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Get the Hang of Heating Systems

A home’s heating system is its circulatory system, the way that clean and warm air gets delivered to different rooms. In order to understand whether your home’s heating system is working properly, and to anticipate what sort of maintenance and repair costs will crop up as you continue living in your residence, it’s important to understand  the benefits and peculiarities common to different types of systems.

Homes can be heated by furnaces, which use fuel in the form of gas, oil, electricity, or, in older homes, coal or wood; electric heat pumps (which double as cooling systems in summer), baseboard electrical heat, which are wall-mounted heaters, and radiant heat, in which heating systems are installed above ceilings, below floors, or as radiators. In addition, portable space heaters may be used to warm portions of a home but are considered supplementary heat sources—meaning that if a space heater is a home’s or a portion of the home’s only heating source, the home or portion of the home may not qualify for appraisal or other purposes as having heat. Some homes have multiple systems, such as a furnace to deliver heat via air ducts into most rooms of the house, plus baseboard heat or space heaters to warm up other, colder rooms. Here’s a look at some issues common to homes heated by different sources:

  • Furnaces
    Furnaces operate by heating air and circulating it via a duct system throughout the home. They cost anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 to replace, according to lender Freddie Mac and others sources. In an oil or gas furnace, a pilot light and exchange unit warm air, while in an electric furnace heating elements or strips heat the air. Wood and coal furnaces burn wood or coal as fuel inside a protected box, then send hot air onward into the home. All furnaces have air filters or filtration systems which need regular cleaning and replacement, a process that is relatively inexpensive and should take place at least once per quarter during seasons the heating system is in operation. Air ducts in homes also require periodic cleaning (at least annually) to make sure that the air circulating in the home isn’t dirty. Most fuel companies also provide duct cleaning and other furnace maintenance services. Furnaces that show signs of cracks within the engine or elsewhere may leak carbon monoxide or other unhealthy materials into your home’s air, so if an inspector raised concerns about the age or condition of a furnace you may wish to ask a heating maintenance service person to examine the furnace’s interior. In addition, you may wish to arrange for periodic tests for carbon monoxide. Homes with oil furnaces frequently have oil tanks buried in the ground outside; these tanks may require supplementary liability insurance to protect homeowners in the event of oil leaks due to the tank’s age or corrosion.
  • Heat pumps
    A heat pump circulates air in much the same way an air conditioning system does—and in fact, many heat pumps double as air conditioning units in summer. These heating systems usually feature an exterior unit that the system uses to draw in air before converting it into heat (in winter) or cooler air (in summer) and circulating it throughout the home via a duct system. Thermostats in the house typically have temperature settings for both heat and air conditioning usage. Heat pump filters should be inspected and cleaned periodically. The cost to replace a heat pump ranges from $2,200 to $3,600 according to Freddie Mac.
  • Baseboard heat
    These heaters are easily recognizable and appear as long, metal units that have electrical heating wires inside. Homes with baseboard heat typically have a thermostat in each room containing baseboards, meaning you can adjust each room’s temperature separately—and not waste heat in rooms where you don’t spend much time. Baseboard heat is often considered more costly than furnace heating systems, but such comparisons may depend on which fuel furnaces use. Individual baseboard replacement and installation can cost anywhere from $150 to $300.
  • Radiant heat
    If a home has radiant heat, that means elements are built beneath floors or within ceilings. Rooms include dial-style thermostats common in homes with baseboard heating. Hydronic radiant heating systems use hot or cool water which flows through tubes beneath the floor to adjust a room’s temperature. Homes with radiant heat often rely on a boiler to warm the water, which means periodically inspecting the boiler is a necessity. Boiler replacement can cost between $2,500 and $5,500, according to Freddie Mac.

The US Department of Energy provides more information about heating systems here: