There are several different types of systems commonly used to provide homes with heat and each broad type has variations. Some of these systems will share components with your home’s cooling system and other systems can provide both heating and cooling. The term HVAC is used to refer to a home’s overall climate control system and stands for heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.
No matter what kind of HVAC system you have in place, the general principle remains the same: thermal energy is produced through the use of a fuel source and then it gets transferred to the living space to ensure a comfortable ambient temperature. The fuel sources can include natural gas, fuel oil, propane, wood or electricity. Some homes will use a combination of heating systems. For instance, the owners convert their basement to living space or build an extension to the main structure and use a different system for that area.
Since heating your home takes up more energy and often makes up about half of your utility bill in the cold season, exploring the different options will help you decide on the most suitable one for your needs. Just keep in mind that getting an energy-efficient heating system is only half the battle. To cut down on your utility costs you should supplement it with proper insulation, thermostat settings and regular maintenance and upgrades.
Forced Air Heating/Cooling Systems
This is by far the most popular heating system in North America nowadays. A forced-air system uses a furnace or heat-pump with a blower fan to deliver warmed air to various rooms of the house through a network of ducts and in-room vents. Once the home owner sets the desired temperature on the thermostat, the cold air from the house is pulled into the system which then passes it through an air filter, warms it and then releases it back. This process repeats itself until the temperatures in the rooms match the ones set on the thermostat.
- Air quality – If the filters are changed regularly, this HVAC system removes airborne particles and allergens that could irritate your respiratory system. Humidifier and dehumidifier units can be attached to the system further improving the quality of your in-door air.
- Energy efficiency – At present, the government has increased the standards regarding energy efficiency for forced-air systems which means that what you can now find on the market is very cost effective in terms of utility bills.
- Combined heating and cooling – This is the only heating system that can also be used for cooling the home in the hot seasons. It will use the same ductwork but the air will then be passed through refrigerant lines.
- Could decrease the quality of your air – If the filters are not changes regularly, this system will spread the same air particles and allergens it was supposed to remove. It’s recommended that you keep up with a few simple maintenance tasks.
- Noise levels – When the system is going through the cycles we described earlier, you will hear the fans turning and air being pushed through the vents.
- Furniture placement – for this system to work properly you need to make sure there are no elements such as furniture or decorative objects blocking the vents or it will result in uneven air distribution.
Boiler and Radiator Systems
This type of heating system is very common in Europe and can be found in older homes in North America. It works by using a central boiler that circulates steam (older models) or hot water through a network of pipes to the radiators. The classic version of a radiator is a cast-iron unit typically positioned near windows.
The term boiler can be misleading since modern models don’t actually boil the water, they just heat it. It’s called a boiler because in the past steam boilers were very widespread and they did, in fact, boil the water to create steam which then condensed back to liquid form and returned to boiler to continue the cycle.
- Water is a better medium for thermal energy – A forced-air system just warms the air, not the objects in the room so even if you set the thermostat for a boiler/radiator system at a lower temperature it will actually feel warmer. This is because warm air will quickly rise to the ceiling while radiators keep the heat at floor level.
- Air quality – There’s no risk of spreading air particles or allergens, which means you don’t have to worry about changing the filters, although boilers do come with their own maintenance requirements.
- Energy efficiency – Modern boiler/radiator systems offer excellent energy efficiency and the radiators can be changed to low-profile wall panel or baseboard models. If you’re considering changing your boiler system we recommend you look up reviews and try boiler rentals to decide which one works best for you.
- You can’t use it as a cooling system as well – Unlike with forced-air systems, you will not be able to use your boiler system to cool your home during hot weather which means you will need additional ductwork.
- Radiator location – since you have to place radiators strategically throughout the house this will limit your option in terms of furniture and window coverings.
Floor heating has become a popular trend in new housing and is considered a luxurious home feature. This is because home owners like the soothing warmth they feel on their feet which cannot be provide by the previous two options.
There are three types of floor heating:
- Radiant air floors
- Electric radiant floor heating
- Hot water or hydronic floor heating
The floor heating systems using air are very rare since air can’t hold large amounts of heat and are therefore not very cost effective in this type of installation. The ones that use electricity usually are combined with floor materials that can store heat for a long period of time to cut downs on cost. Hydronic floor heating is by far the most popular option.
- Uniform heat – radiator will inevitably create hot spot and cold spots in a room. Since with this type of system you’re heating the floor, the heat is distributed more evenly.
- Energy efficiency – You can also set the thermostat at a lower temperature to obtain the same level of comfort which makes them more energy efficient as long as you’re using the hydronic option.
- Installation cost and time – Floor heating can be quite expensive to install and repair. Because they need to be installed in the floor, it’s best done while the house is being constructed or it will cause a lot of disruption and may not even be an option for retrofitting.
- May take longer for the room to reach optimal temperate – Compared to radiators or forced-air systems, underfloor heating may take longer.