10 Different Types of Furnaces & Heating Systems [GUIDE]

coffee cup on table by radiator - types of furnaces and heating systems

It’s important to stay as warm as possible in autumn and winter, but what so many Americans often realize is how costly it can be to do so. Often, people either have to choose their wallet or their comfort, unfortunate though it may be. 

Sadly, those utility bills are only set to soar: the Energy Information Administration estimates that natural gas heating for the average US home will rise roughly $200 to $931, an almost 30% increase for this year. Heating oil bills are set to jump by $1,200, propane will rise $80, and electric heating will cost an additional $123.

To help you out, we’ve compared the different ways to heat your house in winter, including the pros and cons, and considerations for each heating method.

The Different Types of Home Heating


Gas-Powered Furnace / Forced Air Heating Systems

Also known as central gas heating or forced air heating systems, gas furnaces pull cold air from the home and pass the air into a handler to be heated. The warmed air is then recirculated through ducts throughout the home.

A gas furnace provides the most even distribution in the largest coverage area. This makes it ideal for large homes and those that already have ductwork installed. The heat for the whole home can be easily controlled from a central location with a thermostat.

Pros:

  • Suitable for larger spaces
  • Even heat distribution throughout the home

Cons:

  • Requires ductwork

Vented Gas Heater

As the name suggests, a vented gas heater uses gas to power the heating element and requires a vent or exhaust to expel the gas byproducts. They are installed on an outside wall and pull air from the outside, and in turn, vent to the outside after distributing warm air. Vented gas heaters come in different types, such as space heaters, wall mounted and top vent wall, to name a few.

Some models have a large coverage area, particularly for homes with a lot of open space. You can also install as many as you need throughout the house. 

Pros:

  • More flexible than central gas heating
  • Wide variety of models to suit different locations

Cons:

  • Requires vent
  • More expensive to install

Ventless Gas Heater

A vent-free or ventless gas heater works in much the same way as the vented type, except that it doesn’t require a vent to expel the byproducts. This makes them more convenient and less expensive to install. And since they are not connected to the outside, they are one of the most efficient appliances for heating rooms, operating at around 99.9% efficiency. 

However, ventless heaters require oxygen sensors and carbon monoxide detectors to ensure safety, and they are not allowed in some states like California and Massachusetts.

Pros:

  • More efficient than vented gas heaters
  • More portable
  • Less expensive to install

Cons:

  • Less safe than vented models
  • Not allowed in some jurisdictions

Mini Split with Heat Pump

A mini split with a heat pump allows for ductless heating for multiple rooms, without having to heat the whole house. A mini split system includes an indoor and outdoor unit with compressor and condenser.

Mini splits are small, ductless heating systems, so they are easily installed and offer more flexibility. This makes them an excellent choice for heating basement and attic spaces. According to the Department of Energy, they are also more efficient, since ducts account for 30% of heat loss.

Pros:

  • Provides both heating and cooling
  • No ductwork needed
  • More flexible

Cons:

  • Limited to smaller spaces / limited rooms

Hydronic Heating Systems

This type of heating system utilizes water to transfer heat from a gas boiler or heat pump and move it around the house through water pipes. The pipes are embedded in the walls, and panel radiators installed in each room are used to spread the heat evenly throughout the space.

The boilers can be powered by biofuels, electricity, gas or wood. For this reason hydronic systems are also known as wood boilers, pellet boilers or outdoor water stoves. As for the radiators, these are commonly made of steel or cast iron, though newer designs use aluminum.  

Hydronic systems have dramatically less noise compared to forced air heating systems. They also balance out the moisture levels in the air and avoid drying out the indoor air, unlike other types of heating. Finally, water is a better conductor of heat compared to air, so the heating is even and efficient. 

Pros:

  • More energy efficient than air-based heating
  • Even heat distribution without hotspots
  • Balances humidity levels
  • Silent

Cons:

  • Expensive to install
  • Requires radiators in every room

Electric Space Heaters / Baseboard Heating

Electric heaters are the cheapest heating option in this list. Also known as baseboard heaters, they convert electric current directly into heat, similar to a toaster or clothes iron. They are small and convenient, requiring only a socket. Their compact size also makes them portable so they can be moved room to room to heat spaces as needed.

However, electric heating is the least efficient type of heating method. It takes a lot of electricity to provide the same amount of useful heat as natural gas or oil. Most space heaters also have lower BTUs and can only heat smaller spaces or individual rooms.

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Small
  • Portable

Cons:

  • Least efficient 
  • Only for smaller spaces

Wood-Burning and Pellet Stoves

Wood-fired heating makes sense in rural areas. It’s a renewable resource, which makes it a better option for the environment than fossil fuels if you’re living rurally and have your own wood that you can cut, particularly dead wood. The price of firewood is often lower than gas, oil or electricity, and the air pollution these systems cause can still be a worthwhile environmental trade-off since the fuel is local and renewable. Compared to older wood burning stoves, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires newer models to have lower pollution emissions, making them cleaner-burning. 

Pellet stoves offer several advantages over wood stoves. They are less polluting than wood stoves, while providing more convenience, temperature control and better indoor air quality.

Pros:

  • Less expensive than other heating types
  • Environmentally friendly

Cons:

  • Not ideal outside of rural settings
  • Requires wood or pellets

Traditional Wood-Burning Fireplace

The wood-burning fireplaces offer a homely way of providing heat while enhancing a room’s aesthetic. However, the traditional fireplace generally loses more heat than it actually provides since most heat is lost through the chimney or flue. It also emits a ton of soot, dirt and other byproducts as a result of the wood combustion, requiring a lot of cleaning.

Pro:

  • Best looking

Cons:

  • Not efficient
  • Requires extensive cleaning
  • Not ideal for people susceptible to smoke

Radiant Floor Heating Systems

This system circulates warm water embedded in tubes under the floor. It is highly unobtrusive, but very expensive to purchase and install. It also limits your choice of flooring, floor finish and carpet materials, since the heat is only effective if the floor isn’t blocked. It’s also not practical for many rooms in the house.

Pro:

  • Discreet heating

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Major installation needed
  • Very limiting in terms of flooring and carpeting
  • Limited to a few rooms

Ground Source Heat Pumps

Ground source heat pumps, which are also called geothermal heat pumps, extract heat from the ground through a pipe system buried into the earth. Since the earth’s temperature remains relatively constant, these systems can extract heat from the earth regardless of how cold the air temperature is outside. The heat is distributed through the home via ductwork, like a conventional furnace, so it’s typically used as a whole-home solution.

Since these systems transfer heat from the ground instead of creating it (i.e., through combustion), they’re more efficient to run than even the most high-efficiency conventional furnace, and the heat is free.

They use compressors and fans during operation, however, and therefore require electricity. The greener the power grid, the greener this heating option is for homeowners.

Pros

  • Cheap to run
  • Highly efficient
  • Can be used as a furnace and an air conditioner, and can even help heat water

Cons

  • Expensive to install
  • Can require extensive disruption to landscaping during installation

What to Consider


wood stove with wine glass on top - types of furnaces and heating systems

When choosing a heating method for your home, it’s necessary to consider these important factors:

1. Sizing

This refers to the capacity needed to adequately heat the home. Heating capacity is measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units), which is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The higher the BTU, the larger the space it can heat, and the more expensive the unit is.

Proper sizing is important. A unit that is too big will cycle on and off too frequently, which reduces efficiency and results in more wear and tear. You also end up paying more for the price tag and in monthly utilities than you need to. On the other hand, an undersized unit will not be adequate to heat the space sufficiently. It will also put strain in the system trying to heat the oversized space it can’t handle, which can lead to frequent breakdowns and a shorter lifespan.

Experts recommend between 30 and 60 BTUs of heat per square foot of space.

2. Fuel Source

The type of fuel needed is the next biggest factor. Oil and gas are typically used by larger heating systems, while electricity can be an option for smaller spaces. If you live in a rural area, a wood-burning appliance may make more sense and provide an economical alternative.

3. Placement

Will the heating system be placed inside, outside or on the roof? You’ll want the unit to be out of the way but still accessible for maintenance and repairs. You’ll also want to make sure the unit will be unblocked, to allow any fans or cooling systems enough room to breathe.

4. Climate

Climate greatly affects heating needs. If you live in a warmer region, you can get by with standard models. However, if you live in the northern parts of the country with colder weather or longer winters, you’ll want a heating system designed for colder climates. 

Altitude also plays a role. There is less density and oxygen in the air at higher altitudes compared to sea level. This means that more airflow is needed to heat a home at higher elevations. That’s why some heating systems like furnaces are specifically labeled for use in high altitude settings.

5. Codes

Some heating systems in this list may not be allowed in your jurisdiction, such as ventless gas heaters. You also have to consider future laws and regulations. For example, California is set to ban natural gas-fired space heaters by 2030.

Conclusion


Not all home heating systems are equal. Before you can begin to choose or replace your existing system, it pays to consider the size, fuel type, layout and location of your home… and of course, your budget. After all, heating units are a considerable long-term investment. 

Hopefully, our guide has helped you narrow down the choices for a toasty winter, without burning your wallet.

Feature image: Skylar Kang; Image 1: Taryn Elliott

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