Winter is upon us, and it’s chilly out there, so it’s a good idea to make sure your home is warm and cozy. There are two ways to heat your home – assuming you don’t live in a longhouse with a central fire pit! – and they both have their advantages and disadvantages. One very common form of heating in North America is the forced-air furnace, popular because of its inexpensive nature and ease of installation.
The other is the hydronic heating system, which consists of a boiler that doubles as heating your household hot water but that also sends water to radiators in every room. Both do the job, but when you get right down to it, the boiler edges the furnace out. Let’s look at why.
The way is forced air furnace system works is like this. The heating system heats up the air and then distributes it through a ventilation system using a blower. Most furnaces use natural gas, but there are various different types available. The air is heated using a heat exchanger, which takes the heat from the burning gas and heats the air that is blown past it and into the ductwork.
Alternatively, an electric system heats the air via electric coils in a series of heating elements that glow hot thanks to resistance heating. The air is blown past them into the system in the same way.
Furnaces can achieve high levels of heating, but they have several significant problems. The most obvious issue is their maintenance: ducts need to be kept clean of dust and debris that can build up as the air is blown around the system, and experts recommend changing the filters between once a month and once a quarter.
There’s also the issue that if you bacteria and viruses can travel through the system, meaning an increase in infections no matter how well you clean the filters. Furnace systems tend to be fairly inefficient as well, which means that your heating bills may be larger than a different kind of system. They can create a drafty environment, as they blow air all around – great in the summer as a cooling system, but uncomfortable when used for heating.
So what’s so great about boilers? Well, they work in a fundamentally different way. As described above, in a hydronic boiler system, the central boiler heats water that is then piped to radiators around the house. The radiators heat the air through radiant heat, resulting in a much more even spread of heat around your house.
You can even create ‘heating zones’ by turning specific radiators on and off, something that’s difficult to manage with furnaces. The heat created with a boiler system is more natural and less dusty, which leads to a much nicer experience. Further, although the initial installation cost is higher, maintenance costs are far lower with a boiler system than with a furnace: you might need to get the boiler itself replaced in a few decades and check the radiators for leaks, but that’s about it.
There are of course no perfect solutions, and there are plenty of limitations to boilers as well. The biggest is probably if you need central cooling systems in your home; you will still need a duct system in place for this. Hydronic heat also does not provide immediate heat as quickly as forced air systems do, so if you want your house to warm up immediately then you’re out of luck.
Also, if you’re not careful, a radiant heat system can suffer damage from frozen pipes, which may require a quick call to the emergency plumber. Happily, this squares well with the previous issue: if you keep your pipes fairly warm, then the need for rapid heat isn’t as pressing, and the probability of freezing and bursting pipes will also be lower.
In sum then, while boiler systems are a little more expensive to get going and require monitoring to ensure that pipe freezing is not an issue, overall they are a very good choice if you care about natural, easily controllable heat. Forced air heating systems work well for rapid heating, but boilers, it seems, are just better.