Comparison of Electric Heating, Boilers, and Furnaces
Among heating methods, three stand out among consumers: electric heaters, hydronic systems (boilers), and forced-air furnaces. Each of these systems has its pros and cons. We’ve put together this guide to help you compare these heating methods so you can understand their differences, their benefits, and their drawbacks.
Pros and Cons: Electric Heating
Electric heaters produce heat as an electric current passes through an element. This element is composed of material resistant to electricity passing through it. As electricity passes through this material, it converts into heat.
While used more often in areas with mild climates, electric heaters are nonetheless common in Indiana. Unlike boilers and furnaces, which heat water or air at a central location, electric heaters produce heat in each room with baseboards or radiators. (Central-air electric heaters exist, but they are uncommon.)
Pros of Electric Heating
The greatest benefit to electric heaters is that they cost less than other heating methods to install. No centralized unit is required for electric heating, and these heaters do not require an HVAC specialist to install a ventilation system. Electric heating also does not require that a home or business owner install natural gas pipes or a storage tank for oil — two common fuel sources for heating. This benefit is additionally notable for buildings and houses in rural areas, where natural gas is unavailable.
Electric heaters also save on maintenance costs. Unlike oil and gas furnaces, which require yearly tune ups and other maintenance to run efficiently, electric heaters require little to no attention. They also tend to last longer than furnaces. Electric heaters averaging a life between 20 and 30 years.
Other benefits of electric heaters include quiet operation and a lack of emissions and carbon monoxide (which furnaces and boilers produce.
Cons of Electric Heating
While electric heating costs less than other heating methods to install and maintain, it is usually more expensive to operate. This is because costs for electricity in the U.S. are much higher than costs for natural gas and oil. A homeowner relying on electric heating can easily pay twice as much in energy bills every month as someone relying on natural gas in an equally sized home. It is worth noting, too, that electricity prices continue to rise while prices for natural gas fall.
Another drawback to electric heating is that is does not distribute heat well. Because the heat produced at baseboards and radiators is not blown away from its source, it is common that rooms with these types of heaters will feel warmer on one side than the other. For this reason, electric heaters can also have a more difficult time heating larger spaces than centralized heating methods.
More negatives include the fact that these heaters do not warm rooms as fast as furnaces will, and although they produce no pollution on site, they rely on electricity produced at power plants, most of which burn coal. Coal plants produce electricity with about 33 percent efficiency, and they emit a number of harmful pollutants.
Pros and Cons: Hydronic Heating
Hydronic heating systems, or boilers, work by heating water and then distributing it throughout the home through pipework from which the water’s heat radiates and warms the air. Hydronic systems usually use natural gas or oil as their fuel source, though some models rely on electricity or wood/pellets.
There are two kinds of hydronic heating systems: steam and hot water. Of the two, steam is less common because the delivery system for steam transfers heat less efficiently, though high-efficiency steam systems do exist. In a steam system, the boiler heats the water until it evaporates. The steam then passes through pipes and condenses in steam radiators, which transfer heat to the air.
Like electric heaters, these steam radiators have the drawback of heating rooms unevenly. They also tend to leak, another reason they are not as common as hot water hydronic systems and why radiator-type systems, in general, are less common than in the past.
Hot water hydronic systems may also rely on radiators to transfer heat, but these have been largely phased out. In their place, convection and radiant heating has become standard. Hot water systems, like steam systems, start with the boiler, which heats up the water. Pumps then move the water through the house via pipes in the floor (called radiant floor heating) or to baseboards or convectors.
Between now and 2021, the Electric Code of Federal Regulations require a minimum efficiency rating of 82 percent for new gas-fired hot water boilers, 80 percent for gas-fired steam boilers, 84 percent for oil-fired hot water boilers, and 82 percent for oil-fired steam boilers. After 2021, the code requires all new boilers increase their efficiency 2 percent, except for oil-fired steam boilers, which must increase their efficiency by 3 percent.
Pros of Hydronic Heating
There are many benefits to hydronic heating systems. For one, they usually require less energy month-to-month, which safes on heating bills. Whether savings accrue depends, of course, on the type of fuel used to heat the water and the efficiency rating of the individual systems being compared. Gas furnaces, for example, can reach 98.5 percent efficiency.
A second benefit to hydronic heating is that they provide overall greater comfort than forced-air furnaces. Hydronic systems can be installed under floor boards and produce warm floors. These radiant heat systems also tend to thoroughly warm rooms because they do not produce drafts and because heat rises from the lowest level of each room to fill the space. Forced air systems, on the other hand, usually blow air near the ceiling, which creates a dynamic where the air in the upper part of the room is warmer than the air near the floor.
Adding to the comfort hydronic systems provide is the fact that it is easier to install zone thermostats with these systems and thus better heat individual spaces.
Additional benefits include quiet heat distribution, as hydronic systems do not use fans. They are also cleaner than forced air, as they do not blow around dust and allergens, and they require less maintenance than forced-air systems. No air filter needs replaced, for example. Last, hydronic systems tend to have very long lifespans, lasting between 20 and 50+ years.
Cons of Hydronic Systems
Hydronic systems are not without drawbacks. The primary drawback to these systems is their cost. Hydronic systems are among the most expensive heating methods to install. Not only must a boiler be installed but the pipework, as well. The cost to install pipework can increase significantly if installers must tear up flooring and walls. Replacement parts for boilers also tend to cost more than parts for forced-air furnaces.
Another drawback for hydronic systems is that, if radiant heating is used, they limit floor choices. Carpets and rugs can insulate the floors and prevent the water’s heat from escaping into the room.
Other drawbacks include not heating rooms as quickly as forced air will (though hot water systems tend to keep temperatures more constant) and the risk that water pipes will freeze in areas that experience extreme cold temperatures.
Pros and Cons: Gas Furnaces
In forced-air furnaces, fuel mixes with air and is then burned. The heat produced from this process warms air, which is then distributed through the house using blowers (fans).
Forced air furnaces are among the most popular furnaces in the United States. Among the choices for heating, they are very efficient, and they provide the best compromise between costs of installation and energy usage.
Pros of Forced-Air Furnaces
While up-front costs can run a few thousand dollars for a new furnace, they cost less to install than hydronic systems. Their costs to operate are also low due to their efficiency and because prices for natural gas is so low. In Indiana, prices for natural gas are among the lowest in the nation.
Another benefit to these systems is their fast response time. When the temperature drops, these furnaces can raise it in just a few minutes. For this reason, it is easy to adjust a household’s temperature with a programmable thermostat to reduce energy consumption during times when heat is not needed. Thus, homeowners can save even more on their energy bills.
Forced air works well, too, with centralized air conditioning, as they both can utilize the same ventilation system. Air filtration units and whole-house humidifiers can also work with this ventilation system to add comfort to the home.
Utilizing an existing ventilation system means no additional pipes, radiators, or other equipment need be installed throughout the home. Of course, if a house has no centralized ventilation, adding a ventilation system will increase the expense of an installation.
Cons of Gas-Burning Furnaces
The main complaint about forced-air furnaces is that they can create cold spots or drafts in rooms while they blow air. Also, furnaces do not keep temperatures as consistent as hydronic systems unless the furnace is a top-of-line model.
Price, as much as it is a benefit, is also a drawback. Although furnaces cost less than boilers, a professional must install them, and even low-end models are not cheap. The average cost to purchase and install a furnace is just under $4,200, according to Home Advisor.
Forced-air furnaces also tend to be noisy, they do not last as long as electric heaters or boilers (their lifespan ranges between 10 and 20 years, depending on maintenance), and they produce carbon monoxide, a dangerous gas. Furnace construction is strictly regulated, so risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is minimal. However, poor installation or damage can result in a leak. For this reason, it is important to have a carbon monoxide detector installed in the home. This is also a reason why a licensed HVAC technician should install the furnace.
Last, it can be more difficult to heat rooms evenly in older homes using forced air than with other heating methods. Most older homes do not have return ducts in every room. So, in order for cold air to circulate back to the furnace, the doors need to be undercut to allow air to flow. If undercuts are not used, jump ducts need installed between walls. These features can interfere with privacy and allow unwanted noise to travel through the home.
For new construction, we suggest forced-air, gas furnaces over other kinds of heating systems. Their low operation costs and the benefit of a centralized air system homeowners can pair with air conditioners, humidifiers, and filters make these furnaces the overall best choice. For older homes upgrading to a centralized air system, these units make sense, too, as flooring won’t need destroyed, as will be the case for hydronic heat, and radiators need not be installed, which will take up space and limit furniture placement, as with electric heat.
If you are considering a new gas furnace, heat pump, or hybrid HVAC system, contact Patriot Heating and Air Conditioning in Franklin, Indiana. Our licensed, qualified HVAC technicians put a priority in understanding your needs and will help you choose the best model and size for your home or business.