6 Things You Should Actually Care About When It Comes to Heating Systems, According to an Expert

published Jan 14, 2022
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If you’re in the market to buy a house, you have a lot of important decisions to make. Layout, location, and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms are typically factors people consider in narrowing down homes — but there’s one more thing you should be thinking about before making such a big investment. 

From forced hot air and radiant heat to electric baseboards, there are lots of different kinds of heating systems for houses. If you’re a new homebuyer without much background knowledge when it comes to heating, it can be perplexing to figure out what these actually are, and how they might impact your daily living (not to mention your utility bills). To demystify the process, I spoke to an HVAC expert. 

Heating Systems 101

There are two primary types of heating. Electric heating includes baseboard heating, radiant heat strips, and heat pumps (the only electric forced-air option, where you have ductwork and vents). Heating systems can also be gas-powered. Forced air can be powered by a gas or oil-run radiator, and some radiant heating is run by a gas-fueled radiator and boiler. 

According to Chris Koehner, owner of Halo Heating and Cooling in Nashville, Tennessee, the type of heating systems you’ll find in a potential home depends a lot on your location (and the style of home you’re considering). 

For example, in warmer climates like the South, many homes have electric heat powered by outdoor heat pumps. Heat pumps are efficient at transferring heat from outside to inside, but if it gets below freezing, they use a backup heat source — usually electric radiant heat inside the heat pump unit. 

In colder places like the Midwest, it’s more common to have gas heating; though some homes in cooler climates have electric heat in the ceiling or in the baseboards. Many homes in the Northeast, Koehner says, have oil furnaces, which are powered by oil that’s delivered in a tank.

Electric baseboard heaters, meanwhile, aren’t as common in single-family homes. Koehner says they’re more commonly found in apartments and condos. 

Not sure exactly what all this means? Here’s what you should care about when it comes to heating systems.

Gas heating will warm your space faster.

Gas heating is a lot like a gas oven — it gets warm pretty much as soon as you turn it on. If you live in a cooler climate and you want results right when you turn on the thermostat, then gas heat may be a good option for you. (Gas heating, like a gas oven, also cools down soon after you turn it off.)

But you may have to replace it sooner.

You don’t have to run gas as long to get toasty, but gas heating isn’t necessarily environmentally friendly. Like gas-run vehicles, gas-run furnaces work harder to push exhaust out of the flue. That extra work may mean you may have to replace your furnace sooner, too. 

Gas-run radiators might not be great for certain homeowners.

Gas-run boilers in older homes may have their charm, but Koehner says they can have their problems, too. For one thing, radiators and pipes get very hot and could potentially pose a burn risk, especially if you have little kids around. Koehner says many radiators also have older boilers, which you might end up needing to replace soon after you move in.

Gas heat can be drying.

Gas heat may generally be warmer, but it’s also very drying — Koehner says running gas heat all winter in a colder climate can cause moldings, caulking, and hardwood floors to crack. You can offset those effects by running a humidifier, but if that’s not something you want to do, electric heat may be a better pick. 

Credit: Dan Bailey

Electric heating may result in a higher bill.

You can dodge some of these risks with electric heating, but depending on how you use your electric heat, your bill could be higher. Koehner says electric heat takes longer to get warm, so if you have it on longer, your bill may be higher. That’s especially true if you have an electric heat pump and temps drop to freezing outside. In super-cold conditions, heat pumps divert to internal radiators, which cost a lot more to run than the heat pump itself. 

It can be expensive to change heating systems. 

Once you decide on a heating system that’s right for you, don’t settle for something else unless you’re willing to dish out a lot of money to change it later. According to Koehner, it can be extremely costly to make big changes to heating systems — for example, it can cost thousands of dollars to add ductwork to a home that doesn’t have it. No matter what type of heating you have, always hire an inspector to make sure everything’s in line to properly heat and cool your space.