While forced air heat is most common, those who generate heat with boilers -- also known as hydronic heating -- love having that home heating option. Like furnaces (covered in our discussion of gas and oil furnaces), boilers can be powered by oil, gas or electricity. They heat water that is then transferred to radiators, baseboard heaters or radiant floor systems (see below) throughout the home, thus providing heat circulation for each room.
The clear advantage of hot-water heating is comfort. Unlike forced air, hydronic heat does not dry the air and it circulates fewer airborne particles. This makes it popular with those who don't like the static in the air of a forced air-heated home, or who deal with allergy issues. Hot-water heating is also relatively efficient. Much of this efficiency comes from the fact that hydronic heat tends to be more stable and even, so there is less cycling off and on of the boiler furnace. Another advantage to boilers is that they are silent -- no "whooshes" of air as the system kicks in.
Converting a home to hot-water heating can get very expensive -- you need piping, radiators and, of course, the boiler itself. However some homeowners have said that the cost is worthwhile. Hot water heating is more prevalent in older homes, but it's starting to become more popular again in new construction. And, if you already have a boiler system, as many older homes do, upgrading your boiler to a 95 percent AFUE Boiler (Est. $6,000 and up, installed) will pay off quickly in home energy savings.
If you live in an area of the country where the climate is not too harsh, experts say a heat pump (Est. $5,500 and up, installed) will probably be the most energy efficient choice for heating. Powered by electricity, heat pumps work by constantly transporting warm air from one place to another. Because it moves, rather than generates, heat, heat pumps are much more energy efficient that other systems -- and therefore cost much less to run than traditional gas or oil-powered systems. This long-term savings will more than offset the initial purchase and installation costs, say experts.
Air-source heat pumps transfer heat between the inside of your home and the air outside. These types of heat pumps are only suitable for more moderate climates as they don't work well in the coldest conditions. Even in moderate climates, you may need a supplemental heat source, such as a space heater, which we cover in a separate report, on the coldest days.
Geothermal heat pumps transfer heat from the ground to the interior of your home. They cost the least to operate because they can take advantage of ground or water temperatures that remain relatively constant, and, unlike air-source heat pumps, they are appropriate for colder climates. However, they cost the most to install, and won't work with every type of home or property. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, customer satisfaction with geothermal heat pumps is very high. Geothermal heat pumps also qualify for a federal tax credit that includes installation costs.
In an ideal world, every home would be equipped with a radiant floor heating (Est. $20 per square foot, installed). The advantages are obvious -- instead of warm air circulating willy-nilly around the room, it rises naturally from the floor, gently bathing you in warmth from the toes up. Also, no cold tile floors when you get up in the morning or get out of the shower.
Strictly speaking, radiant heating is merely heat that is transferred through the air to cooler objects -- outdoor patio heaters (covered in a separate report) are one example of heating by radiant energy. Radiators and baseboard heaters used in conjunction with boilers are a type of radiant heat as well. Conventional heating systems rely on air circulation to distribute heat, while radiant heating exploits the physical properties of warm air, which rises, to provide comfortable warmth in homes.
Radiant floor systems work by using a heating network under the floor - either pipes, tubing or heating cables. For homes with hydronic heating, the heat will come from your boiler. Electric radiant floor systems are also available for homes otherwise warmed by a forced air system.
When a radiant floor system heats up, it radiates heat upward and outward. Whole house radiant floor heating is very rare, but it's becoming increasingly popular in new construction. What's more common is installing radiant floor heating as a supplemental heating system in one small room, such as a kitchen or bathroom, when doing a remodel. It costs about $20 per square foot, including materials and installation. Experts, say that if you are handy enough to install a tile floor, it's a job that a do-it-yourselfer could handle.