A concrete or asphalt driveway is a major convenience that many homeowners enjoy, but when winter weather arrives and covers your pavement with a layer of snow or ice, steps must be taken to recover full use of your driveway. And the safety hazards of slippery pavements must also be minimized, both to prevent accidents and to avert any possible lawsuits that may follow if a visitor should be injured on your property.
One common strategy for keeping driveways free of snow/ice during the winter is to install a heated driveway system long before winter begins. These snow-melt systems can keep your whole drive snow-free, or they can target a portion of the driveway only. (Many times, only one sufficiently wide tire lane is heated.) The convenience of a heated driveway comes at a substantial cost, but in some situations, they are well worth the investment.
Below, we look at the pros and potential cons of installing either an electric coil or hydronic heated driveway. We also mention an exciting new alternative method of heating your driveway that is just now ready to appear on the market.
The Two Types of Heated Driveways
Electric coil heated driveways involve installing electrically heated metal rods under your pavement, which can be controlled as to temperature, timing, and duration of heating. The power output of the cables varies, ranging from 6 to 50 Watts per linear foot, and reaching temperatures as high as 220° F (93.33° C). This means you can melt snow/ice at rates of inches per hour, depending on your specific system and on how high you turn up the heat.
Hydronic heated driveways consist of PVC tubing that zigzags underneath your pavement. A heated water-antifreeze mixture is circulated through the tubing, warming concrete/asphalt and freeing your pavement of snow and ice. Hydronic systems cost more to install than electric coil, but the latter cost more to operate.
Benefits of a Heated Driveway
The major benefits of a heated driveway that have made them popular with many homeowners in the northern U.S. include the following:
No need to shovel: Eliminating snow shoveling also eliminates the risks of slip-and-fall accidents, frost bite, and hypothermia. And there is no need to hire someone to shovel or plow your drive, which saves you money. Finally, there is no risk of scraping or chipping your pavement with shovels and ice picks.
No need for deicing: The heated portions of your driveway will not require any rock salt or other deicer. As salt has damaging effects on pavements and adjacent vegetation, it is good to minimize its use. Additionally, the health hazard contact or ingestion of deicers poses to pets and kids is eliminated, as is the expense of buying them.
No-maintenance service: Typically, once you install a heated driveway, there is nothing more you need do but operate it for many years. As long as the heating elements are evenly spaced and large, sharp stones were not used when the driveway was poured, there should be little if any maintenance costs.
Drawbacks of Heated Driveways
Some of the major "cons" to consider when weighing whether or not to install a heated driveway include:
The installation expense: Normally, you have to install a new driveway in order to integrate the sub-pavement heating system, and this can cost thousands of dollars. The systems themselves will also cost at least a couple thousand dollars. A $5,000 to $10,000 (approximately $6,720 to $13,440 CAD) bill is not uncommon.
Operating expenses: How much it costs to run a heated driveway will vary greatly based on square footage heated, differential between outdoor and target temperatures, and how prone the region is to snow/ice accumulation. However, $125 to $250 (approximately $168 to $336 CAD) per season to run a hydronic system and $275 (approximately $369 CAD) or more for an electric coil system are reasonable estimates.
Repair expense: Though properly installed heated driveways normally need no maintenance, when they do, it may require tearing up the whole driveway to make the repair. If an electric wire burns out or a PVC tube is punctured, it will cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to correct.
A Heated Driveway Alternative
Heated driveway snow-melting mats are similar to other snow-melting mats designed for walkways and entry areas but strong enough to endure the weight of vehicles instead of just foot traffic.
The mats are laid down straight to create a snow-free tire lane. They are capable of melting around two inches (5 cm) of snow per hour, and the melt-off will not refreeze while they are on. They run off ordinary outlets and can be used as needed to reduce expenses.
Heated driveways have many important benefits, though they are also expensive to install and repair. Driveway snow-melting mats can accomplish much the same thing as heated driveways, while costing less.
When winter arrives and your driveway is suddenly covered in snow and ice, you may find yourself longing for a heated driveway that could take the snow shovel out of your hand or eliminate the expense of paying for professional snow-plow services.
But you may not be quite sure if a heated driveway is worthwhile, if its "pros" truly outweigh its "cons," or what kind of cost would be involved in installing, using, and maintaining such a system.
Below, we attempt to clarify what a heated driveway is and what are its benefits and drawbacks. We hope you will find this analysis helpful in determining if a heated driveway of some kind is right for you.
Three Types of Heated Driveways
Traditionally, there are only two types of heated driveway: hydronic or electric coil systems. But we have also included here a third innovative option on the market — driveway heating mats.
Hydronic systems work by using a boiler and pump to circulate a water-antifreeze mixture through PVC tubing over which concrete or asphalt is poured. The tubes are typically spaced 6 to 8 inches (15.2 to 20.3 cm) apart and arranged in a spiral or wave-like configuration to promote even heat distribution.
Electric coil systems use metal heating cables that are installed under the pavement and activated by a wall-mounted control unit. They are very powerful, often able to reach temperatures over 200º F (93.33° C) and produce as much as 50 Watts of electricity per linear foot of coil.
Driveway mats will function much like a heated driveway that can be installed only seasonally. Two tracks of slip-resistant rubber mats with a central heating element are spaced to align with your vehicle's tire path. They will be strong enough to bear the weight of a car and able to maintain an ice/snow free driving lane or melt one in a matter of hours or even minutes.
Benefits of Heated Driveways
While the benefits/drawbacks of heated driveways vary to a degree based on which type you use, we mention here the most significant common benefits of heated driveways in general:
- Convenience: Snow and ice are melted effortlessly and in minimal amounts of time. You can often program heating based on a regular hours or on a temperature trigger, but you can manually turn the heating on/off if you wish as well.
- Health concerns: Snow shoveling often leads to slip-and-fall accidents, back pain, muscle strain, joint injuries, or hypothermia. By clearing off your driveway "automatically," you minimize the health risks associated with being out of doors in cold, winter weather.
Less salt damage: With a heated driveway, your need to use rock salt, calcium chloride, or another deicer on your driveway will be reduced or even eliminated. When salts get trapped in the tiny crevices of concrete/asphalt, they draw water in after them, where it alternately freezes/thaws during the winter. This helps to deteriorate your pavement. Salt can also damage the undercarriage of vehicles and landscaping near the driveway's edge.
Drawbacks of Heated Driveways
While heated driveways are a solution to many wintertime problems, they are not a perfect solution. There are a few drawbacks that you should be aware of before investing in a heated driveway:
- Concrete can be stressed by hydronic heating tubes if the heat is not evenly distributed. When the fluid temperature is drastically higher than the slab temperature, cracking is even possible.
- Pavement may have to be torn up in order to fix malfunctioning heating coils. Occasionally, only resurfacing will be needed, but usually, the whole driveway would have to be redone.
- The expense of heated driveways can be a drawback, though they can also save you money on professional plowing services. They will certainly add to the wintertime utility bills. With hydronic systems, the upfront installation cost is high, but the usage cost is low. With heating coil systems, the bigger expense is in usage, while installation is not too expensive if you are laying down a new driveway anyway.
Whether or not installing a heated driveway makes sense will vary greatly based on your situation. For example, a small, easily plowed driveway that gets plenty of sun may not need to be heated, while a longer, shady driveway might be a prime candidate. Homes in the far north, where there are long winters, will get more use out of their heated driveways, but at some point, the winter is too short and mild to justify the expense.
As for driveway mats, their easy portability makes it reasonable to use them in any climate that sees snow/ice. You simply put them away for storage after the cold season ends.