What are the Different Types of Heating Systems?

Lucinda Watrous

There are a number of different types of heating systems for homes, offices, and industrial settings, though some are more optimized for certain locations than others. Size and power considerations are some of the biggest differences, since heating something like a small home or basement apartment is a lot different from regulating temperatures somewhere like a high-rise or major shopping structure. Still, the basic operating technology is usually somewhat consistent no matter the setting. Most systems are one of five major types, namely forced air, radiant heat, hydronic, steam radiant, and geothermal. Each type should be considered for its effectiveness in meeting the budget and heating and cooling needs for the space at issue.

A propane tank can hold fuel to heat a structure.
A propane tank can hold fuel to heat a structure.

Forced Air Systems

The forced air system is most commonly seen in residential structures and is also used a lot in larger buildings like offices and stores. It works by heating air in a furnace and then forcing the air out into various areas of the building through installed ductwork and vents. It is also commonly known as a central heating system because it comes from a central point in the structure, usually a closet, where it can be filtered, humidified, or dehumidified. The air can be heated with various methods, including electricity, natural gas, propane, or oil. Since this system can be used to address both heating and cooling, the system is convenient for many people and is also efficient where utility space is concerned.

A radiator.
A radiator.

The ductwork required to use this system is usually installed within the building’s interior walls, so it may be difficult to install this system in an older home and it can require extra planning with new construction. The furnace system used may be noisy and heard throughout the building. This system can also move allergens throughout the house as the air circulates, and the filtration systems will require regular maintenance to retain optimal function. Forced air systems can be expensive to maintain, as well, especially as they age.

Propane heaters come in a variety of sizes.
Propane heaters come in a variety of sizes.

Radiant Heat

The radiant heat method is often praised for its ability to produce natural and comfortable heat that is consistent throughout a building. In this sort of system, a centralized pump uses a network of hot water tubes underneath the floor or within ceiling panels to distribute heat. The hot water is heated using a boiler that is usually powered by oil, natural gas, propane, or electricity. A heating stove may also be used to heat the water, and this may be powered by coal or wood.

Forced-air heating and geothermal heat pumps are all efficient ways to warm homes during cold weather.
Forced-air heating and geothermal heat pumps are all efficient ways to warm homes during cold weather.

Radiant heat can take a bit of time to heat a room because the water must first be heated and circulated through the pipes. It can be expensive to install and maintain because of the difficulty involved in getting to the tubing systems if a problem occurs. Cooling isn’t usually available with this method, since cooling generally requires a completely separate system of ductwork. Hot water pipes can warm a space, but cold ones won’t normally cool it. Air usually needs to circulate for this to happen.

Hydronic Systems

Hydronic heat is also known as a hot water baseboard system. Much like in radiant systems, a boiler heats hot water for this sort of set-up, which then is circulated through tubes that are located in baseboard heating units attached to the walls in each room of the home. These systems are usually quiet, energy efficient, and may be fueled by electricity, oil, or natural gas. Temperature can usually be controlled separately in each room. Baseboard units should not be blocked by curtains or furniture, which does make them inconvenient for some users. As with radiant heat, hydronic systems can be slow to warm a room and will require a separate cooling system.

Steam Radiant Examples

Steam radiant systems heat a room through upright units referred to as "radiators." These systems use either one or two pipes, and heat water through a variety of methods such as electricity, oil, or natural gas. While these units may be energy efficient and warm a room quickly, they can be inconvenient when it comes to furniture placement, as the walls and surrounding area must be clear to avoid fire hazards. Many people do not like the way radiators look in a room and therefore choose another method. Radiators are typically used only for heating, which means that building owners who want cool air conditioning will need a different system for that.

Geothermal Possibilities

Geothermal heaters are a more recent option for heating and cooling, and are most common in homes and eco-conscious office spaces. These systems use natural heat from the ground to regulate internal temperatures. They can be very expensive to install, but many owners say that they will more or less pay for themselves over time. Most are very energy-efficient and don’t use much in the way of electricity or other non-renewable resources, which means that utility bills will often be quite low. This system works for both heating and cooling because it uses the relatively constant temperature of the ground as a regulating measure.

Comparing Options and Making a Choice

When homeowners and building contractors are choosing a heating system for a particular structure, they are usually wise to think about how the system will be powered in addition to how much it will cost. Considering that many of these options require separate cooling systems, it may be best to use a central heating system that will combine heating with cooling in those regions where both are required.

Some central heating systems use boilers to heat water or air that is then used for warming a home or building.
Some central heating systems use boilers to heat water or air that is then used for warming a home or building.

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Discussion Comments


i want to heat my cafe which will be 50 percent ventilated due to restriction laws on shisha cafes. i was thinking of having tables which emit heat but not from the top like people use at bbqs but around the sides of the tables to keep peoples legs and feet warm. any ideas how i could do this? please help. thank you


I would like to enclose our existing electric hot water tank in a closet. Just want to make

a more organized looking laundry room area. Are

there CSA safety standards for doing a project like this. Is it a safe thing to do.

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