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What's the difference between a Furnace, Heat Pump, Boiler and other heating systems?

There’s countless ways to heat a home which all vary in efficiency,  installation costs, and maintenance requirements.

Before contacting an HVAC professional about a replacement or fix, it’s good to first know what options are out there. Here we’ll walk through the most common heat sources and then review the different distribution systems.

Heating-System-Heat-Sources

Types of heat sources

Air conditioners do not heat your house, but Heat Pumps do. It essentially reverses the function it uses for cooling the home. Instead of absorbing heat inside of the home to transfer it outside, it absorbs any heat from outside and releases it inside of the home. 

Furnace

Furnace systems use the same ducting as your A/C to force air through and heat the home. Almost always they’re heated with gas, but can also be heated using electricity, propane and even oil.

These tend to be the default choice (in tandem with a central air conditioner) for homeowners

Heat Pump

Heat pumps are a one-stop shop for heating and cooling the home, making it a more efficient and cheaper solution. As a result, more homeowners have been switching over to them. There are split systems, ductless systems, package and even window heat pumps. They’ll often look identical to an air conditioning unit so if you’re unsure, check the label on the unit or alternatively, turn on the heater and go outside to see if the unit is running (if it’s an A/C then it won’t run)

The way it works is by using a heat exchanger that either pulls heat from inside or outside of the home, depending on whether you’re attempting to warm or cool the house. Unfortunately, if you do not live in moderate climates, this will not be your best solution during extreme weather conditions. This is why in cooler climates, homeowners sometimes have a furnace in addition to their heat pump (what is called a hybrid system).

Boiler

Boilers are another type of central heating system which boils water to mechanically send steam through pipes to provide heating. Given the Specific Heat of water, these are expensive to run and are also expensive to install. 

Other Heat Sources

Solar and other natural heat sources tend to be less common while the most common of all are electric heating sources that simply plug into the wall. Each tend to be less efficient or can even be expensive to operate effectively.

How to Compare Home Heating Systems: Furnace, Heat Pump, Boiler, and more

Types of Distribution Systems

Many heat sources can utilize different distribution systems. Below are the primary systems used to distribute heat:

Forced Air System

Forced Air systems are the most common distribution system due to their effectiveness in circulating a heat source. These are used by furnaces, heat pumps and solar heating sources.

Space Heaters

Rather than heating the entire home, these are the baseboard heaters, steam radiant and others that tend to cost a lot of money to heat an entire home and do not share a distribution system with cooling units.

Radiant Heaters

These are built into the home (installed into the floors, ceiling or even into the walls) and distributes heat directly from boilers, heat pumps, solar or electric heating throughout the installed surface. Given that these are permanently affixed to the home (in the walls, floors or ceiling), they are a massive task to fix or replace but tend to last a very long time. Lastly is that they tend to take much longer to be effective.