DIY

How to Choose a New Heating System: 5 Key Questions to Answer

Choose the best furnace, boiler, or heat pump for your home. Cut through the confusion with answers to five key questions.

Reader Contribution by Steve Maxwell
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by AdobeStock/V. J. Matthew
Consider efficiency and expense when choosing a new heating system for your home.

If you live in a region that gets cold enough that your home has a heating system, that system will eventually need to be replaced. Even homes with woodstoves often still have a furnace, boiler, or heat pump for really cold weather or when you’re away from home for a while during winter. And while today’s newest furnaces, boilers, and heat pumps are more efficient and reliable than ever, the large variety of options out there can make it challenging to choose wisely.

Want to simplify this challenge? The following answers to five key questions will help you make the wisest possible decision. For even more detailed technical information on choosing a new residential heating system, read through a free copy of The Ultimate Furnace Guide.

When Should I Replace My Heating System?

Sometimes heating systems break in big and permanent ways. The need for replacement is obvious in cases like thee. Other times, the old system keeps working, so replacement is something you need to decide to make happen. The main thing to understand is that newer heating systems are often so much more efficient than older ones that it’s actually a waste of money to keep an old furnace or boiler going — even though it still works fine for now. Depending on the state of insulation in your home, how old your furnace is, and how cold it gets where you live, a modern heating system can save more than $1,000 per year compared with what you have now. As you shop, look for figures on total heating efficiency for the various models you’re considering. Overall efficiency ratings of 95 percent and higher are now possible with the best equipment.

What Energy Source Makes the Most Sense?

Furnaces, boilers, and heat pumps are all made to use specific forms of energy. Natural gas, propane, oil, coal, and electricity are the most common types of energy input for heating systems. In most places right now, a dollar’s worth of natural gas delivers a lot more heat than a dollar’s worth of electricity. Propane and oil deliver roughly the same amount of heat per dollar (depending on market prices), but oil poses a greater environmental hazard in the event of a leak. Wood pellets offer one of the most economical sources of heat energy in regions where pellets are manufactured. (Learn more about pellet stove installation.)

Each form of home heating energy has unique characteristics. Generally, natural gas offers the lowest-cost energy source, but it’s typically only available in urban and suburban areas. Propane is like “rural natural gas,” but it’s more expensive than natural gas because propane needs to be delivered by truck to your home. Another issue to consider is local competition. Where I live in rural Ontario, Canada, there was only one propane supplier for years, and it charged accordingly. As soon as a second supplier arrived in our area, propane prices dropped dramatically to reasonable levels and stayed there.

Want to heat green? The most environmentally friendly “heat source” is insulation. Increase your wall and attic insulation levels to at least current building code minimums to deliver the biggest environmental bang for your buck.

Should I Stick with the Heat Distribution System I Have?

The furnace, boiler, or heat pump you have now generates heat, but this is just one part of your heating system. The other part is the ducts or pipes that distribute that heat to various rooms. In all likelihood, it makes sense to keep the distribution system you have as you choose a new heat source. This will simplify the selection process. If you already have a forced-air furnace delivering hot air via sheet metal ducts, for instance, then get another forced-air furnace and connect it to the ducts you have. Same thing for a boiler delivering hot water to existing radiators or in-floor heating pipes. That’s not to say that you need to stay with the same energy source. If you currently have, say, an oil-fired forced-air furnace, there’s no reason you can’t easily switch to a natural gas or propane forced-air furnace. Same goes for a boiler that generates hot water for heating. There’s no problem swapping an electric boiler for another type of boiler as long as both are boilers.

One heat distribution system that makes sense to change sooner rather than later is electric baseboard heaters. All else being equal, electricity will always work out to be the most expensive home heating option because so much energy is lost in transmission from the generating plant to your home. Also, in the case of a power failure, it takes a large generator to power an all-electric heating system. By contrast, any kind of fuel-burning heat source only requires a small generator to operate, because electricity is only used to power the controls, fans, and pumps.

Heat pumps are the one exception to the high cost of electric heat. Instead of generating heat directly by running electricity through a high-resistance element (as with baseboard heaters or an electric furnace), heat pumps harvest naturally occurring heat from the surrounding air, soil, or water. This is why heat pumps typically deliver 2 to 3 times more heat than they consume in electricity. These days, air-source heat pumps are very economical to operate, even at outdoor temperatures below freezing. Most heat pumps can also operate as air conditioners during summer.

Should I Change My Thermostat?

Probably. Modern thermostats are much better than older ones in two ways. Besides allowing you to save energy by being fully programmable to deliver different heat levels at different times of day, the best thermostats use both indoor and outdoor temperature levels to control the heat output by a furnace or boiler. To get the most efficiency out of modern heating equipment, they need to be connected to a modern thermostat system with an outdoor temperature sensor. Besides being more efficient, today’s best thermostats also deliver fine temperature control. The system I installed in my own house maintains temperatures to within 1 degree Fahrenheit of the set point.

How Do I Find a Good Dealer?

Unless you’re exceptionally handy, you’ll need a dealer to help you choose a new heating system and install it. Ask potential dealers for references from at least three past clients each, and then call these people and ask how things went. Most home improvement disasters could’ve been avoided by asking for and checking references. You’d be surprised how many homeowners get lazy about this and never check references. And when you’re checking out dealers, it’s not just installation skill that matters. You’ll also need to rely on them for emergency service calls. Don’t wait for a cold Sunday night with a broken furnace to find out that customer service isn’t something your dealer is very good at.

Steve Maxwell is a DIY expert and longtime contributor to MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He and his family homestead on Manitoulin Island, Canada, cultivating a little patch of  farmland surrounded by a sea of forest. Connect with Steve at BaileyLineRoad.com, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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