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How Do Home Heating Systems Actually Work?

By Comfort Depot November 20, 2018

How Do Home Heating Systems Actually Work?

Don't worry about cutting more logs for the fire!

So, you waited until cold weather arrived and discovered your furnace has developed a whole new language. You've heard the normal pops and cracks of expanding and constricting ductwork but you're also hearing a few squeals and groans.

Ready to replace Old Faithful?

The Old Farmer's Almanac predicts a warmer winter for Maryland with less snow than usual. Maybe you can wait on the furnace replacement.

As entertaining as it is to read the folksy forecaster you might not want to rely on it for advice on your heating system. The Almanac can't diagnose your heating system's problems and it certainly can't tell you how to choose a new one.

For the homeowner who's curious about home heating systems, we've put together a mini-guide with fun facts and a few suggestions on choosing a new system.

Grab a cup of hot cocoa. Put on your favorite grizzly bear slippers. And learn everything you've ever wanted to know about home heating systems!

What Type of Home Heating Systems Do You Prefer?

If you live in a modern home you likely use a forced-air furnace to heat it.

In simple terms, forced-air furnaces have a give and take relationship with the air in your home.

The furnace pulls colder air through your home's ductwork and into the furnace where it's heated. A blower pushes heated air through supply ducts and out through heat registers, or vents, to the rooms in your home.

The furnace's air handler sucks air into return vents and sends it through return ducts back to the furnace where the heating cycle begins again.

Simple terms for a major system in your home, right? Yet, it's a system most people ignore until it stops working. After all, it's tucked away in the basement or hidden in a closet.

Forced-air heating systems are versatile. They can use natural gas, electricity, oil, or liquid propane as their fuel source. Almost half of the homes in the U.S. use natural gas to power their furnaces.

As far as energy efficiency forced-air systems are able to adjust room temperature quickly. If you install air conditioning in your home the two systems can use the same blower and ductwork, which adds another efficiency level.

In 2017, 57% of new homes had forced-air heating systems installed making this type of heating system the most common.

Forced-air systems may be the choice of new home builders but other systems are just as good or better.

Meet the Heat Pump

You don't need to take a physics class to understand how a heat pump works but if learning about the law of thermodynamics doesn't frighten you ask a friend who majored in engineering to meet you for dinner.

If you don't have time for that, keep reading for a simple explanation written in laymen's terms.

Heat pumps utilize energy from the air to heat or cool a space. Using electricity a heat pump transfers heat from a cold place to a warm place.

People new to the concept of heat pumps will be excited to know they don't just heat homes, they cool too.

In the winter, a heat pump pulls heat from outside air, warms it up, and transfers it inside your home. For home cooling, the process reverses and heat is pulled from the air inside and discharged to the outdoors.

There are two types of heat pumps. Air source heat pumps take heat from the air. Ground source, also called geothermal heat pumps, get their heat source from the ground.

Energy experts say geothermal heat pumps are the most efficient. Installing a ground source heat pump could reduce your energy bill by up to 65%.

Like forced-air furnaces, heat pump systems have advantages over other systems.

Heat pumps heat and cool eliminating the need for a furnace and separate air conditioning unit.

They're friendly to the environment because they use natural warmth. Remember, they pull warmth from either the air or the ground. Heat pump systems do use electricity or gas as the power source.

Finally, install a zoned system and you control the temperature in each room of your home. No more wasted energy heating and cooling rooms you don't use.

See? No physics course required.

Boiler Myths De-Bunked

Buying a vintage home often means you inherit a boiler heating system.

It's not uncommon for people who consider buying old houses to worry about the boiler in the basement. Also called hydronic boilers or hot water heating systems, don't fear them. Get to know a boiler before passing judgment.

Boilers suffer from myths. First, boilers don't actually boil water. Everyone has their own baggage and boilers have been carrying theirs for about 200 years. The original steam boilers did use boiled water to make steam.

Modern boiler heat systems rely on the power of natural gas, electricity or heating oil.

Second, they have a reputation for causing serious burns. Keep the water temperature at the right setting and you'll be fine. Beware, some homes still have cast iron radiators, which get hot if the water temperature is set too high.

Boilers are hot water heaters but aren't the same as those used to heat water for bathing and washing dishes.

Unlike furnaces, which transport heat in warm air, boiler systems While furnaces carry heat in warm air, boiler systems circulate heat in hot water. The hot water releases heat when it moves through radiators or baseboards on the floor of each room.

Furnaces suck cool air into return air vents and send it back for re-heating.

In a boiler system water recirculates after it passes through the radiator. It's cooler of course when it comes back to the boiler because it's already given up a significant amount of heat. The boiler lives in a constant state of firing, so it can ensure there's water hot enough to heat your home.

An electric pump inside the boiler keeps the water moving through the pipes and radiators (or baseboards).

Well-maintained boiler systems are as efficient as gas forced-air furnaces.

Oil Heat Systems Are Still a Thing

While natural gas is a common energy source for central heating systems, heating oil is another acceptable option. For people who live in rural areas with limited access to natural gas, oil-fired boilers and furnaces mean they can keep warm as easily as people who have no problem obtaining fossil fuels.

Only a small percentage, about 7% of homes in the U.S. use oil for heat and generating hot water for cleaning and bathing.

Oil heat systems run on either a furnace or a boiler. Both require using outdoor tanks for storing extra oil.

Oil furnaces aren't as efficient as gas furnaces but they're less expensive and may last longer.

If there's a silver lining involved with oil heating systems it's the fact that heating oil tends to be less expensive than natural gas. Unlike natural gas, heating oil's prices aren't determined by global supply and demand.

If you're concerned about the environment, all heating systems affect the environment in one way or another. Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fuels still produces sulfur, mercury, and particulates during the combustion process. When it's burned natural gas produces nitrogen oxides.

Oil, on the other hand, produces very few emissions. Modern oil technology has figured out how to re-burn oil. This results in even lower emissions meaning cleaner options for heating oil

There's an Octopus in the Basement

If you live in an old house with a creepy basement you might have a gravity furnace.

A gravity furnace resembles an octopus primarily because it has multiple "arms" snaking off of a huge "body." The arms are ducts and heated air moves through them to the rooms of the house. Sounds like a forced air furnace doesn't it?

Aside from looking like it belongs in a science fiction movie, the gravity air furnace has a few other quirks.

First, it doesn't use a blower to move air. Instead, heated air rises using convection and flows through the ducts. Second, gravity air furnaces are quieter than forced air furnaces. Third, they don't stir up dust and allergens.

Don't let size and appearance intimidate you, these furnaces are harmless.

Gravity furnaces are durable and can last for several decades, however, they're not energy efficient. Possible asbestos contamination is another potential problem. When these furnaces installed asbestos was a common material used for insulation and fireproofing.

If you have this type of heating system in your home, consider upgrading to a modern energy efficient forced air furnace.

A Heating System For Everyone

Every household is unique but one thing all have in common is the desire for a warm and cozy home during the cold weather months. Along with toasty toes, a manageable energy bill always makes for a happier and wealthier household.

With so many choices available as far as types of home heating systems, no one should worry about staying warm safely and economically. Whether you choose a forced-air furnace or a heat pump system, you have people on your side want to help.

Our mission at DIY Comfort Depot is helping our clients determine which system best suits their needs. Contact us before the weather gets any colder and let us help keep you warm this winter!

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