Whether you’re a seasoned homeowner or you’re buying your first home, it pays to understand how you pay for your heating and cooling needs. If you’re not familiar with the 5 main types of heat distribution systems, here’s a basic primer for you.
Forced Hot Air
Forced hot air is the most common type of heating system on the market – it dominates up north where reliable heat is at a premium in the winter months. While reliable, it’s not efficient.
Forced hot air relies on a furnace system to heat air, then move it through ductwork. A cold air return system draws air back into the system to be heated again and then redistributed into the living areas.
Because this system typically runs on fossil fuels, it can be expensive to run, especially when the price of natural gas. Furnaces are generally between 59 and 98 percent efficient, depending on how old they are and how well maintained they were during their useful life.
Sometimes, an old forced hot air system can be made into a very efficient one if you’re willing to hire a professional to install a HVAC system for you that’s higher efficiency than the one you currently have.
Otherwise, you need to think about another type of heating system.
Steam Radiant Heat
Steam radiant heat is an older type of heating system that uses cast iron radiators. These heating units are big, bulky, but they effectively heat a room with moist heat. They’re great for northern climates which tend to be dry during the wintertime.
Steam radiators also make the home feel warmer than it really is, due to the high humidity heat generated.
They rely on boilers, which pump super-heated water through the radiator. Efficiency of such units varies between 50 and 90 percent, with a total life expectancy on the boiler ranging between 15 and 30 years, depending on how well it is maintained. There is a newer, more efficient model of boiler called the condenser boiler which is usually more than 90% efficient. This model of boiler is increasing in popularity due to its efficiency.
Electric and Hot Water Baseboard
Electric baseboard heat was popular years ago, due to its high-efficiency. These systems can be between 95 and 100 percent efficient, and last 20+ years. However, the fuel (electricity) can be expensive.
Electric coils inside the radiator heat up (called “electric resistance heating”), which converts nearly 100 percent of the energy in the electric current to heat.
New radiant heat systems dispense with cast iron radiators and instead utilize high-efficiency plastic
tubing underneath the floor, behind walls, or in the ceiling. Like older radiant heat systems, hot water is pumped through the system to heat the home.
Unlike the old steam heating system, however, this system gradually heats a room, is a “closed system” that is relatively dry (low humidity) and is much more efficient to run and maintain than steam radiant heating systems.
Radiant heating also eliminates the need for ductwork, but that can also be a drawback, since you would have to install separate ductwork for air conditioning in the summer.
Carla Johnstone is a home comfort contractor. She likes to share what she has learned by posting online. You can find her articles on many home improvement websites.