What are the Different Types of Home Heating Systems?

What are the Different Types of Home Heating Systems?

Understanding the different types of home heating systems doesn’t have to be complicated.

On the most basic level you should know whether you home has a central heating system or individual, single room heaters.  For example, if your home has a basement or utility room with a furnace (for hot air distribution) or a boiler (for hot water distribution) then you have central heating.

Central heating systems explained

Different Types of Home Heating Systems; central heating emitters
A central heating system can have many different kinds of heat emitter all running off the same furnace (boiler)

Central heating systems have two parts, the boiler or furnace, and the distribution system which moves the hot air or hot water from the furnace/boiler to the living spaces.  Whether your furnace runs on oil, gas, or wood pellets, creating heat is the easy part, getting it where it needs to go is the challenge.

The distribution side of your central heating system is made up of heat emitters located in each room.  The nice thing about central heating is that you have a wide variety of heat emitters that will suit any need for any kind of room. If you’re not sure about what you have, take a look around your house and see which of these heat emitters you can find.

Hydronic Baseboard

Hydronic Baseboard

Hydronic means hot water.  These traditional fin style baseboard units are very common and very effective.  They use high-temperature water ...
Radiant Floors

Radiant Floors

Radiant floors use hot water from the boiler to heat a coil hidden below the finished floor.  This heat emitter ...
Steam Radiators

Steam Radiators

Cast Iron steam radiators became popular in the late 19th century and were often fired in coal, then oil, and ...
Forced Hot Air Floor Register

Forced Hot Air

Forced hot air systems use a series of feed and return ducts hidden below the floor to distribute air that ...
Fan-convector

Fan Convectors

Each of these fan convector heat emitters receives hot water from the central-heating boiler. First, the water passes through a ...
Panel radiator

Panel Radiators

Panel radiators can work on traditional, high-temperature water generated by an oil, gas, or wood pellet boiler. They also work ...
hydro bed

New & Innovative

All  these heat emitters are designed to be tied into a central heating boiler. Images courtesy of Myson ...

Single room heaters in homes with a central heating system

Even though your home has a central heating system, you may also find one or more single room heaters. For example it is pretty common for people to run their fireplace on cold days in order to use less oil—even though that doesn’t really work . From electric baseboard heaters to direct-vent gas appliances; you may find all kinds of single room heaters added over the years as local fuel options become more or less expensive, and as the home is occupied by people with varying ideas about what keeps them comfortable.


Single room heaters

Different Types of Home Heating Systems; single room heat emitters
Smaller homes and homes with an open floor-plan can be heated by a heat pump with multiple heads and auxiliary room heaters for the coldest days.

Mini-split heat pumps are single room heaters. They run on electricity and use refrigerant to move heat from outdoor exchangers to indoor emitters. Heat pumps are great because they also can provide air conditioning in the summer, but in heating mode they lose effectiveness as temperatures drop. When the home’s primary heat is a mini-split heat pump, individual-room auxiliary heaters are required to maintain comfort when temperatures drop. (See How Cold is Too Cold for a Cold Climate Heat Pump.)

Single room heaters are very efficient (as long as they are modern EPA-approved appliances) because combustion happens right where the heat is needed, rather than in a remote location like the basement. Keep in mind that while they are efficient, they may still be expensive to run. Your cost will depend on your local oil or gas market, or your electric utility rates. Wood stoves, pellet stoves, and fireplace inserts are all good options because wood and pellets are relatively price-stable.  They’re also clean energy as long as you choose a modern EPA-approved appliance.

Here are the common options for single room heaters

Mini-Split Heat Pumps

Mini-Split Heat Pumps

Mini-Split, Cold Climate Heat Pumps (CCHPs) are single room heaters, not a whole-house, central heating system.  They are well suited ...
Wall-vented gas heater

Direct-Vent Gas Heaters

Direct-vent gas heaters are efficient because the fuel is combusted right in the room where heat is needed, instead of ...
Electric Baseboard Heater

Electric Baseboard

Even though electric baseboard heaters work on resistance heat which does not have the leveraging effect of a heat pump, ...
woodstove

Wood Stove

Wood stoves in common areas work especially well with an open floor plan. In addition to the ambience and comforting lifestyle ...
Wood Pellet Stove

Wood Pellet Stove

A wood pellet stove has a few advantages over traditional wood stoves: A wood pellet stove doesn't need to be ...
Fireplace Inserts

Fireplace Inserts

A fire in your fireplace gives the room a comforting glow and does warm a small area. The EPA estimates ...
Fireplace

Fireplace

The warmth of an open fire resonates deeply in our species, but 90% of the fire heat goes up the ...
ceiling mounted electric heater

Miscellaneous Electric Heaters

There are a variety of electric resistance heat emitters on the market. Wall and ceiling mounted units are typically found ...

#heatgreen

If you have a central heating system, and your goal is to lower your cost and carbon footprint you have two options—add a room heater, like one of the new generation, EPA-approved wood stove or pellet stoves, or switch your boiler from one that runs on oil or gas to a green-tech, automated pellet furnace. Either way, every BTU that you created using renewable, sustainably-harvested wood, rather than heat created from fossil fuels, saves heating cost and reduces your carbon footprint.

Whether your adding room heaters (or coolers) or upgrading your central heating system don’t underestimate the long-term cost of the fuel, in addition to the short-term cost of the appliance. That difference could easily be tens-of-thousands of dollars over the life of the appliance.

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Open fireplaces act like a heat vacuum actually drawing heat right up the chimney—including whatever heat you made with your other heating devices. For example, if you have a central heating system and you’re running a fireplace you’re actually using more of your central heating fuel then if you didn’t run the fireplace. 

If you have an open fireplace, consider installing a wood or pellet fireplace insert.