Last Updated Apr 4, 2017 · Written by Rob Schneider
We all like our homes to be warm and cosy in winter. What kinds of heating systems are available? Which one would be best for your home? Only you have the answer to that question, but knowing the latest in heating designs and options will help you make the right decision.
The first question you need to ask is if you want a radiant, convection heater or floor heater. What is the difference?
A radiant heater simply "radiates" heat from a central source. Many inexpensive space heaters and wood heaters are radiant heaters. They radiate heat, but the heat dissipates as you get further from the heater.
Convection heaters spread heat throughout the room or house. A fan may spread the heat or a floor heater will cover an entire floor and heat will rise from the floor. Convection heaters include ducted and split system heaters. Some wood heaters and space heaters have fans that circulate warm air through the room.
Floor heaters cover an entire floor and the rising heat warms an entire room. While the heat is a radiant heat, a floor heater can work as well as a convection heater.
Radiant heaters are fine for small areas, but a convection heater is better for larger areas. Look into floor heaters when you are building. Retrofitting a floor heater is too expensive for most homeowners.
What types of heaters are available? The list is a surprisingly long one:
Wood heaters have been used for centuries. They can be enclosed or in a fireplace. To spread the heat further, some wood heaters have fans that force hot air that would otherwise go up the chimney into the house.
Gas, isopropyl alcohol and ethanol heaters can create a wood heater effect, but use a flammable gas or liquid instead of wood. Isopropyl alcohol and ethanol are clean burning, but natural gas or LPG should be used in a well ventilated room or have a flue system that disperses gas fumes outdoors.
Space heaters are portable units. They are fine for smaller spaces, but usually don't have enough capacity to heat a large room. Space heaters can be gas or electric. Gas space heaters should have a flue to direct gas fumes outdoors. Without the flue, they can be a health hazard and should only be used in well-ventilated rooms.
Hydronic heaters use hot water to heat the home. A hydronic heater can be mounted on the wall or under the floor. In most cases, they have a central boiler that distributes the water through pipes to the floor or wall unit. Hydronic heaters can be a cost-effective option.
A split system heater has a heating unit outdoors and a heater indoors. The heater has a fan to distribute heat throughout a room. A multi-split system has a single outdoor heating unit and can have up to five indoor heaters.
Ducted heating has a central unit that distributes heat through the house via ducts. Many modern ducted heating systems are "zone" systems. They direct heat to specific rooms rather than the whole house. A system like this costs more, but can save gas or electricity because you're not heating rooms where heat is not required.
Reverse cycle air conditioning will cool your home in summer and heat your home in winter. They can be an efficient way to heat and cool your home and are good for large areas.
Split and ducted systems can use gas or electricity to heat the air. If natural gas is available in your area, a gas system can save you money. If you have an electric heating system, look into off-peak options to save on your electricity bill. LPG can be less expensive than an electric heater, but is usually more expensive than natural gas.
Fuel efficiency is important. The latest heating designs attempt to reduce fuel waste. They do this in a number of ways.
If you like a crackling fire in a fireplace, think about spending more and getting a more fuel-efficient wood heaters. A slow combustion wood heater will burn wood more slowly. Add fans and heat that otherwise would go up the chimney will warm the house. For information about the costs of wood heaters, read How Much Does a Wood Heater Cost?
Hydronic heating systems are growing in popularity because they can be fuel-efficient. Once installed, a gas hydronic heating system will cost 20 to 30 percent less than a conventional gas heating system. The central boiler heats the water, when the water returns to the boiler, it is still warm, so less energy is required to warm it to the optimum temperature. Underfloor hydronic systems should be installed while you're building. Some hydronic systems have wall-mounted heaters. They can be retrofitted, but it will be less expensive to have them installed if you are building.
Heat pumps use a refrigerant system to extract warm air from the environment. Heat pumps can be used to help heat hot water and they are now being used for heating systems. A heat pump often needs another heat source (gas or electricity), but the heat pump can warm water or air and reduce power consumption. Heat pumps are most efficient in temperate or warm climates, but even cold air has heat that can be extracted. Heat pumps can be combined with hydronic heating or conventional heating. The initial cost is high, but a good heat pump can produce 3 watts of heat for every watt of electricity consumed.
Solar power can be used to heat your home. A solar heater consists of a roof mounted solar collector. Instead of collecting solar energy, the solar panel collects air and warms it. A fan directs the warm air into the home. According to manufacturers, even on cold, cloudy days, a solar heater can keep your home at a comfortable 20 to 25 degrees. On sunny winter days, it can add up to five more degrees of heat.
The two most important considerations when choosing a heater are its capacity and fuel efficiency.
The capacity of a heater is its ability to heat an area. If you choose a split system or ducted system, a lower capacity system will save you money initially, but the system will have to work hard to keep your house warm. This will increase fuel costs and shorten the lifespan of the system.
More fuel efficient systems cost more, but save you money over time. A zone ducted system will cost more, but you won't be heating rooms that don't require heating. Your energy bills will be reduced and you will recoup the extra cost.
If you choose a wood heater, a slow combustion system with fans will cost more than a simple system, but you won't burn more wood than you need and your heat won't be going up the chimney. Over time, you will save on fuel costs and your home will be more comfortable. A less expensive system will give you a crackling fire, but most of the heat will go up the chimney and you will have to sit close to the fire to stay warm.
Spending more initially on a more efficient heating will save you money in the long run. If you're building, look into hydronic heating. Hydronic heating systems are fuel efficient and effective in most climates. If you're retrofitting, a good quality split or multi-split system may cost less than retrofitting a ducted system.
Get quotes from a variety of heating specialists. The initial cost will be one consideration, but also find out how much more a more energy efficient system will cost. The extra cost will pay off in the long run and your home will be more comfortable at a lower energy cost.