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Home heating system types (and when to replace your old system)

There are many ways to heat a home, but which system is the best home heating system? What’s the most comfortable way to heat a home? And which type provides the best technology and energy efficiency?

There are many ways to heat a home, but which system is the best home heating system? What’s the most comfortable way to heat a home? And which type provides the best technology and energy efficiency?

While choosing a heating system can be a challenge, it’s not as complex as you might think. In this article, you’ll learn when you need to replace your home heating system, boiler or furnace. (And we’ll also cover the different home heating options available.)

First, here are the signs you need to fix (or replace) your current home heating system

  • Your utility bills are increasing each season and/or you’re footing the bill for frequent repairs.
  • You’re regularly adjusting the thermostat (if you have a central heating system).
  • You’re experiencing uneven heating throughout your home.
  • It’s running for short, frequent cycles.
  • It makes unusual noises when running.
  • You regularly don’t feel well in your own home.
  • Your heating unit is getting older.

Let’s look at each one of these symptoms.

Your utility bills are increasing each season and/or you’re footing the bill for frequent repairs

If your heating system seems to be running smoothly but your winter utility bill gets more expensive every year, you’ve likely got an issue. Every heating system will lose efficiency as it ages, but you’ll want to call an HVAC professional to ensure there aren’t any additional issues. And if your system regularly needs costly repairs and service calls, it’s time for a replacement.

You’re regularly adjusting the thermostat

Do you constantly fiddle with your thermostat during the colder months? If you’re always adjusting the temperature to find the perfect setting, it’s a sign of larger issues.

You’re experiencing uneven heating throughout your home

Uneven heating can be a sign of a problem with your heating system. While it might feel normal to have hot and cool spots throughout your home, it’s not something you have to get used to. In fact, it’s usually an indicator that something is amiss with your HVAC (or with your insulation).

Your heating system is running for short or frequent cycles

When your heater runs, stops and then starts up again—sometimes called “short-cycling”—it’s a sign of poor HVAC health, and you should get a professional out to assess the issue. (And if it’s your portable heater that’s short-cycling, it’s a telltale sign that the heater isn’t big enough to heat the space.)

If your heating unit begins making strange noises, such as knocking, popping or screeching, don’t overlook it.

Your heater makes unusual noises when running

If your heating unit begins making strange noises, such as knocking, popping or screeching, don’t overlook it. Depending on the type of heating system you have and the sound it’s making, you could have a serious and even dangerous issue. Case in point: if you ever hear a loud gunshot sound when you turn on your furnace, you could be dealing with a cracked heat exchanger—and a potentially deadly gas or carbon monoxide leak. (See what we mean? Don’t ignore this stuff.)

You’re not feeling well in your own home

If someone in your house ever has unexplained flu-like symptoms during the winter (like dizziness, shortness of breath, or a dull headache), your heater could be the culprit. Depending on the type of unit you have and the fuel it uses, you might be experiencing a small carbon monoxide leak or even fumes from built-up dust and grime.

Important: If this happens, it’s an emergency. Get everyone out of your home immediately and call your gas company to tell them that you suspect a leak.

Your heating unit is getting older

In general, HVAC technology lasts about 15–20 years. While some heating systems can last longer—depending on the quality of the system and your maintenance schedule—it’s smart to notice when your heater is near the end of its life so you can plan for a more efficient replacement. If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll likely get stuck making the decision after a breakdown, which means you won’t have time to find the best option and will likely end up paying more. (And it’s no fun choosing a heating system when your family is already freezing and cranky.)

Waiting to replace your heating system until it breaks can result in a higher cost of installation, and limit your options to what is available in an emergency situation.

What are my heating system options?

So you’ve decided it’s time to replace your heating system. Let’s look at the different heating systems and how they compare with each other. (And know that whichever heating system you choose, it’ll work much better and more efficiently if your home is properly sealed and insulated. It really does make a huge difference.)

Portable heaters (aka space heaters)

Let’s start with the smallest. Portable heaters (also called space heaters) are a simple option to control the heat from room to room. They’re self-contained electric units and don’t require much from you—you’ll just need to plug them in to an existing outlet and monitor their use. (For safety’s sake, don’t leave them running in an empty room.)

Advantages and disadvantages of portable heaters and space heaters

Portable heating units are inexpensive and require no installation. According to Energy.gov, electric space heaters are the only unvented heaters that are safe to use inside a building, so they can be a decent temporary solution for cold spots in your home. That said, space heaters aren’t very efficient, and they can also be a safety issue and a fire hazard—especially in a home with young children or pets. They’re definitely not a permanent fix for a larger heating issue.

Cost of portable heaters and space heaters

Portable electric heating units are inexpensive to purchase and require no installation—that’s their biggest advantage. Depending on the size, model, make and quality, they range anywhere between $15 and $1000.

Electric resistance heating (such as wall heaters and baseboard heaters)

Electric wall heaters or baseboard heaters—also known as electric resistance heating—are individual heating units that you can install in rooms that need extra heating support.

Baseboard heaters are relatively affordable and allow you to control heat from room to room.

Advantages and disadvantages of wall heaters and baseboard heaters

Baseboard heaters are relatively affordable and allow you to control heat from room to room. However, these units aren’t energy efficient, so the electric bill to keep your entire home warm could be pretty high. (If you’re looking for a more efficient electrical heating system, a heat pump is probably your best bet.)

Cost of electric radiant heating units

A mountable electric wall heater unit can range from $80 for a basic in-wall model to $1,000 for an electric wall-mount fireplace. For electric baseboard heating, each unit can range between $40 and $400, depending on the grade. Keep in mind that you’ll usually need multiple units per room and will need to factor in the cost for professional installation.

Hydronic or radiant floor heating

Radiant floor systems distribute heat through a film or mat underneath your floor (or through a hydronic system, which moves heated water through subfloor piping). The system works by heating your floor as well as your furnishings, creating radiant heat throughout your home.

Advantages and disadvantages of radiant floor heating

Radiant floor heating is ductless and doesn’t require air transfer throughout the home and the outdoors (which can reduce the circulation of allergens and dust). It also produces comfortable, even heat throughout your living space. That said, both hydronic and radiant floor systems are expensive and invasive to install, and they can limit your flooring options. (And if you don’t have the right kind of subfloor, they may not be very efficient.)

Cost of installing radiant floor heating

Hydronic floor heating (with professional installation) can vary between $6 and $16 per square foot, depending on your home’s size, needs and installation requirements. Radiant floor heating is less expensive to install at $8–12 per square foot, but it’s also more expensive to run in the colder months than hydronic floor heating.

Most houses built after 1990 are heated with a gas-fired forced-air furnace.

Furnace (electric, natural gas, or oil)

Furnaces are the most common home heating option in the US, and they can run on electricity, natural gas or oil. They work by using their power source to ignite the burners inside the furnace cabinet. Then, once the burners are lit, they heat up a component called a heat exchanger, which warms the air for distribution throughout your home via ductwork.

Advantages and disadvantages of a furnace

The biggest benefit of a furnace is how quickly it distributes air: When a furnace is running at optimum health, your home’s temperature will increase as soon as it’s turned on. Furnaces are also relatively affordable to purchase, install, and maintain (since the technology is so common), and they also keep a low visual profile in your home—you won’t need to decorate around large wall units. And many people just love the way that furnace heat feels. If your furnace and ductwork system are new enough to provide consistent heating, you’ll stay pretty comfortable.

However, furnaces are one of the least efficient heating systems on the market. You lose a lot of valuable heat and energy when the hot air travels through ductwork. In addition, since most furnaces run on fossil fuels, you’ll have the added health concerns from possible carbon monoxide and gas leaks.

Still, furnaces are available everywhere and are a popular and viable heating option for a lot of folks (though you’ll definitely want to properly seal and insulate your home to get the best efficiency and comfort out of your system).

Cost of a furnace

The average cost to replace a furnace depends on the type of furnace, the area you live in and whether or not you have existing ductwork. Purchased on its own, a gas furnace averages anywhere between $1,800 and $4,000. An oil furnace can cost between $4,650–6,900 with professional installation, and an electric furnace with professional installation can cost you $1,850–$2,750.

Boiler (electric, natural gas, or oil)

Boilers are another common heating system in the US, and they work by heating water (with electricity, gas or oil) until it turns into steam. This steam is then released into the air and pumped into the home to heat the space via convectors or radiators.

If you’re going green, it’s possible to find boilers that burn cleaner fuels such as natural gas and biodiesel.

Advantages and disadvantages of a traditional boiler

Boiler systems rely on ductwork and vents (called registers) to distribute heated air, so you won’t need to worry about having bulky wall units in your home. Also, boilers can have a longer appliance life than a furnace—especially if you maintain them well—and much like floor heating options, they provide dust-free heating throughout the home. If you’re going green, it’s possible to find boilers that burn cleaner fuels such as natural gas and biodiesel. And if you have an older property, your home’s infrastructure may already be designed for a boiler.

But boilers do have several disadvantages: Most of the boiler options on the market are significantly less efficient than newer, smarter technologies. They can be expensive to operate and maintain. And, since they’re pressurised vessels, there are some significant safety concerns (every once in a while, you’ll hear about one exploding, which really isn’t the kind of excitement you want in your home). Finally, boilers often aren’t great at making your home comfortable—the heating can be pretty uneven.

Cost of installing a boiler for central heating

The cost to replace or install a boiler depends on the operating fuel used, the make and model, the region you live in and more. They’re also more expensive to maintain. Depending on the options you choose, you might pay between $2,000–20,000 to install a new boiler. (And that’s not factoring in the regular meticulous maintenance to keep your boiler running safely.)

Heat pumps (also known as ductless heating or ductless mini-splits)

Heat pumps are the smartest and most efficient home heating option available today. They work by taking heat from the outside air and moving it inside your home. (Yes, there’s heat energy in the air even on the coldest of days.) Another win: They also serve as an air conditioner by reversing that process; they cool your home by removing heat from your indoor environment and transferring it outside your home.

Even on the coldest days, heat pumps find heat in the air outside. They draw this existing heat inside to warm up the indoor spaces, without having to use as much energy to produce new heat.

Heat pumps are a flexible technology, and you can get them in both central and ductless versions—so if you’re looking for an efficient ductless heating option, a heat pump is your best bet (they dramatically outperform other ductless electric heating systems).

Ducted heat pumps or central heat pumps use a similar configuration as a traditional HVAC system (so if you already have existing ductwork in your home, you can use it). Meanwhile, ductless heat pumps use wall-mounted units called mini-splits to heat and distribute the air. (The mini-splits are connected directly to an outdoor unit via copper lines, which is why you won’t need ductwork.)

Pros and cons of heating your home with a heat pump

Heat pumps provide beautifully even and non-stuffy heating throughout your home, and if you choose a ductless mini-split option, you’ll be able to control the temperatures of the different zones separately. Heat pumps are also fully electric and energy-efficient—they’re the cleanest, greenest option currently on the market. Maybe the biggest benefit, though, is that a heat pump is three systems in one: it’s a heater, an air conditioner and a dehumidifier. In short: You can replace your entire HVAC system with a heat pump system (and be happier and more comfortable for it).

The biggest initial barrier to installing a heat pump is usually the upfront installation costs—but you may not have to pay those. And if you choose a ductless mini-split system, you’ll need to adjust to the look of the wall units.

Learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of installing a heat pump.

Heat pump vs. furnace

For most people, a heat pump is superior to furnace home heating for a couple of reasons: It’s more energy efficient, it’s safer (no risks of gas leaks or carbon monoxide), and heat pumps warm your space more evenly than a furnace would. However, if you prefer the “toasty” feel of furnace or wood heat, be aware that you might need to supplement your heat pump with an additional heating unit (which can usually be built into the system).

Also, don’t forget that a heat pump is also an air conditioner—there’s no furnace on the market that can cool your home as well as heat it.

Compared to a boiler, a heat pump is less costly to maintain, provides better and more consistent heat, is much more efficient and doesn’t come with the risk of explosion.

Heat pump vs. boiler

If you’re trying to decide between a heat pump and a boiler, know that the heat pump is a much smarter option for most people—especially since it doubles as an air conditioner. Compared to a boiler, a heat pump is less costly to maintain, provides better and more consistent heat, is much more efficient and doesn’t come with the risk of explosion. Plus, you can install a heat pump even if you don’t have ductwork.

Cost of installing a heat pump system

Costs vary by region, but, in general, installing a complete heat pump system for your home can cost you about the same as replacing both your heating and cooling systems at once. It can be a significant investment. But because of their superior comfort, low maintenance, and energy efficiency, heat pump systems provide great lifetime value for most people.

Also, if you live in an eligible area, you may be able to get a heat pump system from Sealed at no upfront cost. You’ll pay only with the money you save on energy. And if your home doesn’t use less energy, you don’t have to pay. We believe in our product and stand by our work.

September 8, 2020