Types of Heating Systems

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Photo courtesy MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
Woodstoves are an effective way to heat a house.

Types of Heating Systems

The options listed below are the most popular types of heating systems. Each offers different options for heating delivery and control.

Furnace. This type of system heats air with oil, natural gas, propane, electricity or biofuels. A fan pushes the hot air through ductwork to distribute heat throughout the home. This type of heat distribution is called “forced air,” and these systems are popular because they can share a distribution system with the central air-conditioning. The main drawback of furnaces is the tendency for ductwork to leak both air and heat if not properly sealed and insulated. It’s also more difficult to create heat zones with a furnace, which you will need to do if you want to heat different areas of your house to different temperatures. To create heat zones, you will have to install a new system expressly for that purpose.

Boiler. Hot water is distributed to each room by baseboard units, radiant heat tubes under or within a floor, or radiators. Heat distribution from a boiler is clean, quiet and easily zoned — a different thermostat can be placed in every room. A boiler can be a good option if you don’t need central air-conditioning, which requires a forced-air system. Many older houses use radiators, but radiant-floor heating is becoming more popular. This option can save energy by keeping your home more comfortable at lower temperatures, but installing radiant-floor heating is labor-intensive, which can make it an expensive choice.

Combination Systems. A water heater or boiler also can be used in conjunction with forced-air heat distribution. As hot water circulates through the coil, a fan blows air over it, distributing the heat through the ductwork to your house. This type of forced-air system is easier to zone than a furnace.

Electric Resistance Heat. Electric baseboard heaters use this type of heat, which is created by resistance to the flow of current. In most parts of the country, the cost of electricity makes this an expensive option unless you will need to use it infrequently. In this case, it can be a practical choice because it is inexpensive to install and easy to create heat zones.

Space Heaters. Woodstoves, fireplace inserts and gas or kerosene room heaters are good, low-cost heating options if you have an open floor plan, live in a warm climate or have a small or very efficient home. Unvented space heaters (the kind that burn fuel, but don’t require a chimney) present heath, safety and durability problems and should not be used.

Home Heating Checklist

Open the curtains and shades on sunny days.

Design landscaping to allow sunlight to enter south-facing windows in the winter, and to provide shade in the summer and year-round wind blocks.

Dress warmly and keep the temperature as low as is comfortable.

Use a programmable thermostat to turn down the heat at night, and while you’re at work or out of town.

If you have a furnace, seal and insulate your ductwork.

If you have a boiler, insulate all pipes leading to and from it.

Use insulating window curtains at night to reduce heat loss.

Install a ceiling fan to circulate warm air trapped at the ceiling, allowing you to turn down the thermostat a few degrees.

Use plastic window film, storm windows or insulating window panels if your home has single-pane windows.

Seal drafty areas where outside air enters the home, such as at doors and windows and anywhere air from the attic can penetrate the rest of the house, such as the chimney, plumbing chases and attic hatches.

Hire an experienced energy auditor to pinpoint air leakage areas that need to be sealed.

Insulate the attic, walls and floor to recommended levels.

Keep heat registers, radiators and baseboards clean and clear.

Use a tight-closing damper on fireplace chimneys to prevent conditioned air from flowing up the chimney.

If the heating system is more than 15 years old, consider replacing it with an Energy Star-qualified system.

If you are considering major renovations to your house, have an energy audit performed to see if any energy-efficiency improvements can be made at the same time.

Resources for Energy Efficiency

These groups offer extensive resources for learning more about energy efficiency:

American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy 
Find ways to save energy and learn about U.S. energy policies.

Energy Star program 
Learn about Energy Star-certified homes, and energy-efficient heating systems and other appliances.

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Clearinghouse 
Find consumer information, tips for renters and recommendations for how much insulation to use in your climate.