Types of Heating Systems

A variety of technologies are available for heating your house. In addition to heat pumps, which are discussed separately, many homes use the following approaches:

Furnaces & Boilers

By far the most common way to heat a home.

Active Solar Heating

Uses the sun to heat either air or liquid and can serve as a supplemental heat source.

Wood & Pellet Fuel Heating

Provides a way to heat your home using biomass or waste sources.

Radiant Heating

Can draw on a number of energy sources, including electricity, boilers, solar energy, and wood and pellet-fuel heating.

Electronic Resistance Heating

Among the most expensive ways to heat a home.

Small Space Heaters

Less efficient than central heating systems, but can save energy when used appropriately.

Some of Our Most Popular Furnaces

SV92 – 96%AFU

• 40-120 mbth input
• Two-stage heat
• Variable-speed ECM blower motor
• Comfort-R mode
• Two-speed draft inducer
• Single or two pipe vent options
• Dry contact humidifier and EAC terminals
• Fully insulated/gasketed
• Silicon nitride igniter
• Standard 34” height
• IFC Board with digital configuration, status, and fault codes.
• Certified to 2% air leakage
• ENERGY STAR qualified*

XB90 – 92.1%AFU

• 40-120 mbth input
• Single-stage heat
• PSC four-speed blower motor
• Single speed draft inducer
• Silicon nitride igniter
• Single or two pipe vent options
• Humidifier & EAC terminals

XR95 – 95%AFU

• 40-120 mbth input
• Single-stage heat
• Silicon nitride igniter
• Single speed draft inducer
• Fully insulated/gasketed
• PSC Four-speed blower motor
• Single or two pipe vent options
• Factory wired for humidifier and EAC

Boiler Systems

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Furnace & Boilers
Most U.S. homes are heated with either furnaces or boilers. Furnaces heat air and distribute the heated air through the house using ducts. Boilers heat water, and provide either hot water or steam for heating. Steam is distributed via pipes to steam radiators, and hot water can be distributed via baseboard radiators or radiant floor systems, or can heat air via a coil. Steam boilers operate at a higher temperature than hot water boilers, and are inherently less efficient, but high-efficiency versions of all types of furnaces and boilers are currently available.
Wood & Pellet Heating

Before the 20th century, 90% of Americans burned wood to heat their homes. As fossil fuel use rose, the percentage of Americans using wood for fuel dropped, falling as low as one percent by 1970. Then during the energy crises of the 1970s, interest in wood heating resurfaced as a renewable energy alternative.

Newer on the scene are pellet fuel appliances, which burn small pellets that look like rabbit feed and measure 3/8 to 1 inch in length. Pellets are made from compacted sawdust, wood chips, bark, agricultural crop waste, waste paper, and other organic materials. Some pellet fuel appliances can burn a wide variety of biomass fuels, including nutshells, corn kernels, small wood chips, barley, beet pulp, sunflowers, dried cherry pits, and soybeans.

  • Choosing and Installing Wood- and Pellet-Burning Appliances
  • Types of Wood- and Pellet-Burning Appliances
  • Chimney Placement and Sizing
  • Maintenance
  • Wood and Pellet Fuels
Electronic Resistance Heating

Electric resistance heating converts nearly 100% of the energy in the electricity 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. Because of electricity generation and transmission losses, electric heat is often more expensive than heat produced in the home or business using combustion appliances, such as natural gas, propane, and oil furnaces.

If electricity is the only choice, heat pumps are preferable in most climates, as they easily cut electricity use by 50% when compared with electric resistance heating. The exception is in dry climates with either hot or mixed (hot and cold) temperatures (these climates are found in the non-coastal, non-mountainous part of California; the southern tip of Nevada; the southwest corner of Utah; southern and western Arizona; southern and eastern New Mexico; the southeast corner of Colorado; and western Texas). For these dry climates, there are so few heating days that the high cost of heating is not economically significant.

Electric resistance heating may also make sense for a home addition if it is not practical to extend the existing heating system to supply heat to the new addition.

Actuve Solar Heating
Active solar heating systems use solar energy to heat a fluid — either liquid or air — and then transfer the solar heat directly to the interior space or to a storage system for later use. If the solar system cannot provide adequate space heating, an auxiliary or back-up system provides the additional heat. Liquid systems are more often used when storage is included, and are well suited for radiant heating systems, boilers with hot water radiators, and even absorption heat pumps and coolers. Both liquid and air systems can supplement forced air systems.
Radiant Heating

Radiant heating systems supply heat directly to the floor or to panels in the wall or ceiling of a house. The systems depend largely on radiant heat transfer — the delivery of heat directly from the hot surface to the people and objects in the room via infrared radiation. Radiant heating is the effect you feel when you can feel the warmth of a hot stovetop element from across the room. When radiant heating is located in the floor, it is often called radiant floor heating or simply floor heating.

Radiant heating has a number of advantages. It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because it eliminates duct losses. People with allergies often prefer radiant heat because it doesn’t distribute allergens like forced air systems can. Hydronic (liquid-based) systems use little electricity, a benefit for homes off the power grid or in areas with high electricity prices. Hydronic systems can use a wide variety of energy sources to heat the liquid, including standard gas- or oil-fired boilers, wood-fired boilers, solar water heaters, or a combination of these sources.

Despite its name, radiant floor heating depends heavily on convection, the natural circulation of heat within a room as air warmed by the floor rises. Radiant floor heating systems are significantly different from the radiant panels used in walls and ceilings. For this reason, the following sections discuss radiant floor heat and radiant panels separately.

Portable Space Heaters

Small space heaters are typically used when the main heating system is inadequate or when central heating is too costly to install or operate. In some cases, small space heaters can be less expensive to use if you only want to heat one room or supplement inadequate heating in one room. They can also boost the temperature of rooms used by individuals who are sensitive to cold, especially elderly persons, without overheating your entire home.

Space heater capacities generally range between 10,000 Btu to 40,000 Btu per hour. Common fuels used for this purpose are: electricity, propane, natural gas, and kerosene (see the wood and pellet section for information on wood and pellet stoves).

Although most space heaters rely on convection (the circulation of air in a room) to heat a room, some rely on radiant heating; that is, they emit infrared radiation that directly heats up objects and people that are within their line of sight. Radiant heaters are a more efficient choice when you will be in a room for only a few hours, if you can remain within the line of sight of the heater. They can be more efficient when using a room for a short period because they avoid the energy needed to heat the entire room by instead directly heating the occupant of the room and the occupant’s immediate surroundings.

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