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What type does your dream home have? by Paul Bianchina

With spring approaching, many people are considering dipping their toes back into the housing market. There’s a lot of houses out there to choose from at the moment, and it seems like I’ve been getting a lot of questions recently about heating systems: What are the different kinds? What’s the best one? How do I compare them?

So for all of you house hunters, here’s an overview of some of the most common types of heating systems, along with a few of the pros and cons.

Zonal heating

Zonal heating systems are set up to heat specific zones of the house, as opposed to the entire house at once. A zone may be an individual room, or it may be a group of rooms. Thermostats control only the heater or heaters that make up each individual zone.

Common types of zonal heating systems include electric wall heaters, electric baseboard heaters, electric or gas fireplaces, ceiling cable heat, and radiant floor heat.

Electric wall heaters and baseboard heaters are less expensive to install than a central heating system, and don’t have a duct system to maintain. On the downside, they limit furniture placement in the room. Also, they tend to burn dust on the elements inside the heaters, creating dirty spots on the wall around them over time.

Radiant ceiling cable is an outdated and inefficient system, with a lot of heat loss into the attic.

Radiant floor heat creates a very nice warm floor underfoot, and does a nice job of maintaining an even temperature in the room. Radiant floor heat can be expensive to install, and works best with floor coverings such as tile.

If you tend to stay in only one part of the house at a time, zonal heating allows you to maintain different temperature settings in different areas. Done right, and for the right type of person, this can result in some energy savings. But if you move around the house a lot, or if you forget to set back the different zones to different temperatures at different times of the day, you’ll quickly lose those savings.

Two other potential downsides to zonal heating systems are that they do not have the ability to add air conditioning, and, depending on the market you’re in, they may detract from resale value.

Central heating A central heating system utilizes both a single furnace that creates heated air and a fan and duct system to distribute that heated air throughout the house.

Depending on the type of furnace, the heat is created through the burning of natural gas, propane, fuel oil or wood, or by passing an electrical current through a series of elements. Some types of radiant floor systems would be considered central heating systems as well.

A single thermostat controls the heating demand for the entire house. This adds convenience, but it also means that you’re heating rooms that may not be in use during certain parts of the day. You can close off the registers to unused rooms, but when you do that, you unbalance the heating demands for the entire system.

For that reason, you should never close off registers without the help of a trained heating contractor.

Central heating systems lend themselves to other convenience factors. You can install a clock thermostat, also called a setback thermostat. This allows you to set specific times when a clock in the thermostat will raise and lower the thermostat automatically, such as when you go to bed, or when you’re at work.

You can also add a central electronic air filter to help keep the house cleaner, as well as a central humidifier. Finally, most central heating systems can be adapted to add central air conditioning as well.

All that being said, a central heating system is not always the most efficient way to heat a home. You need to look at the condition of the furnace, and especially the condition of the duct system. Many older systems, and even some newer ones, have loose joints and poor insulation that lose a lot of heat.

Heat pumps

Heat pumps are another form of central heating system that offers greater energy efficiency and also offers cooling. It consists of an interior heating unit and an outdoor compressor unit. Through a system that works similar to your refrigerator, heat is drawn from the outside air and transferred to the house through a series of refrigerant-filled coils.

In the summer, the process can be reversed, removing heat from the house and transferring it outside in order to cool the house.

There are different types of heat pumps available, depending on where they draw their outside heat from. The most common is the air-source heat pump, which gets its heat from the air. Heat pumps work best in relatively mild climates; as temperatures begin to drop, conventional backup electric heating elements come on in stages to provide supplemental heat as needed. A central thermostat controls the entire system.

On the downside, heat pumps have a higher initial installed cost than conventional central heating systems. They also typically deliver air through the ducts at a little lower overall temperature, which some people don’t like when comparing it to conventional furnaces.

Because they offer greater energy efficiency and also offer cooling capabilities, heat pumps tend to have a higher resale value than other types of heating systems.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at
Copyright 2010 Inman News

See Paul Bianchina’s feature, Tips on Remodeling to Sell.

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  • Sean Denniston

    I don’t think that this is a good way of thinking about space conditioning systems. Not all of the examples of zonal systems are always zoned, some of the central systems can be zoned, and there are a couple of conspicuous absences.

    The primary parts of a residential space conditioning system are the method of producing the heating or cooling, the distribution system and the method of controlling the system.

    Method of Producing Heating and Cooling:

    This would be a the resistance heat found in most electric baseboard heaters, electric radiant heating (in either floor or ceiling), and wall-mounted “Cadet”-type heaters. Gas or electric furnaces, gas or oil or electric water and steam boilers, and heat pumps are ways of producing heat and cold. Even solar collecting systems and wood, gas or electric fireplaces do.

    Method of Distributing Heat or Cool:

    Once the heat or cool is produced, it needs to be delivered to the point of use.

    Many systems don’t really have a distribution system, they deliver the heat or cool directly or nearly directly. Electric resistance baseboard, radiant and wall systems fall in this category. Gas, wood and electric stoves usually do as well. Window air conditioners and ductless mini heat pumps do as well.

    The heat and cool can also be delivered from a central point of production. This could be the ducts used by an air-based central system or the pipes used by hydronic (hot water) or steam systems. (These systems were completely absent from the article.) Ducted distribution systems can be connected to furnaces, compressors, heat-pumps, even wood, gas and electric stoves. Piped hydronic systems can make use of tubing in either the floor or ceiling, baseboard heaters and radiators and connected to a boiler or solar collector or both. Piped steam systems can be connected to baseboard heaters and radiators. It’s even possible to connect a boiler to a fan-coil and use an air-based duct system to distribute the heat.

    Means of Control:

    This is where the issue of zones really is an issue. In reality, all systems are zoned, it’s just that some systems only have one zone and some can serve multiple zones. In residential construction, most systems with distributed heat and cool production are multi-zoned, and most with central production are not. But this is not an absolute. Through the use of valves – either controlled by a thermostat or not – most hydronic and steam systems can be zoned. Without the independent valves, they are single-zone. Even air-based, ducted systems can be zoned and automatically controlled, but the technology is typically too expensive for residential applications and is mostly only found in commercial buildings, so most air-based ducted systems are single-zoned. Electric baseboard, radiant and wall heating is typically zoned by device, but they can all be wired and controlled together in one big zone.

    There are primarily two ways that a system can be efficient, through mechanical efficiency and through control. All pieces of equipment have a level of efficiency; however, how that equipment is controlled is another major component of overall efficiency. Programmable thermostats can help with efficient use. Multi-zoned systems also present an opportunity for greater efficiency. Forgetfulness can limit the efficiency potential for multi-zoned systems, but the alternative is an entire house that is always being heated or cooled.

    So, a very efficient furnace or heat pump can be rendered relatively inefficient through the inherent inefficiencies of ducted systems and lack of zones. Conversely electric radiant coils in the ceiling may not produce heat as efficiency, but they have a very efficient delivery system and can garner the efficiencies of multiple zones. (We lose heat primarily through our heads and perceive heat much more through radiation than convection, so radiant ceiling coils deliver the heat in an effective way very close to the part of the human body where it does the most good.)

    I think these three ways of looking at systems works much better. It allows us to evaluate the different parts of a system and balance inherent advantages and disadvantages better. An efficient system really needs efficient mechanical equipment, efficient distribution and efficient control. Inefficiencies in any of these areas can offset the efficiency in others.

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