The New Homeowner’s Guide to Home Heating - Part 1 — The Wide World of Heating!

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When buying a home, new homeowners often have a long list of must-haves, nice-to-haves, and deal breakers. Typically, they fall under the categories of location, home condition, price, schools, walkability, and the like. But what about the type of heating system the home has? What — not on your list?

Maybe it should be. After all, home heating systems vary widely in performance, life span, and cost to operate. While it likely won’t be the deciding factor in any home-buying situation, it’s worth considering.

Really, though, having a stronger big-picture understanding of the wider world of home heating is helpful for any homeowner. If/when you have to choose between repairing or replacing an existing HVAC system, you’ll be better-equipped to make the right decision for your needs. And someday, if you’re fortunate enough to get to build that amazing custom home, you’ll better understand your options.

With all that said, welcome to Covered’s two-part guide to home heating. Part one goes over the basics of the most common types of home heating systems, as well as the pros and cons of each. In part two, we’ll do a deep-dive on furnaces, which are still North America’s most common home heating system. We’ll help you understand the different types of furnaces, how to navigate repair/replacement, and how to keep your furnace running long term.

Before we jump in, however, let’s be clear: We’re keeping this simple. That means it can’t be exhaustive. If you want to learn about the many, many variations and potential complexities of the world’s rainbow of home heating systems, we invite you to get happily lost in the Department of Energy’s excellent and thorough home heating system resources, which also helped us in researching this article.

Common Types of Home Heating Systems

Furnaces: The Hot, Blowing Air Most of Us Know as Home Heating

WHAT: A central furnace blows heated air through ductwork to warm the air throughout your house. Basically, heat is carried through the air, so it’s not surprising that furnace systems are often referred to as “forced-air” systems. Air is heated as it passes over the hot surfaces of the furnace’s heat exchanger, which is heated either by electricity or by combusting natural gas, propane, or oil. One thermostat controls the entire home’s temperature. Again, furnaces are the most common home heating system in North America, with natural gas models being the most prevalent.

PROS: Furnaces, while not exactly cheap to purchase and install, are generally an efficient, inexpensive to operate, and reliable way to heat most homes. Some furnace models promise up to 98.5% efficiency. You can produce however much heat you need, no matter how cold the weather is. Heating happens quickly. Furnace replacement parts are common. A quality furnace should last 15 to 30 years or longer. And while it’s relatively rare, some well-maintained, top-quality furnaces have chugged away for more than 40 years. Finally, central air cooling systems can use the same ductwork as your furnace.

CONS: The moving air can carry dust and other allergens. Since heat travels through the air, you pretty much have to heat your entire home. Further, closing vents may actually be problematic for your system. Furnaces often suffer energy loss, with warm air escaping through leaks in the ductwork. Temperature swings may occur as systems cycle on and off. Electric furnaces are more expensive to operate than other systems. Older furnaces can be loud, clunky, and inefficient though some retrofitting is possible.

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? YES, depending on the model.

Boilers: Cozy Heat Brought to You by Water and Steam

WHAT: A boiler system heats water, turning it to steam and pumping it through radiators or pipes located in the various rooms of your home. The steam moves through a closed loop that recycles the steam back into water. It’s similar to a furnace, but instead of using air to carry heat throughout the house, it uses water or steam. Boilers are the second-most-common home heating system in North America.

PROS: Boiler systems are incredibly quiet, and don’t blow allergens around as furnaces do. Water and steam retain heat better than air does, and the home’s surfaces stay warmer, too. So boiler heat is generally “cozier” than furnace heat. Boilers can be used to selectively heat rooms in your home, so if you only use a portion of your home, you can choose not to heat the unused portion. Boilers offer solid performance, with up to 90% efficiency. A quality boiler should last 15 to 30 years while requiring less routine maintenance than furnaces.

CONS: Boilers are fairly expensive to purchase and install, and replacement parts may not come cheap. Since boilers are water-based, you have to maintain a minimum temperature sufficient to keep pipes from freezing. You could also end up with leaks. (We heartily hope you don’t. But if you do, your homeowners insurance may be able to help.)

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? NOPE.

Heat Pumps: The Great Heat Recycler (That Won’t Work in Alaska)

WHAT: Heat pumps use electricity to move heat from one place to another. In the summer, a heat pump will move the hot air out of your house; in the winter, it’ll move heat in. Heat pumps are housed inside metal cabinets, one indoors and one outdoors. Air is moved either directly into the room or through ducts. In other words, heat pumps never have to generate heat themselves. They simply move heat around.

PROS: Heat pumps are pretty efficient, with newer models vastly improved over older ones. Reliable, they last an average of 10 to 20 years, depending on environmental conditions. Heat pumps are safer to operate than heating systems based on combustion (hello most furnaces!). Individual thermostats allow you to customize temperatures room by room. Cold spots are uncommon, since heat pumps offer more even distribution of heat. Heat pumps can work particularly well in smaller spaces or warmer climates.

CONS: Heat pumps don’t work well in some colder climates (i.e., if temperatures regularly drop below freezing); there’s simply not enough heat to move. You are likely to need a backup heating source when your heat pump can’t operate efficiently. They’re a little high-maintenance, since the pump’s filters must be washed monthly. You may only realize your heat pump is in need of replacing when your heating and cooling bills are going up. Heat pumps are generally more expensive to install than furnaces.

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? YES.

Geothermal Heat Pumps: Okay, Not Super Common, but SO COOL

WHAT: The warmer ground below your home transfers energy to liquid-filled pipes that deliver heat to your home. Operating as a loop, the liquid inside the pipes pulls heat from the surrounding earth as it circulates. Just like a regular heat pump (see above), it can move heat either toward or away from your home (i.e., to cool your home in the summer). Though geothermal heat pumps have only been around since the ‘40s, they’re growing in popularity. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin recently upgraded to geothermal.

PROS: Geothermal heat pumps are quiet, reliable, and consistent, given that underground temperatures are relatively constant no matter what the season. Hands down, they’re “the most energy-efficient and cost-effective form of heating and cooling,” according to HomeAdvisor, and thus highly attractive to homeowners wishing to reduce their carbon footprint. They need almost no maintenance, and won’t need replacing for 50 years or more. Federal and state tax incentives may be available.

CONS: Installation tends to be expensive (according again to HomeAdvisor, about $8k to $20k, depending on site conditions), and the pumps themselves will run you another $3k to $8k. That said, financing is available from most sellers or installers.

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? YES.

Radiant Heating: Toasty Warm from the Toes on Up

WHAT: While there are many types of radiant home heating systems (e.g., using water, air, or electricity to circulate heat), the basic idea is that heat is transferred directly to floors, wall panels, or ceiling panels. For example, with radiant floor heating, the floor feels warm to the touch, and the natural convection of warm air rising heats the air in your home. A boiler is required to heat most radiant heating systems.

PROS: Radiant heating offers quiet, optimal comfort, and consistent temperatures. It can be very efficient, especially the hydronic (water-based) systems, with low costs to operate and reduced energy loss. Since it’s not blowing air around, it’s also not blowing around dust and allergens, improving air quality and making it an attractive option for allergy sufferers. Radiant heating may be a good choice for heating a home addition, when it may not make sense to expand an existing home heating system. A high-quality radiant heating system could last 35 years or longer.

CONS: If your radiant heating system relies on water, you have to maintain a minimum temperature to keep pipes from freezing. Panels must be installed below floors, walls, or ceilings, making installation challenging (e.g., if you love your gorgeous wood floors, you may not be terribly keen on ripping them up). Finally, heating can take slightly longer than with forced-air systems.

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? NOPE. (And anyway we’re guessing it wouldn’t feel terribly nice on those toes.)

Active Solar Heating: Harnessing the Sun for Home Heating

WHAT: Solar energy heats either liquid or air, transferring the solar heat either directly to the home or to a storage system. A back-up home heating system is in place to provide heat in the event the solar heating system cannot provide adequate heat.

PROS: Active solar heating can be very cost-effective in regions that regularly experience colder temperatures AND sunny skies, significantly reducing the need to rely on more expensive heating fuels. Solar heating systems can last for decades. State tax exemptions or deductions may apply.

CONS: Active solar heating systems may not meet 100% of your home heating needs, requiring a back-up system. Systems require regular maintenance to optimize performance and ensure reliability. Local zoning and building code requirements may restrict solar system installation.

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? YES, depending on the solar heating/cooling system.

Electric Baseboard Heating: Zonal Heating Entirely from Electricity

WHAT: Also known as “electric resistance heating,” electric baseboard heating systems use electric heating elements encased in metal pipes to heat the air inside the various rooms of your home. Each room to be heated has its own baseboard heater (usually placed along the room’s perimeter) controlled by an individual thermostat. Generally installed below windows, the rising warm air from the baseboard heater serves to counteract the cool air coming from the window above it.

PROS: Individual thermostats allow you to customize temperatures room by room. You may leave unoccupied rooms unheated if desired, helping you save on home heating costs. (The usual caveat applies, however: If you’ve got water pipes in those rooms, you still need to keep temperatures well above freezing to avoid burst pipes.) Electric resistance heating may be another good option for a home addition when it’s impractical to extend the home’s existing heating system. The consensus seems to be that electric baseboard heaters will last around 20 years.

CONS: Electric baseboard heaters can be noisy, and quality varies widely by manufacturer. And electric resistance heating of any kind is likely to be more expensive than heat produced by furnaces that use natural gas, propane, or oil. As energy.gov explains, baseboard heating is “100% energy efficient in the sense that all the incoming electric energy is converted to heat. However, most electricity is produced from coal, gas, or oil generators that convert only about 30% of the fuel’s energy into electricity.” They also say that, if electricity is your only choice for home heating, a heat pump is preferable in most climates.

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? NOPE.

Portable Heaters: Put the Heat Where You Need It

WHAT: A portable device (e.g., a space heater) converts electricity, propane, kerosene, or natural gas into heat. The device may or may not have a thermostat controlling its output, and may or may not require a vent to be installed through a wall or ceiling. (It should be noted that electric space heaters are the only unvented space heaters that are safe to operate inside a home.)

PROS: Portable heating devices tend to be fairly inexpensive to purchase, and you can put them where they’re needed. Depending on the size of your space, they can be highly efficient at heating your home (95 to 100% efficiency). They can be ideal for supplementing rooms that are inadequately heated.

CONS: Using portable heaters as your sole home heating source tends to become very expensive over time. Portable heaters are also a leading cause of residential fires, so safety is an issue worth considering. The life span of a portable heating unit can vary widely, depending on the manufacturer.

Wood or Pellet Heating: High-maintenance but Back to Basics

WHAT: An appliance burns wood or pellets made from recycled, processed wood or other biofuels. A chimney harnesses the heat and routes exhaust outside the home. For safe operation, floor protection is installed around the appliance. Pellet appliances typically require electricity to run their fans, pellet feeders, and controls.

PROS: Pellets provide a sustainable, CO2-neutral heating fuel that heats more efficiently than traditional wood stoves or fireplaces. Fireplaces or wood stoves can last for decades when properly maintained. (The average lifetime for a pellet stove, however, runs about 15 to 20 years). Fireplaces and wood stoves can also be cheap to install, and remain operational without electricity. Fireplaces or wood stoves may also offer the benefit of cooking surfaces.

CONS: Pellets and firewood can be expensive. Gathering and cutting firewood can be highly labor-intensive. Appliances require regular refueling and ongoing inspection/maintenance. Appliance location impacts how well heat will be circulated and conserved. If an appliance is too small for a space, it won’t provide sufficient heat. Wood-burning appliances may give off significant amounts of air pollution — leading to adverse health effects and increased air pollution.

CAN IT BE USED FOR COOLING? NO.

Now that you’re feeling all smart, cozy, and warm with your newfound home heating expertise, why not extend your high-impact adulting into a second look at your homeowners insurance policy? For a free policy review, give us a call at (833) 487-2683 or send us a message.

Cover Photo by Achudh Krishna on Unsplash

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