Decision Help: How To Choose An Efficient Heating System

Decision Help: How To Choose An Efficient Heating System

Lauren Zerbey
Oct 11, 2011

When my husband and I purchased our 1910 fixer upper, there was a monster living in the basement. Ok, maybe not the kind you see in horror movies, but just as scary. The existing coal-turned-oil "octopus" furnace was unsafe and inefficient, so we decided it would be best to abandon the beast all together. Starting from scratch can be a daunting task, but here are the tips and strategies we used to choose the best system for our house.

With all of the options and various cost implications, our quest for a new heating system turned into a two-year journey. If you have your own outdated system that needs to be replaced, here are the factors that helped us make an informed decision:

Passive strategies first: If you employ passive strategies as a first line of defense, you'll have a smaller heating load and in some cases can downsize or reduce the size of your mechanical system. If you have the flexibility, consider the orientation of the home, the placement of windows and the construction of the building envelope to make the most out of daytime solar gain. For existing homes, adding insulation and sealing air cracks means your system won't have to work as hard to keep you warm.

Consider your climate/weather: What are you heating needs? If you live in a more temperate climate, you might consider a smaller zoned system that is only used on cold days. If you live in a northern climate, it might make sense to invest in a highly efficient system that will help minimize heating costs over the long winter.

Space constraints: If your home is small, a large furnace may not make the most sense. If you have a small or non-existent yard, you might have to rule out outdoor units like heat pumps.

Available fuel type: How will your heating system be powered? Most homes have electricity and some type of fuel in place, whether it's natural gas, heating oil or propane. Knowing what you have (or what you might have access to) will narrow down the options. And remember, just because you have access to certain fuel types doesn't mean you should use it!

Renewable energy options: Despite their initial price tags, don't rule out renewable energy options like solar, geothermal and wind. Most companies that offer these options are happy to help homeowners decide if the system and payback period is right for them.

Fuel costs: In addition to fuel types, consider the local cost of electricity vs. a petroleum-based fuel. The upfront price tag of a new system is one thing, but the long-term cost to run the heating system can vary widely between fuel types.

Forced air vs. radiant: Most homes are heated with a forced air or radiant system. Radiant systems are usually more efficient, but can be challenging to install in an existing home.

Consider the load of future additions: If you're replacing a system now but know you'll be adding on or finishing out that basement in the future, size the system appropriately. The most efficient solution is the one that is designed for your home's size, layout and climate.

Consider life-cycle costs: Like buying a new car, the upfront costs are only a small part of the equation. Long-term maintenance and fuel costs are important to research and understand. (Anyone who has lived with an inefficient space heater knows what I'm talking about!)

If you need A/C, take that into consideration: Some systems, like heat pumps, provide both heating and cooling and are extremely efficient.

Get several quotes from different companies: Don't be shy about getting multiple quotes. Heating systems can be confusing and the more people you talk to, the better.

Talk to a professional: If your looking for advice from an expert who isn't trying to sell you something, invest in an hour-long meeting with an architect or mechanical engineer who is familiar with your climate and residential design. They can help you think outside the box and explore how passive and active strategies can work together.

Look for incentives: Pilot prorams, rebates and other incentives are usually available at the federal, state and local level and most apply to energy-efficient systems. In some cases, even a small savings in upfront costs can make a renewable system more financially viable.

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(Image: Lauren Zerbey)

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