Best Heating System: Forced Air vs. Hot Water vs. Electric vs. Solar

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There’s a tendency to think that homes are heated by one giant blast of hot air, but in reality, most people don’t have politicians who visit that regularly. Air is constantly being recirculated, reheated and redistributed to create the desired comfort level.  If you’re looking for the best heating system for your home, here’s an overview of the four most common types.

Forced Air Heat

Forced air is the most common type of heating system, and a top contender for the best heating system prize.  This is largely because it’s the most economical for home builders to install. One ductwork system blows both hot and cold—you know the type.

Forced air is generally pretty effective. It includes supply ducts delivering conditioned air throughout the home, and return ducts which take air back to the heating and cooling appliances, which may include a furnace and air conditioner or some other equipment combination.

Most problems with forced air systems stem from imbalances, also known as hot and cold spots. You know what we’re talking about if you have a room over the garage—exposed to the elements via walls, the roof, and the floor. To make matters worse, the HVAC appliances are almost always located far away from that room. The good news is that hot and cold spots don’t have to happen. A good HVAC contractor can compensate for this by putting additional ductwork or additional returns in the room to make sure it gets the right amount of heated and cooled air by season.

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Hot Water Heat

In the old days, we’d call this steam heat. We also called it terrifying when we were kids and knew with absolute certainty that those clanking, clunking old radiators where actually monsters!

Today, the politically correct terms are radiant or hydronic heating and it’s much quieter and far less terrifying. Popular in Europe, these systems are less common than forced air on this side of the pond because they require a separately installed distribution system, which can be a major investment in an existing home. But we love them: they are enjoyed for the comfortable, mostly quiet heat they provide and our personal choice for best heating system.

Hydronic heating is efficient and comfortable because it uses water to transfer heat throughout the building, and water can hold more heat than air. According to the Hydronic Heat Association, you would need a 10” x 18” forced hot air heat duct to carry the same amount of heat that can be transported by a 1” diameter hydronic heat pipe.

Hydronic heating can also be easily zoned (split to cover different rooms or sections of the house) and are also ideal for improving indoor air quality, since there are no ducts to trap dust or allergens, and no blower spreading those sneeze-makers around.

In a typical hydronic system, water is heated in a boiler, which is typically either gas- or oil-powered. The water is then circulated through pipes as either liquid or steam to radiators and convectors located in the rooms of your home, which distribute the heat as it circulates and returns water back to the boiler to be reheated.

Just like a furnace, the boiler in a hot water or steam system will need annual servicing to run efficiently and safely. Radiators also should be kept clean inside and out. They should also be free of any obstructions either in front or on top, and furnishings should be kept out of their path so room air can flow freely around them.

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Radiant floor heating also falls into this category and has become much more dependable and rugged with technology and time. Where old systems depended on metal piping that could wear down and break, today’s radiant heating systems make use of durable PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) piping. Some manufacturers have made radiant flooring even easier to incorporate into room remodels with efficient, easy-to-install panel and blanket fabrications. Waking up to warmed-up floors warms up your heart all day long, even in a cold world.

Radiant systems tend to be more popular in northern climes where heat is valued more than air conditioning. But forced air and wet air can reside happily in the same home, so radiant systems can really be installed anywhere.

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Last Choice for Best Heating System: Electric Heat

If you’re relying mainly on electric heat, we’re sorry to hear it. It’s the most expensive option, so with all the cash you’re likely shelling out during the heating season, you technically should receive a big “thank you” bottle of champagne from your local utility every year. Definitely our last choice in the best heating system vote!

Made to heat a limited space, electric heaters can serve as helpful supplements to larger HVAC systems, but if they’re all you’ve got, you might want to consider installing a different, more efficient system so you can go back to buying your own champagne again.


Electric heat has some benefits: it’s the easiest system to zone and a good choice as auxiliary heat. Since each electric radiator can have its own thermostat, rooms can be turned on or off as needed. It’s the least expensive way to add heat to space since it only needs power run to it—no gas piping or venting. Therefore, we might recommend adding electric heat for less demanding situations, as with a basement rec room that generally stays warm but needs heat just one or two months out of the year. For that purpose, it’s worth paying the higher cost to run the electric heat for the short period of time it’s needed.

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Heat pumps do offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners. This is usually best when the climate requires minimal heating and cooling needs. When it’s cooler outside, heat pumps move heat away from the cool outdoors and into your warm home. Whereas during the cooling season, heat pumps move heat from your cool home into the warm outdoors.

There are 3 main types of air pumps: air-to-air, water source, and geothermal. They work to collect heat from the air, water, or the ground outside of your home.

The most common variety of heat pump is the air-source. This transfers heat between your home and the outside air. Today’s heat pump can reduce your electric bill for heating by almost 50% compared to electric resistance heating like furnaces and baseboard heaters.

Solar Heat

There are two kinds of solar heat: active and passive. Active solar involves solar energy panels or shingles mounted on the roof of your home, where they capture the warm rays of the sun and transform them into energy to power home heating and other systems. Active solar can be a great accompaniment to a hot water or electric heating system, and as the technologies are fine-tuned for solar success, many states are offering rebates to consumers who install these earth- and resource-friendly systems.  Its really hard to tell if solar can be the best heating system for yr home.  That’s because the decision depends on local costs, available rebates, the value of solar energy renewal credits that can be earned once the system starts churning, and the hyperbole dished out the the local solar salesman.  Tread carefully, my friend.  The bull poop is deep and wide in that industry.

Solar Energy

Passive solar is a great HVAC supplement. It can be easily incorporated into any home comfort scheme just by following the sun. Homes designed to take the best advantage possible of seasonal sunlight travel patterns allow warmth to easily enter during the colder months, with strategic shading from window dressings and outdoor plantings screening out the sun’s rays during days when you just want to stay cool. Determining whether solar energy makes sense for your home is dependent upon many factors, and needs to be consider carefully before jumping in.

One example of this is designing a long overhang into the roof where it meets the south-facing side of a home structure: it’ll block sunlight in the summer, when the sun sits higher in the sky, and let sunlight in during the winter when the sun sits lower.

So, as you’ve seen, whether your choice is forced air heat, hot water heat, electric or solar, there are many options to consider when determining the best heating system.  Do your homework and don’t be talked into a system you don’t fully understand both the short term and long term implications of in terms of equipment, cost and ongoing maintenance.


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