Your house’s heating system is one of those hidden components of your home that is easy to overlook—as long as it’s working correctly, that is. But when the heat goes out without warning or your utility bills skyrocket unexpectedly, the heating system is suddenly forefront in your mind.

The biggest hurdle in heating a home is finding the right balance between providing adequate heat where you want it without going broke for months on end. And that sweet spot isn’t always easy to find.

Whether you’re in the market for a new heating system or are simply interested in learning more about the options available to you, you’ve come to right place. We’ll look at the difference between central heat and direct heat and compare the pros and cons of the different types of heaters and heating systems to help you determine which one might be best for your home.

Central Heat vs. Direct Heat

If your home has a furnace, a heat pump, or a boiler, you have central heat. Central heating systems use centrally located equipment and ductwork or radiators to distribute heat through your home.

Direct heat is often thought of as supplemental heat in the form of space heaters, but there are direct heating systems on the market that are designed to heat an entire house. The primary advantage of direct heating systems is that they are relatively easy to install as a retrofit; they are, however, more expensive to operate than central heating systems.

Types of Central Heating Systems

Gas furnace and water heater in utility room

1. Gas furnace

Gas furnaces are perhaps the most common heating system used in the US. Fueled by either natural gas or propane and controlled by the home’s thermostat, a gas furnace burns fuel to heat up the unit’s heat exchanger.

A blower moves the heated air through the home’s ductwork, and the byproducts of the burning fuel are vented out of the house.

Pros

  • Newer gas furnaces are highly efficient, which means that they have less of an impact on the environment than other heating options. Check furnace efficiency ratings (also known as the AFUE, or Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency, rating) to make sure you’re getting an efficient system. The higher the AFUE rating, the better.
  • A gas furnace is cheaper to operate than an electric heating system.

Cons

  • Compared to electric furnaces and heat pumps, gas furnaces are more expensive to purchase and install.
  • Gas furnaces must be properly (and consistently) maintained and inspected. If they’re allowed to deteriorate, gas furnaces can become noisy and inefficient, and cracks in the heat exchanger can cause a potentially fatal carbon monoxide leak.

2. Electric furnace

Electric furnaces are common in multi-unit housing buildings and areas where gas service either isn’t available or isn’t practical. The primary difference between a gas furnace and an electric furnace is the way the air is heated.

In an electric furnace, air is heated as it passes over a system of coils heated by electricity. A blower moves the air through the home ductwork.

Pros

  • Electric furnaces are less expensive than gas furnaces to purchase and install.
  • Because combustion isn’t required to heat the air, electric furnaces tend to last longer than their fuel-powered counterparts.

Cons

  • Depending on where you live, electricity can be expensive. An electric furnace will result in higher utility bills than other central heating systems.
  • While electricity may appear to be an eco-friendly fuel at first glance, do some research about how your power is generated. If your electricity comes from a power plant fueled by coal, for example, an electric furnace is not a green choice.

3. Electric heat pump

Heat pump outside of white stucco home

While furnaces generate heat (and use quite a bit of energy to do so), heat pumps simply move heat around. Heat pumps use less energy than other heating systems, so they are a greener choice—and less expensive to operate, in most cases.

Pros

  • Heat pumps are very efficient in warm weather and dehumidify inside air.
  • Mini-split heat pumps don’t require ductwork, making them ideal for basements and spaces that won’t accommodate ductwork.

Cons

  • Because they create warm air by pulling heat from the outside air and bringing it inside, standard heat pumps are not ideal for homes in areas that experience extremely cold winters.
  • In very cold weather, standard heat pumps may switch to a backup heat system—usually electric resistance heat—to maintain the temperature set at the thermostat. This can cause high electricity bills.

4. Boiler heating system

Photo of boiler system installed in home basement

Instead of distributing heat by blowing air, boiler heating systems use water. Houses with boiler systems use radiators—usually either wall-mounted or baseboard-mounted—or radiant floor heating systems to distribute the hot water or steam that creates heat.

Pros

  • Boilers are typically more energy efficient than traditional furnaces because the steam or hot water they produce doesn’t cool down as it travels to the home’s radiators.
  • Boiler systems afford you more options for heating rooms. While traditional furnace systems can only heat rooms via air ducts, boiler systems can accommodate radiators and radiant floor heating.

Cons

  • Because they require radiators or a radiant floor system, boilers are not an ideal choice for retrofitting into an existing space.
  • Boilers are most efficient when they’re powered by natural gas. Electric boiler systems are an option if natural gas (or propane) service is not available or is too costly, but the operating cost will likely be high.

Types of Direct Heating Systems

1. Gas-fueled space heater

Natural gas- and propane-fueled space heaters are popular for unheated spaces such as garages, daylight basements, and outdoor spaces that have been converted to indoor rooms.

Pros

  • Natural gas and propane are less expensive than electricity, so gas-fueled space heaters are more economical to run.
  • Gas-fueled space heaters provide immediate heat, and many models are equipped with a thermostat that will help maintain a steady temperature.

Cons

  • To avoid the risk of carbon monoxide leaking into the house, gas-fueled space heaters should be vented to the outside. This makes installation a bit more complicated than other direct heating systems.
  • Gas-fueled space heaters do not have a cool-touch grille option that you’ll find on many electric space heaters. Be vigilant about keeping children and pets away from gas-fueled space heaters.

2. Electric space heater

Photo of white electric space heater with knit hat and gloves next to it

Electric space heaters are a simple solution to a chilly room. They’re readily available in stores, and they only require a power outlet.

Pros

  • Electric space heaters come in different style—fan heaters, ceramic heaters, and radiator-style heaters, for example. Regardless of your budget, you’ll likely be able to find a suitable space heater.
  • Electric space heaters are equipped with safety features, such as cool-touch grilles and tip sensors that shut the unit off if it’s tipped over.

Cons

  • Electric space heaters use a lot of power, so they can cause your electricity bills to spike.
  • Large, oil-filled, radiator-style space heaters are not as portable as the smaller electric space heaters, and they tend to be costlier.

3. Wood stove

You may associate wood stoves more with the Ingalls family’s cabin in the Little House on the Prairie books than your own home, but wood stove technology has come a long way since the era of smoky, pot-bellied stoves.

EPA-certified stoves are efficient and burn cleanly, making far less of an impact on the environment than your average wood-burning fireplace.

Pros

  • Wood and other suitable burning materials are inexpensive and renewable.
  • The EPA’s wood stove certification program makes it easy to find clean-burning stoves. Look for pellet stoves or wood stoves with catalytic converters for the most eco-friendly option.

Cons

  • Wood stoves and pellet stoves must be vented to the outdoors, so installation may also involve construction.
  • You’ll need a dry, covered spot to store the fuel for the stove. If you plan to use your wood stove consistently, you may need significant storage space for that purpose.

Other Heating System Options

While both central and direct heating systems have improved their energy efficiency in recent years, there are a few additional options that have even less of an impact on the environment.

1. Geothermal systems

Installing a geothermal system represents a significant financial investment, but operating costs are low, and you’ll shrink your home’s carbon footprint. Geothermal systems use a heat pump and the earth’s stable below-ground temperature to heat and cool your house.

Pros

  • Geothermal systems are incredibly efficient and use very little electricity. While a standard heat pump will resort to expensive resistance heat during very cold weather, a geothermal system pulls heat from the ground, which stays at approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year.
  • Geothermal systems require very little maintenance (most of the components are underground, after all), and are quiet when they’re running.

Cons

  • A geothermal system has one of the highest installation costs of any heating system on the market. You will see immediate savings on your utility bills, but to see the full return on your investment, spring for a geothermal system only for your forever home.
  • Not every HVAC company installs or services geothermal systems, so you may find service to be expensive.

2. Active solar heating

Solar panels on the roof of a house

Active solar heating systems use the sun’s energy to heat a liquid (typically water or propylene glycol) that is then transferred to a heat exchanger to heat the home. If the heat isn’t immediately needed, the system is equipped with a storage tank.

Pros

  • Active solar heating systems are compatible with radiant floor heaters and most central heating equipment, such as boilers or traditional furnaces.
  • Heating your home using solar energy is environmentally responsible.

Cons

  • The up-front costs of solar power are high. Similar to geothermal heating, hold off on installing a solar heating system until you know you’re in your forever home.
  • The logistics of installing a solar heating system can be complicated. Your home must have the space, the proper orientation toward the sun, and little tree cover to support the necessary equipment.

Choosing a Heating System

Old steam radiator

Choosing a heating system isn’t always a simple process, and there are lots of factors to take into consideration:

  • What power source do the other systems in your home use?
  • How expensive is electricity in your area?
  • Is natural gas service available to you?
  • If natural gas isn’t a viable option, do you want to purchase a propane tank and keep it filled?
  • How long do you plan to stay in your home?
  • What is your budget?

For most people, a gas furnace or a high-efficiency electric heat pump is the best option if you’re trying to strike a balance between cost (both to install and operate) and efficiency. If you find that you need supplemental heat, try a radiator-style electric space heater first. If you need consistent supplemental heat for a relatively large area, consider an eco-friendly pellet stove.

And if your budget permits and you’ve settled in to your forever home, by all means spring for a solar or geothermal heating system. You’ll see an immediate reduction in your power bills, and you’ll be doing the environment a favor.

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