Types of Heating Systems
Your heating system keeps your home warm and safe in the winter, but if you’re using an older system, you could be wasting energy. Recent updates in heat pump technology have made heating your home much more energy-efficient, so it might be time for an upgrade. If you’re considering a new model, read all about heat pumps, furnaces, and other kinds of heating systems in our guide below.
What Is a Heating System?
A residential heating system warms the rooms in a home to keep its inhabitants comfortable in cold weather. The fuel type and system you choose to heat your house will ultimately dictate how much you pay to keep your house warm.
Types of Heating Systems
Below are the most common types of heating systems used to heat homes.
Forced Air Systems
Forced air systems transfer heat into the air and distribute that hot air throughout the house. The system may operate by means of an electric furnace or a more standard furnace that burns natural gas, propane, or fuel oil. Forced air systems usually require ductwork and an intake vent to heat a large room.
Forced air systems are the most common heating systems in the United States.
- Fuel sources: Natural gas, propane, fuel oil, or electricity; less commonly wood or coal
- How it works: Forced air systems burn fuel to heat the air directly and distribute it throughout a home.
➕ An air conditioner can use the same ductwork as a forced air system for whole-home cooling
➕ Furnaces are so common that replacement parts and repair experts are easy to find
➕ Gas and oil furnaces heat homes quickly
➖ Ductwork is difficult and expensive to retrofit to a home
➖ Furnaces dry out the air, making a home uncomfortable without a humidification system
➖ Some heat is lost through the ductwork, which reduces efficiency
Traditional Radiant Heating Systems
Radiant heating systems, also called hydronic heating systems, use a central boiler to heat water. The boiler then pushes this hot water or steam through a system of radiators, which heats the air in each room.
Traditional radiators are large cast-iron pipes located next to windows and are common in older buildings in cold climates. Gas, oil, or electricity can fuel boilers, though gas is most common.
- Fuel sources: Natural gas, propane, fuel oil, coal, or wood
- How it works: A boiler heats water and sends it through pipes throughout the home.
➕ Cast-iron pipes hold and radiate heat for long stretches of time for more consistent heating
➕ Radiant heat doesn’t pull moisture out of the air
➕ You can control radiators in each room independently to create zoned heating
➖ A lack of ductwork means you can’t combine boilers with air conditioning systems
➖ Steam radiator systems make a lot of noise
➖ Traditional radiators take up space, require substantial airflow, and are hot to the touch
In-Floor Radiant Heating Systems
Modern in-floor radiant heating systems send hot water or steam through plastic pipes in the walls or floor of a home. Pipes typically run through a concrete slab, and contractors lay wood flooring over them. You need a central boiler to effectively heat an entire home this way.
- Fuel sources: Natural gas, propane, or fuel oil
- How it works: A boiler heats water into steam and sends it through pipes embedded in the walls or floor.
➕ Floors are warm to the touch and comfortable to walk on
➕ Plastic tubing makes for much quieter operation than traditional cast-iron radiators
➕ Radiant systems generate consistent heat
➖ An in-floor system heats up slowly and takes a while to adjust to thermostat changes
➖ The pipes are difficult to access in case of a leak or other problem
➖ This whole-home system is difficult and expensive to install
Hydronic Baseboard Systems
A hydronic baseboard system sends hot water or steam through units attached to a room’s baseboards. Inside the units are copper pipes with fins that heat the air quickly. Some units use convection to circulate warm air, while others use fan blowers.
Hydronic baseboard radiators have many of the same pros and cons as in-floor radiant heating but shouldn’t be confused with electric baseboard heaters, which are essentially a type of space heater.
- Fuel sources: Natural gas, propane, or fuel oil
- How it works: A boiler heats water into steam and sends it through pipes in baseboard heating units.
➕ Baseboard radiators are less intrusive and hazardous than traditional radiators
➕ They are easier to retrofit to a home and repair than in-floor radiant systems
➕ You can control the heat with special covers over the unit
➖ Hydronic systems provide heat but not cooling
➖ If the baseboard unit is blocked by furniture, it won’t circulate heated air properly
➖ These systems heat rooms slowly
A heat pump operates more like an air conditioner than a furnace or boiler and uses refrigerant to transfer heat from one place to another. Refrigerant circulates between an outdoor condenser unit and one or more indoor air handlers.
Heat pumps are becoming more popular because of their high efficiency and low environmental impact. The most common variety is an electric air-source heat pump, which you can combine with a furnace and ductwork to create a hybrid or dual-fuel system.
- Fuel sources: Electricity
- How it works: Circulating refrigerant brings heat indoors when it’s cold and outdoors when it’s hot.
➕ Electric heat pumps are incredibly efficient, reducing energy bills year-round
➕ Heat pumps provide both heating and cooling
➕ Mini-split heat pumps require no ductwork and offer zoned-heating options
➖ Heat pumps cost more to buy and install than other systems
➖ Heat pumps may be insufficient for extremely cold climates
➖ These systems may require an electrical panel upgrade if you switch from a furnace
Geothermal Heating Systems
Geothermal heat pumps draw heat from beneath the ground or a nearby water source. These systems are even more energy-efficient than air-source heat pumps and require minimal electricity to operate. If you hook up this type of system to solar panels, you might be able to get completely off the grid.
- Fuel sources: Geothermal energy and electricity
- How it works: It transfers heat in the ground or water to air inside the home.
➕ Geothermal heat pumps provide enough heat for even the coldest climates
➕ There’s no large outdoor unit like there would be with an air-source heat pump
➕ These systems are sustainable and inexpensive to run
➖ It may be difficult to find an HVAC technician with experience repairing and maintaining a geothermal heat pump
➖ Not all properties or soil types suit geothermal energy systems
➖ These systems represent the largest financial investment of any heating system on our list
Space heaters are electric heaters that typically heat only small spaces or a single room. They are most common in mild climates or as supplemental heat sources. Some space heaters use propane, kerosene, or natural gas, but these require special ventilation and pose a carbon monoxide risk.
- Fuel sources: Electricity, natural gas, kerosene, or propane
- How it works: Electrical resistance heats air, which is then distributed over a small area with a blower fan.
➕ You can package some electric heaters with ductless mini-split cooling systems for year-round use
➕ Space heaters produce hot air immediately
➕ The units are portable and inexpensive
➖ Electricity is expensive as a heat source
➖ Space heaters only heat a limited area, not a whole home
➖ Space heaters can be a fire hazard if left unsupervised
Wood-Burning and Pellet Stoves
Catalytic wood or pellet stoves are designed to heat large spaces. These stoves may be freestanding or fireplace inserts, and they may burn either wood or biomass pellets made out of sawdust, kernels, nutshells, and other organic refuse. Modern pellet stoves can turn themselves on and off with a thermostat and are more efficient than traditional wood stoves.
- Fuel sources: Wood, organic pellets
- How it works: Stoves burn wood or pellets to heat air and use convection or fan blowers to distribute the air throughout the home.
➕ These stoves create a cozy ambiance that’s difficult to recreate
➕ Traditional wood-burning stoves require no electricity and provide heat during power outages
➕ Wood and pellets are an affordable, readily available, and renewable resource
➖ Pellet stoves require a great deal of cleaning and maintenance
➖ These stoves require special pipes or chimney linings to vent exhaust properly
➖ Wood and pellets are bulky to store and heavy to lift
The best heating system for your home depends on your budget, your home’s existing HVAC system, and the climate in which you live. Consider operating costs when budgeting for a new system, and remember that fuel prices rise and fall. Research tax incentives for systems such as high-efficiency furnaces and heat pumps, and request at least three quotes from HVAC installers before choosing.
Heating Systems FAQ
What is the best type of home heating?
The best type of home heating for you depends on your climate, budget, and home. If you live in a cold climate and your house is already set up for natural gas and ductwork, the most efficient and cost-effective home heating system is a furnace, for example.
What is the most efficient heating system for a house?
A heat pump is typically the most efficient heating system in mild and moderate climates. However, a furnace may be a better choice in cold climates and for those with limited budgets.
What is the most popular type of heating system?
Forced-air furnaces are the most popular type of residential heating system in the United States.
How does a geothermal heating system work?
Geothermal home heating systems use a heat pump that sends refrigerant into pipes beneath the ground to collect geothermal heat that warms indoor air.