Home Heating Systems

Toronto Life
Home Sweet Home by Charlotte Marillet
Home Sweet Home
by Charlotte Marillet

A properly working home heating system is one of the most important features of every home. It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying a new house or reconstructing an old one — the selection of a heating system will have a huge impact not only on your home’s heating costs but also on the environment, as well as on your comfort.

Choosing the right heating unit for your home is a complex task that requires an understanding of how various systems work and how they perform. This article provides the most important facts that you should know about the most common residential heating systems.

Determine the Correct Size

To obtain maximum comfort and efficiency during the coldest weather, your home heating system has to be adequately sized so that it exactly meets the requirements of your house. An over-sized heating appliance will run for a shorter period, never reaching the efficiency potential of your home. Therefore it’s recommended to have a proper sizing done with a relatively precise estimation of heat loss through the roof, walls, windows, basement, and other parts of your home during the coldest days. Results will indicate the design heat load of the house, which is used to determine the size of the heating unit. In most cases, it varies between 10 and 30 per cent above design heat load.

Central Heating Systems

Central heating systems distribute heat to the whole interior of a house and can be divided into two wide classes: those that use air as a medium for heat distribution and those that use water.

Gas-Fuelled Furnaces

A natural gas and propane-fired furnace is one of the most common heating appliances. For example, more than 53 per cent of households in the United States use a gas-powered heating system, the majority of which is a central warm air furnace. The same unit can often be adjusted to burn either propane or natural gas.

Central heating by Frankie Roberto
Central heating
by Frankie Roberto

According to the Department of Energy, natural gas is the lowest cost common energy source available for residential heating in 2011. It’s about 68 per cent cheaper than electricity, per Btu (British thermal unit). The best, modern natural gas furnaces often reach efficiency higher than 90 per cent and at the same time are very environmentally-friendly and safe.

Most propane gas heating units are usually modified natural gas appliances. In general, propane gas has lower efficiency than natural gas. However, there can be certain areas where propane gas is the best available heating option.

Some manufacturers offer also multi-stage furnaces, including both a high and low heat delivery rating. These furnaces are able to provide a more constant inside temperature, as they modify the amount of heat delivered according to the outside temperature.

Electric Furnaces

The most common type of electric furnace is the central warm-air furnace. It provides heat by the operation of several electric resistance heating elements and a central fan. Growing electricity prices result in lower demand for electricity furnaces. However, in regions where the demand for heat isn’t very high or where electricity is cheaper, electric furnaces can still represent an efficient residential heating option. These appliances are usually considered 100 per cent effective, which means that there is no heat wasted in most cases.

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps produce heat at less than half the cost of an electric furnace. There are two types of electric heat pumps: air-source heat pumps and ground-source heat pumps. Air-source heat pumps move the cold air into a warm home like a normal air conditioner in the summer but can be switched to a reverse mode, bringing heat to the house. Similarly, ground-source heat pumps are also based on heat transfer, but instead of air, they use heat from the ground.

Heat pumps highly depend on duct sealing, so make sure to reduce duct leakage to a minimum. Furthermore, there are also multi-speed air-source heat pumps that adjust the operating speed when necessary. In the case of heat pumps, it’s very important not to underestimate proper sizing of appliances to obtain the highest efficiency possible.

Hot-Water Boilers

Hot Water Boiler by Chris Feser
Hot Water Boiler by Chris Feser

Hot-water boilers have undergone many similar changes to furnaces. Boiler have many advantages compared to furnaces: they provide even heat, are quieter, require less energy to distribute the heat, don’t circulate odours throughout the house, and are better for zone heating (setting different temperature in different parts of the house).

On the other hand, hot-water boilers are more expensive to install, and their servicing is more costly as well. Also, it’s more demanding to connect central air conditioning, humidifying, and filtering equipment to a house that uses a boiler. Another disadvantage of hot-water boilers is the relatively small variety of high-efficiency types on the market. In addition, hot-water boilers are more dangerous, as every leak means water damage, and there’s a potential threat of steam explosion when the water is extremely overheated.

Unitary Systems

Unitary heating systems provide heat only into specific parts of a house.

Wood Stoves

Wood stoves have changed substantially over the years. Nowadays, there are special rules that control the efficiency and environmental impact of wood stoves and only certified stoves reach the market. This practical and cost-efficient way of heating a home remains very popular. However, it doesn’t matter whether you use wood-burning heat or a pellet stove, this heating option always requires proper maintenance and following of the safety instructions.

Wood stoves now come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes, and stylish designs. However, the biggest advantage of stoves isn’t their aesthetic touch but the fact that you’re independent and secure when the power goes out. Furthermore, modern wood stoves produce less than 7.5 grams of smoke per hour, which is a considerable move forward compared to the 1970s and 1980s.

Electric Baseboard Heaters

Electric baseboard heaters are usually used just as supplementary heating units where the central heating system doesn’t reach. They’re simple, don’t produce combustion products, and they can be adjusted in every single room to a different temperature. However, the operating costs are the same as for an electric furnace.

Wall Furnaces

Wall furnaces are used for small homes or rooms and work on gas or electricity. The unit either blows the heat into the room or simply lets the warm air directly flow into the room. Their average efficiency is somewhere between 59 and 65 per cent. Wall furnaces can be purchased in both traditional vented and sealed-combustion designs.

Solar Heating

Solar Panels by Ricketyus
Solar Panels by Rick Willoughby

Solar heating is a renewable option that offers a relatively quick payback. Moreover, using passive solar heating principles in the design and conception of a house can secure a substantial proportion of its heating needs. You don’t have to implement solar panels to use the benefits of solar heating. Orienting the house to the south and using proper glazing is sometimes enough to provide noticeable results.

Far Infrared Heating Systems

Using far infrared rays is a relatively unknown yet very efficient way of heating your home. The concept of far infrared heating systems is based on the transfer of thermal energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. Far infrared rays transfer energy directly to the designated object, which is heated without any energy waste. The resulting energy isn’t absorbed by the air and doesn’t produce heat until it’s absorbed by an opaque object.

One of the main advantages of far infrared heating is its efficiency since the warmth is directed and gathered on the floor and people level and not absorbed by the air. Moreover, it provides great comfort because it doesn’t require any air blowing; it heats the area where it’s directed. Far infrared heating also allows a very useful control of the amount of heat produced so that you can comfortably adjust different levels of warmth in your home. Its maintenance is not very demanding, and far infrared heating units are usually very safe as there’s no open flame, no moving parts, no fuel lines, and no toxic by-products.

District Heating

District heating is becoming more and more popular in Canadian cities, and many new systems were built in the past few years. It’s a system where heat is supplied to a number of homes or buildings from a central source through a network of pipes carrying steam or hot water.

District heating is in most cases more energy efficient than any other way of heating and reduces expenses of individual households. However, it needs a high initial capital and the investment returns slowly. Moreover, it’s less suitable for areas with lower population densities. In Toronto, district heating and cooling is provided by Enwave, a private corporation jointly owned by the City of Toronto and the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.

3 thoughts on “Home Heating Systems

November 3, 2011 at 11:05 pm
John Divine says:

An excellent guide to different heating systems one can use.

November 4, 2011 at 7:31 am
Jamie Sarner says:

Hi John,

Thank you for visiting and I appreciate that you found this article informative. Have you read any of the other articles on my site? Do you have any suggestions for future pieces?



September 6, 2020 at 2:07 pm
john gouglas says:

I presently have a 200 amp electric baseboard heated cottage, near Beaverton. It has 3 levels built in 3 stages so I believe ducting would be difficult but not impossible. I think heat pump would be best but have ???? We hope to retire there so annual heating cost would be more important than installation cost. do you have any suggestions? Stay safe John

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