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Getting 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 a home’s heating system is working properly, and to anticipate what sort of maintenance and repair costs will crop up, it’s worth learning the benefits and peculiarities of different systems.

Homes can be heated by furnaces, which use fuel in the form of gas, oil, electricity, 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 use radiators.
Here’s a look at some issues common to homes heated by different sources:

Furnace heat. Furnaces operate by heating air and circulating it via a duct system throughout the home. In an oil or gas furnace, a heat exchanger warms the air. In an electric furnace, heating elements or strips heat the air. Wood and coal furnaces burn these items as fuel inside a fire box, and then air is run over a heat exchanger onward into the home. Most 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 to assure that circulating air is clean. Most fuel and HVAC companies also provide duct cleaning and other furnace maintenance services. It is prudent to have a heating maintenance service person examine the furnace’s interior; all homeowners should include a carbon monoxide alarm in their house. 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. Furnaces may cost anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 to replace, depending on the type of fuel the furnace uses and region of the country.

Electrical heat pump. A heat pump provides both heating and cooling systems for a home, using coils and refrigerants within an outdoor unit to convert air to heat in winter and to cool air in summer, then circulate it into the home through the home’s duct system. When shopping for a heat pump, consumers can consider two efficiency ratings when making their decision: A Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) rates the cooling efficiency of heat pumps and air conditioning units, and the higher the rating the less power required to cool; the Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) rates heat pump efficiency, and the higher the rating the less electricity needed to heat. Heat pump filters should be inspected and cleaned every three months. The cost to replace a heat pump ranges from $2,200 to $3,600 according to Freddie Mac, the lending organization.

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 that residents can lower or increase temperatures depending on where they’re spending time in the house. Baseboard heat is often more costly than furnace heating systems. Individual baseboard replacement and installation can cost anywhere from $150 to $300.


Radiant heat. If a home has radiant heat, that means electrical elements or water lines  are built beneath floors, within ceilings or use radiators. 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, and homes with hydronic radiant heat rely on a boiler to warm the water or steam.

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