The Pro's and Con's of different types of Home Heating Systems

Your home may have one of several types of heating systems. They can range from blowing hot air through ductwork to piping hot water through your floor.
Whatever type of heating system you have, it will have advantages and disadvantages. So it's worth a quick review of the most popular types of home heating systems, how they work, and their pros and cons.

 

Let's review the following systems:

  • Forced Air
  • Radiant Heat
  • Hydronic (Hot Water Baseboard)
  • Steam Radiant
  • Geothermal
Forced Air Heating and Cooling System
Gas Furnace
 
Forced Air System
This system is by far the most common type of home heating and cooling system.

Distribution

  • Air heated in a furnace
  • Air distributed from furnace through ductwork and into room by registers

    Fuel Sources

  • Furnaces may heat air using various fuel sources such as natural gas, propane, oil or electricity

    Advantages

  • Only distribution method that can used for cooling
  • Air may be filtered
  • Air may be humidified
  • Air may be dehumidified
  • Inexpensive
  • Furnace can attain highest AFUE

    Disadvantages

  • Requires ductwork and takes space in walls
  • Furnace fan can often be heard
  • Moving air can distribute allergens
  • Air requires filtration and regular maintenance.
 
Radiant Heat
radiant in floor heat

Radiant Heating System

This system is known to provide the most natural and comfortable heat in a home. It can come in a number of forms, from a pot belly stove to in-floor hot water tubing. It works through the process of radiation or direct transfer of heat from a hot to a cold surface.

Distribution

  • Most commonly provided via hot water tubing embedded in the floor or directly below the floor surface
  • Radiant panels may be used in ceilings
  • Heating stoves

    Fuel Sources

  • In-floor systems use hot water heated by a boiler
  • Boiler may be fueled by natural gas, propane, oil or electricity
  • Heating stoves may use wood or coal

    Advantages

  • Comfortable, even heat
  • Boilers can be energy efficient

    Disadvantages

  • Slow heating up cycle since surrounding materials must warm
  • Expensive installed cost
  • Difficult access to hidden piping if maintenance problems emerge.
  • Air conditioning requires a separate ductwork distribution and cooling system
 
Hydronic (Hot Water Baseboard)
baseboard unit

Hot Water Baseboard System
Similar to radiant heat, this system uses hot water heated by a boiler to heat a space by a combination of radiation and convection.

Distribution

  • Hot water heated by boiler and piped to "fin-tube" baseboard units mounted along walls. The fins increase the surface area of heat dissipation making the unit more efficient.
  • Air is distributed by convection as air rises and is heated by the baseboard unit.

    Fuel Sources

  • Boiler may be fueled by natural gas, propane, oil or electricity

    Advantages

  • Energy efficient
  • Quiet
  • Close temperature control

    Disadvantages

  • Baseboard radiation / convection units must remain unobstructed and can provide challenges in furniture placement and drape design.
  • Slow temperature increase.
  • Air conditioning requires a separate ductwork distribution and cooling system.
     
    Steam Radiant
    Cast Iron Radiator

    Steam Radiant Heating System
    Steam radiators are nostalgic and not often used today. They are characterized by cast iron upright radiators radiating heat with steam.

    Steam systems come in two varieties, one-pipe and two-pipe systems. With one-pipe systems the water and steam travel in the same pipe but in opposite directions. In two-pipe systems steam flows in one pipe and water condensate returns in another set of pipes.

    Distribution

    • Heat is distributed with steam piping and radiator units

      Fuel Sources

    • Steam boiler may be fueled by natural gas, propane, oil or electricity

      Advantages

    • Efficient and warms spaces quickly
    • Radiant heat is comfortable
    • Old hot water system radiators can now be replaced with smaller convection units or vertical wall panel radiators

      Disadvantages

    • Radiators can be unsightly
    • Radiator locations may limit furniture placement and window coverings
    • Air conditioning requires a separate ductwork distribution and cooling system
       
      Boilers
      hot water boiler

      Boilers
      A boiler is the heating plant used to create hot water or steam for hydronic baseboard, radiant heat or steam radiator heating systems. Boilers can use a variety of fuels including natural gas, propane, oil or electricity.

      Steam boilers are more complex than hot water boilers and have special gauge glass, pressure gauges, blow off valves and automatic feeds.

      Hot water boilers can be small, compact, energy efficient and low maintenance

       

      Geothermal
      Types of Home Heating Systems
       
      Geothermal
      The newest home heating (and cooling) technology is called a Geothermal Heat Pump (GHP). Heat pumps work like a refrigerator that can run in reverse. Heat is taken from one source and deposited in another location. With ground loop geothermal systems, heat is taken from or deposited to the earth by use of a ground loop pipe.

      The EPA states that a Geothermal Heat Pump can save 30 to 70 percent on home heating and 20 to 50 percent on home cooling costs over conventional systems. But these systems are not cheap.

      An excellent overview of Geothermal Heat Pumps including cost, manufacturers and details on this technology can be found at Toolbase.org Geothermal Heat Pumps.

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