Determining Your Situation
Many factors are involved in determining the most efficient heating methods for your home. One question is whether you are building a new home or looking to revamp the heating system in your current home. Another factor is the cost of energy in your area. Electricity costs in one part of the country may be exorbitant and very manageable in another part of the country. The size of your home is also a factor. Some heating systems are more efficient in larger homes, some in smaller homes. Determine the factors that apply to you and make your decision accordingly.
The amount of use your furnace will get is another consideration. If you are in a warmer climate, where you may use your heating system only in the overnight hours for a few months, you may be able to get by with a smaller system, where the same size house in the upper Midwest or Northeast needs a much more sturdy and durable system.
Installation vs. Operating Costs
You also need to determine if the installation of a new system will be recouped in your operating costs. Newer furnaces are more energy-efficient than older units. A gas furnace made in the early 1970s normally had a fuel-efficiency rating of about 65 percent. Now, by law, new units need to have an efficiency rating of 78 percent, and some have ratings as high as 97 percent.
Figure how long it will take you to recoup the cost of a new heating system by going to hvacopcost.com and click on your region of the country. The difference between standard and high-efficiency gas furnace in the Midwest, for example, is $147 in heating costs.
The $147 in savings per year is not a huge amount compared to the $3,000 to $5,000 you will spend for a new gas furnace, but over 20 years, that savings can come close to paying for the unit. The quick-figuring tool at hvacopcost.com can let you see if the new system saves you enough money to justify the expenditure.
You can also figure out your annual heating costs by gathering a year's worth of heating bills and going to e-star.com/ecalcs/heating_annual.html.
Natural gas is carried into the furnace through utility company pipes. An igniter lights the natural gas, and heats air inside the furnace. The heat is then transferred to the home's heating ducts, and distributed throughout the home.
With a central air system, you should definitely see your money returned to you in fuel-efficiency savings if you have your furnace for 18 to 20 years.
Advances in technology have made gas furnaces a very fuel-efficient heating system as well as one that is good for the environment. Disadvantages of natural gas furnaces are that natural gas in not available in all areas, and natural gas leaks can be fatal, meaning the furnace must be well maintained to avoid problems.
Because of increases in electricity costs, electric furnaces have faded in popularity and efficiency. However, for individuals with access to cheap or free electricity, these furnaces can still be efficient heating systems.
An electric furnace has a higher operating cost than a gas furnace. But electric furnaces do not use flames and do not generate any carbon monoxide. Electric furnaces are cleaner and safer than a gas furnace.
Heat pumps are an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces. Used in warmer areas with moderate heating and cooling needs, heat pumps use electricity to move heat from a cool space to a warm one. They move heat from the cool outdoors into the warm house in the winter, and they do the opposite in the summer. Because it is not heating air, it can provide four times the energy it consumes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The pumps use renewable water sources by taking water in, extracting heat and then sending the water back into the sources. Such systems can be cost-effective for individuals who live near larger bodies of water.
A heat pump is 30 to 40 percent more efficient than an electric furnace.
Groundwater Source Heat Pumps
Geothermal systems use an underground piping system to provide heat. The ground loop system works better for places where there is not access to a large body of water.
Drawing more attention in recent years because of their energy-efficiency, ground-coupled heat pumps are reliable and have low demand and lower operating costs. Initially products of rural areas, geothermal systems now appear in urban areas because of their efficiency and cost. Efficiency depends on the temperature difference between the building interior and the environment.
A boiler heats water to provide baseboard, radiant or steam radiator heat. Boilers can use natural gas, propane, oil or electricity as a fuel.
Boilers can be energy-efficient and low maintenance.
Replacing an old boiler with a new condensing one, you can cut your heating costs in half and lessen your carbon footprint.
Wood stoves continue to gain in popularity. They are cost-effective especially if you have free or low-cost firewood. Most wood-burning stoves cannot heat the whole house, so a second type of heating system is normally needed in such residences.
A wood stove can be located almost anywhere in the home as long as there is space and proper routing for a chimney.
Disadvantages of a wood stove are that it needs constant tending (adding wood, stoking fire, carrying wood in from outside, tending to ashes). The stove also gets very hot and is a danger for young children. It also can overheat a room, for which there might be no quick fix.
Solar heating continues to trail in use in the United States. Few solar-powered heating systems can provide all the necessary heat for a home and are therefore normally not considered a cost-effective alternative for heating needs.
But a growing trend in solar power is passive solar home design. The U.S. Department of Energy describes passive solar home design as one where windows, walls and floors are designed to collect, store and distribute solar energy with heat in the winter and reject solar heat in the summer.
While extremely appealing to the environmentally conscious, it often takes more than 20 years to recoup the costs of a solar-power system, even with federal tax credits.