Heating System Background

All About Heating Systems

A warm, cozy environment at your home is easy to take for granted or overlook. That is, until your heating system fails or works less effectively to heat your home. Therefore, having some knowledge of the basics of different heating systems, and how they operate, can be helpful not only to address and prevent common issues, but to ensure the safety of your family and home. Here are some useful facts and myths about heating systems.

What Does a Heating System Do?

Regardless of the means and location of the transmission of heat, heating systems provide a controlled environment by creating and maintaining warm temperatures within an interior.

Heating System

Types of Heating Systems

Forced Air (Furnace)

A forced air heating system “forces” air through air ducts. Forced air is the most common type of household heating system in North America. Forced air uses furnaces to operate, which heat up air. Furnaces themselves can be powered in several ways, via electricity, fuel, or natural gas.

In homes, furnaces are usually located in basements or garages, while ducts are installed within the walls of a home. Forced air heating systems are also common in many retail and commercial buildings. The next time you visit a “big box” type of store, look upward. It’s likely that the duct work there is visible along the ceiling as a system of what appears as large metal pipes.

As with any HVAC unit, it’s crucial that you keep the area around furnaces clear to enable optimal air flow, and to reduce fire risk.


While furnaces use air to transfer heat, boilers use heated water. There are several variations of boiler systems, but they all operate on the following principles:

  1. With a boiler system, boilers heat up the water, when is then distributed via pipes.
  2. The heat is then delivered though radiators or other units, throughout a building.
  3. Cooler water is then returned to the boiler to be reheated, and the process repeats.
  4. For fuel, boilers typically use natural gas or oil.

Electric Heat

Does your home or apartment have long metal units that run along the bottom perimeters of rooms? If so, these are known as “base board heaters,” which are an example of an electric heating system. This type of heating system is used when a residence does not have access to a source of fuel such as gas, oil, or propane.

Floor Heating Systems (Radiant Heating Systems)

Floor heating systems operate exactly as it sounds like they should: they heat up floors. There are also three methods of radiant heating:

  1. Radiant air uses heat to transfer.
  2. Hydronics use hot water.
  3. Electric radiant uses an electric heating system.

As you may have guessed, hydronic floor heating uses a boiler to heat up water. The water is sent through pipes running underneath the floors, where the heat then radiates upward. Floor heating systems are efficient and easy to control, but are more expensive to install than other heating systems.

Before selecting a heating system for your home (especially if you’re having a custom home built, or you’re switching your home’s heating system) also take into consideration home design, as you cannot place carpet where a radiant heating system is installed.

Ductless Heating Systems

Rather than using a system of ducts, ductless heating systems utilize mini splits or heat pumps to distribute heated air. Unlike forced air, these systems create separate heating environments so you can control the temperature within individual rooms.

Ductless heating systems consist of two parts: an indoor unit (evaporator) in the room that needs temperature control, and an outdoor unit (condenser). The outdoor unit draws air in through vents, which then travels via a small, flexible tube connected to the indoor unit. Depending on which setting it is on, the interior unit will either heat or cool the air. Ductless mini systems are controlled by thermostat or remote control.

Heating System Technician

Common Heating System Myths

Now you know the basic types of heating systems and how they work. Great! But, there are many misconceptions about heating systems and related maintenance that can still trip you up. Learn the facts behind your heating systems to not only ensure that your heater is running smoothly, but to provide safety for yourself and your family.

Myth #1: You Can Easily Tell When To Replace a Filter By Looking At It

Filters don’t always look obviously dirty, so your heating system could be running on dirty filters. Dirty filters can lead to decreased performance and poor indoor air quality. Ideally, aim to replace your HVAC filter every three months.

Myth #2: Duct Tape Is All That is Needed to Seal Air Leaks

Despite the name, duct tape isn’t really the best solution to patch air leaks. Mastic sealant or metal tape works much better. For any issues relating to duct work, it’s best to call an HVAC professional. They have the proper tools and knowledge to access, and work on ducts.

Myth #3: You Don’t Need HVAC Maintenance When Everything is Working Well

Even if your heating system appears to be working well, seasonal maintenance is highly recommended. Why? There may be issues of which you are unaware which can mean decreased efficiency, resulting in future breakdowns and/ or fire danger.

Although not a HVAC phrase, “Prevention is medicine” really is best practice when it comes to heating and cooling systems. Don’t wait until an issue or breakdown occurs to get your heating system inspected. In areas with extreme or prolonged winters, a failed heating system can be an uncomfortable event at best, and a life-threatening situation at worst.

Myth #4: The Bigger the Furnace the Better

Having a bigger furnace doesn’t always equate to more heat or increased efficiency. Many factors, such as size and layout of a residence, presence and/ or quality of ductwork, your budget, etc. can determine which heating systems, and corresponding heating units are best. In fact, you can have a heating system that is too large for your residence. In these situations, a larger heating system will likely short cycle.

Myth #5: Just Crank Up the Thermostat to Heat Your Home Faster

Know that with HVAC systems, more heat does not equal more speed. In other words, your HVAC system will not heat your home any faster when set at different temperatures. Setting the thermostat at a super high temperature can lead to overheating your home, wasting money and energy.

Jake Tegtman