consider a heated driveway if the limited amount of snow and ice you do get causes unsafe passage to and from your home— if you have a sloped driveway that would be difficult and dangerous, to drive on or clear, or if you have a sun-starved, north-facing driveway where snow and ice might not melt for many days, or even weeks.
For those who get any amount of snow and ice but don’t have the time or physical ability for adequate removal, you might at least consider a heated driveway. Keep in mind, in regions that get less snow, it’s harder to find someone to hire for snow and ice removal. In areas where you have to remove snow and ice yourself, a heated driveway could even be considered an aging-in-place feature.
Heated driveways save homeowners time, effort and money by keeping them from having to remove snow and ice themselves or having to hire someone to do so. If you live in an area where it snows often during the winter, you might think of a heated driveway of less of a luxury and more of a practical amenity. Some snow storms are so heavy that homeowners have to shovel several times a day. Installing a heated driveway could save them countless hours of shoveling.
This week we'll learn more about the different types of heated driveways, the cost to install and run a system, and the alternative to a heated driveway.
Alright, so… How Do Heated Driveway Systems Work?
Driveways are heated using radiant heat flooring systems (like you use for bathroom floors) which are safe for outdoor use. These radiant heat systems can be either electric or a water-based, hydronic system.
Electric systems use heat producing mats or cables installed beneath the driveway surface.
Hydronic systems pump heated water and antifreeze into a plastic tubing system that’s installed under the driveway surface. A water heater or boiler, usually located in or near the garage, is used to heat the water.
Electric systems are cheaper up front and easier to install, but more expensive to operate. Water-based, hydronic systems cost more to install, but are more economical to run since they don’t require much power to operate. Hydronic systems can run on electricity, propane or natural gas.
Most heated driveways are maintenance free, but some hydronic systems might need minimal maintenance in the form of getting the boiler inspected each year. Electric systems generally never need maintenance.
Almost all heating systems can be installed beneath a concrete driveway.
Driveways made of pavers may or may not be compatible with heating systems, depending on the specific system.
And asphalt may be a problem for some hydronic systems. The heat of the asphalt can melt some of the plastic hydronic tubing. However, most electric systems are encased in a protective layer that allows them to be embedded in asphalt without melting.
Check with the manufacturer of your driveway heating system before deciding on your driveway surface material.
What Other Driveway Design Considerations Need To Be Made?
Well, when installing a heated driveway, it’s important to have adequate drainage for melted snow. If you live on a flat lot with poor drainage, the installer will need to dig a trench, or install a drainage system, which will increase the overall cost of the heated driveway installation.
Speaking of cost…let’s talk about how much you’ll have to invest for a heated driveway system
Heated Driveway Costs
Typically, the cost of a heated driveway system is between $14 to $24 per square foot. According to Ask.com, a typical double-car driveway is 20 feet wide and 20 feet long. So, an average 20 x 20 foot driveway will cost around $5,600 for a more economical electric driveway heating system.
Now here’s the thing... if you want a heated driveway for your new build, but you’re considering delaying it’s installation for a few years because of budgetary reasons, reconsider. You will typically save thousands of dollars by getting a heated driveway installed while your home and driveway are under construction. Tearing up and removing an existing driveway to add the heating system at a later date will significantly increase the cost of the project.
So what else impacts the cost of a heated driveway system?
System Controls: Manual vs Automated
The way you control the heating system will dictate the cost of the heated driveway. You can either choose a budget friendly, manual "on/off" switch to more expensive automated, programmable controls.
Manually-operated systems with an on/off switch are the least efficient for snow removal, but they work okay for melting ice. The main problem with manual systems is that, if you’re away from home, you can’t turn the system on when it starts snowing.
If a large amount of snow has already accumulated on a cold driveway when you finally get home to activate the system, only the thin layer of snow right above the warm surface will initially get melted. It will take a while for the rest of the snow to melt. As a general rule, you should avoid manually-operated systems unless your schedule allows for plenty of time for snow melting.
Pricier automated controls include a sensor system that automatically turns the heat on, or up, when the sensor detects snow, ice, or rain, along with an air temperature that’s dropped to a certain level. Snow never gets a chance to accumulate with automated systems. Even when you’re on vacation or away from your home, your driveway will stay clear and safe for your return. Automated, programmable control systems cost about $250 – $600 more than manual systems.
There is also a feature called “after-run time” that runs the system several hours after the snowfall has stopped to help make sure that water from melted snow fully evaporates, so it doesn’t freeze into dangerous ice.
How Can We Save Money On A Heated Driveway?
If you have an extra long driveway, you might have to upgrade your circuit breaker to power the heating system. But upgrading your circuit panel can be expensive. Instead of paying the extra expense of an upgraded circuit panel, you can ask about zone coverage for your heated driveway.
Zone coverage splits the driveway into several zones and heats one zone at a time. All the zones will be heated, just not all at once. Heating is done in a sequential manner and all snow will eventually melt, but because only one zone is powered at a time, it will take longer to melt all of the snow on the driveway. This is one economical option for long driveways.
Whether you have an extra long driveway or not, if you choose an electric heating system, it’s recommended that your electrician reviews the plan before the system is installed to ensure that the home’s electrical service has enough capacity to power-up the driveway heating system.
Another more affordable option for heating a driveway is to only heat the tire tracks. You can have heating mats or hydronic tubes installed only under where your tires contact the pavement, instead of heating the entire area of the driveway.
“Tire Track” heating means that only two tire-wide strips are heated along the length of the driveway. You can save 35% or more by heating only the tire tracks, instead of heating the entire width of the driveway. It will also cost less to run this abbreviated system.
Alright, now that we’ve talked about the up front cost of a heated driveway, let’s go over the cost of operation.
Cost To Run A Heated Driveway
In general, the colder and snowier your region, the more it will cost to run your heated driveway. In Buffalo, NY, for example, it may cost about $0.25 to $.50 per square foot annually to operate your snow melting system. The same system in Richmond, VA, where it’s much less snowy, might only cost $.10 to $.25 per square foot annually
Another source that I read said the operating costs averaged $125 to $250 per season to run a hydronic system and $275 or more for an electric heating system. The operating cost will also obviously depend on how expensive electricity is your region.
Now what if the system needs to be repaired?
Most quality systems are warrantied for 10-20 years and most systems, when installed correctly, will last 20 years or more without major repairs. Small repairs, such as replacing an electrical control board might be only $200, but replacing a boiler for a hydronic system could cost as much as $5,000. If the tubing in a hydronic system ruptures beneath the driveway, technicians can use a heat imaging device to locate the leak, but a section of the driveway will have to be torn out to make repairs, which could cost over $1,000. It’s important to review your warranty closely to see what repairs are covered.
You might be wondering if outdoor radiant heating systems can be use on areas other than driveways. And yes, they can.
Heating systems can also be installed under patios, walkways and decks. But keep in mind, the snow melting system will keep your patio clear of ice and snow, but it won’t emit enough heat to produce a comfortable space for you to lounge or entertain in while it’s cold outside. The heating system will warm the patio surface, but not the air above it.
Finally, let’s discuss the alternative to heated driveways: Heating mats.
A less expensive alternate to driveway heating systems is portable heating mats that you can place over your driveway, entrances or sidewalks. Heating mats have a power cord that is moisture resistant and that can be plugged into a regular outlet. How long it takes to melt snow will depend upon how much snow you receive and how much heat the mat generates.
Mats have a slip resistant surface and are tough enough for you to be able to drive your vehicle right on top of them without damage. Prices vary based on the size of the mat, but larger will likely cost more than $1000 and small mats for your front door area or porch step can cost less than $100. Mats, as opposed to built-in heating systems, are best for those on a budget and those who get less snow.
Heated driveway mats work best if you lay them down before ice or snow has accumulated.
The advantages of heated driveway mats are that they are an economical, do-it-yourself solution, and they can be taken with you if you move, or if you want to transfer them to different areas of your property.The disadvantages are that mats aren’t as powerful or reliable as a built-in radiant snow melting system.
Spending thousands of dollars on a driveway heating system is quite an investment that won’t make sense for some homeowners. But for some of you, these systems are worth the money because they are first and foremost a safety feature, plus they provide peace of mind. In addition, depending on where you live, heated driveways could add to the market value of your home. They also help preserve your driveway because they keep your driveways from experiencing the chemical damage that would come from spreading salt and other ice melting chemicals.
Finally, they protect driveways from water and freeze/thaw damage. Concrete driveways exposed to extreme cold can experience fragmenting, scaling, and cracking. Asphalt driveways exposed to repeated freeze/thaw cycles will develop potholes, crumbling, and cracking. An automated driveway heating system regulates the temperature of your driveway to help avoid that damage. Not only will Investing in a heated driveway save you the money that you would otherwise spend on other methods of snow and ice removal, but it will also save you money on driveway repair in the long run.
Well, that's it. I hope you learned as much as I did and I hope you'll stop by next week.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete and it’s subject to change, so it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.