Home Heating Systems: What Every Homeowner Needs to Know

During the long, harsh, and challenging winter, nothing beats a warm evening at home. You might not give your heater a second thought, until it stops working. Here’s a quick tutorial on how they operate so you can stay warm this winter.

Types of heaters. The main difference among most heaters is the fuel source. Oil, gas, and electric coils are the most common sources used today. How the heat is distributed to the home is either by forced air or by water through pipes.

Forced-air systems. If the furnace burns gas or oil, the fuel is pumped to a burner. When the thermostat tells the heater that the home temperature has gotten too cold, a spark ignites the fuel in a controlled burn. The heat from this burn is captured in a closed pipe system called a heat exchanger. A fan motor blows air over the outside of this heat exchanger, delivering the heated air through the duct system. The gases captured from the burned fuel inside the heat exchanger are vented to the outside since they contain deadly carbon monoxide.

With an electric furnace, electrical coils provide the heat while the air handler sends the warm air through the house.

Boiler system. With a water heater system, the source of the heat may be oil, gas or electric coils, but water in a boiler is heated into steam and passes naturally without pumping through a network of pipes in the walls to a radiator in each room, generating heat. This type of system has been around more than a hundred years, and although the heating of the water is energy intensive, the steam pipes heat quite well.

Heat pumps. An efficient way to both heat and cool a home is a heat pump. It operates similar to an air conditioning unit. A refrigerant chemical is pumped in a continuous closed loop system, taking heat from inside the home to the outside and then cooling through the same loop to take cool air inside. A heat pump works both ways, transferring heat out of a house in summer and bringing cool in, then reversing for winter to bring heat in and cold air out.

Energy needs. The amount of energy a heater needs to heat the square footage of your home is measured in British Thermal Units, or BTUs.


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