How to Choose a Heating and Cooling System: Part One
(Note: This is part one of a two part series and deals with choosing a heating system. Choosing an air conditioning system will be discussed in August.)
First, you need to decide if you will need a heating source. You probably already know whether you do or don’t, unless you are moving to a new area that you are very unfamiliar with. In the United States, most areas will want some type of heating system, except for the very warmest southern reaches of the country.
Things to Consider:
Again, if you have experience living in the area your new system will be in, you probably know what the conventional heating fuel source is for that place and what types may be available. Natural gas is by far the most common heating fuel in the country. In warmer climate zones electric is often popular. Fuel oil is less popular, although the exception to this is the Northeast region, where it is used quite often.
There are two main systems types to consider here: forced air and hot water.
Forced air is the most common choice in most parts of the United States. Warm air is circulated to the house using ductwork and vents. The main advantages of forced air include the ability to share ductwork with air conditioning, the ability to filter or humidify the air, and the ability to circulate air even without the system actively heating the structure. Disadvantages include temperature swings, ductwork can carry noise from the furnace itself into the living spaces, dust and odors can flow throughout the house, and ducts can leak heated air and lose efficiency. The most common type of forced air systems uses a furnace for a heating unit.
Electric heat pumps are another kind of forced air system heating unit. These are most prevalent in the South, as heat pumps lose efficiency in colder climates. Heat pumps can be thought of as a sort of “reverse air conditioning”. They use the same refrigeration techniques as AC, but reverse the direction to bring heat into the home.
Hot water systems use what is called a boiler to warm up water and circulate it through pipes and radiators. Pros for boiler-based systems include an even temperature profile and the fact that you can use the boiler for hot water for the home as well. The cons for boiler-based systems include high installation cost and no ability to share central air conditioning infrastructure.
In general, furnaces tend to be the most common heating system choice in most of the country, with the exceptions that boilers are slightly more common that furnaces in the Northwest, and heat pumps can be very common in Southern areas that seldom see freezing temperatures.
There is a natural trade-off in price versus efficiency. In general, a more efficient unit will cost you more up front, but save money over the course of the years, as heating costs will be lower for high efficiency units. High efficiency units also reduce the carbon footprint of your home.
With any luck, your new heating system should keep chugging for a couple decades. Do some consumer research about reliability ratings, make sure your system comes with a reasonable warranty (longer is better!), and review the unit’s maintenance schedule if you can find one.
Besides the major factors listed above, there are many more features and specifications which may be of interest in your decision. They include controls, heating stages, venting requirements, blower motor and speed, noisiness, air filter type, heat exchanged construction, and more.