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How to Choose a New Home Heating System

A new heating system can lower your energy consumption and the associated costs, but it’s a significant investment with many factors to consider.
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Man adjusting wall thermostat

Here in New England, heating and air-conditioning uses more energy – and costs more money – than any other system in your home, accounting for 60 percent of the average energy bill. A new HVAC (industry lingo for heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) system is a long-term investment. There are more options available than ever before, and a whole host of factors to consider. Here, we’ll lay the foundation to help you make the best choice for your home and your family.

Most home heating systems use either forced air or circulated hot water to distribute heat throughout your home. Forced hot air (FHA) systems distribute air that’s been heated by a furnace by way of ducts and registers, while forced hot water (FHW, or hydronic) systems circulate water heated by a boiler through copper pipe or plastic tubing.

By the Numbers: How The Northeast Heats*

  • Utility Gas - 55%
  • Fuel Oil - 21%
  • Electricity - 16%
  • Bottled LP - 4%
  • Other - 4% (coal, wood, solar, other, none)

If you’re building a new home, you’re in a position to choose the best option for your climate and lifestyle, and you likely have more options at your disposal than a homeowner who is replacing an existing system. Here are some of the considerations you’ll need to take into account.

Fuel Source

In most parts of the country, natural gas is an efficient, economical, and convenient choice, one that has grown in popularity since the 1970s. It’s available on demand, with no need for monitoring or storage. Unlike gas, oil must be ordered, delivered, and stored in a 275-gallon tank in your basement, and it’s not as environmentally friendly. Most homes that heat with oil today do so because the system was installed when the house was built.

Electric heat pumps (including “mini splits”) are seeing a rise in popularity and are vastly different from earlier forms of electric heat technology. They use the same refrigerant cycle as air-conditioners, but can reverse the cycle during the cooler months to deliver heat to your house. Heat pumps are an ideal retrofit for older homes that lack ductwork.

Distribution System

If you’re not building from scratch, you may be limited by your home’s existing infrastructure, but both distribution methods have their pros and cons.

The ductwork that distributes warm air from a furnace can create a drafty environment that carries and disperses dust and dander, but furnaces in general cost less to install. One of the biggest advantages of forced hot air heat is that the same ducts can be used to distribute cooled air from a central air-conditioning unit in the warmer months.

Forced hot water, by contrast, is very efficient and produces a comfortable, radiant heat. Though the initial installation cost is typically higher, the system can also be used to satisfy domestic hot water needs for laundry, dishwashing, and bathing. Boilers require little to no maintenance.

Overall Efficiency

Older heating systems, whether they use forced hot air or hot water, are notoriously inefficient and degrade over time. New furnaces and condensing boilers have efficiency ratings as high as 96 percent, while the efficiency of an old system can be as low as 50 percent. High-efficiency units cost less to operate – an important consideration in places that experience long, snowy winters.

Operating Cost

The cost of installing a new heating system is just one consideration. While boilers typically cost more to purchase and install initially, they require little maintenance in the long run. Furnaces are less expensive to install, but because they don’t run as clean, annual inspection and maintenance is essential to ensure the system is operating at peak efficiency. Be sure to visit NHSaves or MassSave to learn about rebates available to help offset the cost of purchase and installation.

 

Key Takeaways:

  • The cost of fuel is one small consideration in choosing a home heating system.
  • Existing infrastructure can be a limiting factor when deciding between forced hot water and forced hot air.
  • Electric heat pumps, or mini splits, are an efficient way to distribute both heat and air-conditioning when there’s no existing ductwork.

*U.S. Energy Information Association, 2017-2018 Winter Fuels Outlook: Household winter heating in the United States.