What is the best heating system for your home? That’s a good question!

And there’s no right answer—it all depends on your budget and where you live. What works for someone on the Florida panhandle who rarely sees temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit probably won’t be the best choice for those of you living in the northeast.

The good news is that technological advances have made heating your home more efficient than ever, and you have plenty of options to choose from.

The not-as-awesome news is that the number of choices available today can make selecting a heating system seem a little daunting.

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Luckily, knowledge is power, and knowing more about the different kinds of heaters on the market will make the process of choosing the best heating system for your home a much easier one. Keep reading to find out more!

Types of Heating Systems

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Furnaces

Furnaces—sometimes referred to as forced-air systems—are one of the most common home heating systems in the US. They’re powered by either natural gas or electricity, and they work by blowing heated air through a duct system.

Furnaces rank high on the energy efficiency scale, but you won’t see your heating bill disappear altogether once you have one installed. The cost to run a furnace varies based on the price of the fuel source it uses. Although specific costs will vary, a general rule of thumb is that gas furnaces are cheaper to operate than electric furnaces.

HVAC system and fuel efficiency technology advances quickly, but even if your furnace is a few years old, don’t assume that it needs to be replaced (as long as it’s running without any problems, of course). Instead, talk to an HVAC expert about having your existing unit retrofitted with more energy-efficient components.

If you’re purchasing a new furnace, look for an AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) rating of at least 80. High-efficiency models will have AFUE ratings of 90 and above. Keep in mind that the higher the AFUE number, the more money you’ll save on heating bills in the future—but you may find the initial investment higher than other options.

Advantages

  • Widely available
  • Increasingly more energy efficient
  • Easy to find qualified service technicians when necessary

Disadvantages

  • Require ducts, which can make retrofits difficult
  • Poorly maintained natural gas units can develop leaks, which is a serious health and safety hazard

Boilers

Furnaces and boilers sometimes get mixed up together in discussions about heating systems, but they are very different systems. Boilers heat water via natural gas, electricity, or propane—although the water doesn’t actually boil, as the name implies—and this heated water is moved through your home via radiators or baseboard heaters. Boiler systems give off a gentler, less drying form of heat compared to forced air systems.

Another bonus of boilers is that because they don’t use a blower system to circulate heat, you’re able to heat your home with fewer allergens flying around. If you suffer from consistent allergies and dry skin in the winter, a boiler might be a good option for you.

Though the cost of boiler installation can be higher than a furnace, they are as energy efficient as their dry-heat cousin. Like furnaces, an older and functional boiler can be retrofitted by a professional to be more energy efficient.

Advantages

  • Non-allergenic heat
  • Very energy efficient
  • Increasingly popular in the US

Disadvantages

  • More expensive installation (copper pipes are usually used)
  • Air conditioning system must be added separately
  • Some technicians do not service boilers

Radiant Heating Systems

Similar to boilers, radiant heating systems produce non-allergenic, gentle heat. Radiant heating systems are usually installed in floors, but wall and ceiling units are also available. Most people opt for systems that create heat by circulating hot water through a network of tubes—electricity can get expensive, so these hydronic radiant heating systems are the more cost-effective choice.

Because the tubing (for a hydronic system) or cabling (for an electric system) must be installed in the floor (or wall or ceiling), a radiant heating system isn’t something you can install on a whim—or without major construction. If you’re replacing flooring or renovating your home, however, radiant flooring is a worthwhile option to consider.

Radiant floor heating systems work best with tile as the floor covering. You can certainly use other types of flooring, but because vinyl, wood, and carpeting all provide a level of insulation, the radiant system will need to work harder to provide adequate heat, thus reducing its overall efficiency.

Advantages

  • Energy efficient
  • Heat is emitted without a blower unit, making it suitable for people with allergies
  • Warm floors are comfortable in cold weather

Disadvantages

  • Cannot be installed without major construction
  • Type of floor covering impacts the system’s efficiency

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps use refrigerant to absorb heat from outside sources—like the air, the ground, or even a body of water—and then use a heat exchanger to transfer that heat indoors. This exchange of heat can also be reversed to provide air conditioning, making heat pumps a nice all-in-one option. Heat pumps are especially popular in parts of the country without harsh winters because they’re efficient and relatively inexpensive to run.

Traditional heat pumps are electric, which makes them ideal for areas where natural gas service isn’t available. If you’re concerned about the possibility of high electricity bills in cold weather, consider a dual-fuel heat pump. In very cold weather when heat pumps lose efficiency and cost more to run, dual-fuel systems switch over to a gas furnace to heat the house.

If you add on to your home or finish a basement or attic space that isn’t connected to the rest of your home’s ductwork, a mini-split heat pump can be a cost-effective solution for heating and cooling the new space. Mini-split systems are ductless, so you won’t need to sacrifice space for ductwork.

Advantages

  • Highly energy efficient in temperate weather
  • Can be run year-round to heat and cool
  • Can provide further savings with water bills if fitted with a desuperheater, an add-on that transfers excess heat to a hot water tank

Disadvantages

  • Can be strained and cost more to run in extreme temperatures
  • Ground-source heat pumps can be expensive to install

Heating System Efficiency

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Buying a home heating system is a major decision. While it’s easy to get bogged down in comparing the benefits of a gas furnace to those of an electric heat pump, shifting your focus to efficiency might help you narrow down your choices.

The bottom line is that there are many good ways to heat your home, but some are more energy efficient than others. Why should you care about efficiency? I’ll give you two good reasons:

  1. Money. The more efficient your heating system is, the less money you’ll shell out to run it.
  2. Your carbon footprint. The most efficient heating system is one that uses the least amount of fuel to heat your home. And the less fuel it uses, the less of an impact you have on the environment.

How do you ensure you’re getting an energy-efficient heating system?

Industry regulations mean that you’ll have a hard time finding a truly inefficient new heating system these days. But to make sure you’re getting the best, most efficient option for your money, look for ENERGY STAR-rated products, ask your contractor about the most energy-efficient system that could work for your home, and keep the following tips in mind:

  • Buy the right-sized system. A heating system that’s too large for you house will cost more in terms of equipment and installation, and it will draw too much energy for the amount of heat that you want produced. On the other hand, a system that’s too small won’t heat your home adequately and will constantly run, also costing you more in heating bills each month.

When sizing your system, your contractor will take into account many factors, including the size of your house, the climate in which you live, and how much insulation is in your home.

  • Check out the AFUE rating. The AFUE rating, or annual fuel utilization efficiency rating, is a measurement of how much of the heater’s energy use goes into actually heating the home. If a heater is rated 80, that means that 80 cents of each dollar you spend on heating goes to producing heat.

The higher the AFUE, the more heating bang for your buck. You’ll find AFUE numbers on hot water heaters, boilers, and furnaces.

  • Follow your HVAC system’s maintenance schedule. Staying on top of your HVAC system’s recommended maintenance schedule will ensure it runs more efficiently. If your system has ducts, having properly sealed seams will help keep air from escaping through the cracks. Some systems use air filters, which need regular cleaning or replacement, depending on the style.

A good general rule of thumb is to have an HVAC specialist check your system twice per year to help maintain and improve its effectiveness.

The Bottom Line

The heating system you choose will affect how you feel in your home during the cold months as much as it will affect your pocketbook. Before picking a brand or even an installation company, ask yourself some questions about what you want out of your heater.

  • How much heat are you wanting your system to produce?
  • How extreme are your winters?
  • How important is energy efficiency to you?

By answering questions like these and hiring a quality heating and air conditioning company, you’ll ensure that you don’t wake up with a cold nose when the temperature drops each winter.

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