November 28, 2023

A primer to help you choose the best heating system for your home

4 min read
A primer to help you choose the best heating system for your home

I grew up in Cincinnati. The homes built in the late 1800s in the Queen City almost all were heated with hot water or steam radiators. These houses were built long before air conditioning had been invented. Radiant heat is luxurious, and I currently enjoy it in my New Hampshire home. I’ll share more about this in a moment.

Some older homes had monster furnaces that worked on gravity. They’d heat up the air inside a giant round furnace and it would float up through metal ducts into the house. Since cold air is heavier, it would drop back down into the basement to be reheated by the wasteful burner. More modern houses transitioned to forced hot air with a blower pushing air up into the rooms. This same air handler would deliver cool air in the summer if you had an air conditioning system, as well.

Forced-air systems offer lots of advantages for purifying the air in your home and adding humidity, should it be needed. For these systems to work best, the supply and return ductwork needs to be carefully sized and installed so all rooms are comfortable.

I have a very good friend here in New Hampshire who heats with anthracite coal. He has two coal stoves and only uses the second when the temperature drops below zero degrees for an extended time. One advantage to using coal is that he knows when it’s all delivered in the fall, he’ll never be cold at all in the winter. He has all his required fuel. If you’ve ever lost power and been cold, you know how well my friend sleeps at night.

You can’t say that about me, as I depend on three propane deliveries per winter season to keep my tank full. Many of you may depend on natural gas to flow to your home each day. What happens if there’s some national shortage of gas? How will you keep warm? The disadvantage to my friend’s archaic coal stove is it’s a little dusty in the house and he needs to feed it twice a day.

What about radiant floor heat? I have it in my home, and it’s quite possibly the best form of heating I’ve ever experienced. The entire floor of my basement is toasty warm. It’s magical to step out of a shower onto a warm tile floor. I have six different zones in my system, so I can save on fuel by using programmable thermostats to keep rooms in several zones cooler when I’m not in them.

You can also install radiant heat using sleek baseboard radiators if you can’t afford to put the heating tubes under each floor in your home. My house has both radiant floor heating and these baseboard heaters. The plastic tubes that supply the heat to the radiators install just like electric cables. In just a few hours, two workers can easily run all the tubing for baseboard radiators in a modest home.

Modern boilers and forced-air furnaces have modulating technology. This means the burner works like the one on your gas or electric stove. When you cook, you can adjust the amount of heat so you can boil water on high heat or just apply enough heat to simmer a tasty gravy. The same thing happens when a part of your house calls for heat. The boiler or furnace only produces enough heat to satisfy that demand no matter what it is. This saves energy, as less heat is sent outdoors with the exhaust gas when the burner is on low.

Perhaps the most basic heating system you can install is one that just uses electricity. Simple baseboard radiators or portable ones can be used for heating. There are no moving parts to speak of, but the downside is that electricity costs may be quite high where you live.

Heat pumps are electric heating systems, but they’re very complex machines. They do double duty as air conditioners in the summer. Modern heat pumps are quite efficient — but, once again, electricity may be pricey where you live. What’s more, electricity is quite possibly the least reliable heating fuel that you can choose. The news is littered with stories at any time of year about hundreds of thousands of people without power when large storms damage power lines.

What am I going to do when I build my next home? I’m going to install radiant floor heating in the entire house and have a wood stove backup heating system. I’ll stock in enough dried oak firewood to provide a few months of heat should propane become scarce.