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The most basic heating system is a fireplace, Fireplaces were the only form of indoor heating prior to the invention of heat exchangers and it is one of the most inefficient forms of heating. A well designed fireplace is tall and shallow to reflect as much heat into the room as possible while still exhausting the lethal fumes from the combustion process. The big down side to fireplaces is that they consume the air in the home as part of the combustion process. This requires cold outside air to be pulled into the house, cooling all the areas of the house that do not get radiated heat from the fire. These days fireplaces are really just used for ambience and not for heating a home.
Natural Convection Floor Heating
Natural convection floor heating was installed in many homes in the 1920s. These units used a gas burner and heat exchanger to generate heat directly below the floor. The natural flow of air was used to take the heat from the heat exchanger to the room. These heaters are very inefficiently and are rarely installed these days. I had a 40,000 BTU unit installed in my house in Georgia and it would only heat one room.
The addition of an cast iron insert into a fireplace has a big effect on the efficiency. The insert seals the combustion process so it does not consume air from the home. It also provides a large area of hot cast iron which radiates heat. Inserts can burn natural gas, wood or wood pellets. These units also come as free standing stoves. Wood, gas or pellet stoves are capable of 10,000 - 75,000 BTU/hr. This can heat a 500 - 2,000 square feet home with one stove. Higher efficiency models will a fan to exchange the more heat help distribute it throughout the are around the stove
Gas Radiant Heating
Older homes may have a gas radiant heater where air from the home is used to support the combustion of gas that heats ceramic blocks. These blocks glow orange and radiate heat into the room. In a tightly sealed house, these heater would suffocate the users. Luckily they were usually installed in drafty unsealed homes. Because the unit pull cold air into the home for combustion, these heater cool the house while heating the area next to the heater. They are every inefficient and not longer available due to their hazardous design.
Electric Baseboard Heating
Electric baseboard heating is common in moderate temperature areas and may be used in cold areas for smaller residences. It is inexpensive to install and allows control of each room individually. It is a great option for areas where natural gas is not available.
Forced Air Heating
Force air heating is installed in over 50% of the home in America. A fan or blower is used to circulate the air to the furnace and throughout the home. These unit may use gas, electric or both as fuel for heating. The heating may be done by combustions, electrical heating elements or by a heat pump. A heat pump use the compression and expansion of a gas/liquid to separate the hot and cold. It is similar to a standard air conditioner but it is running backwards. The furnace efficiently can range from 80 to 98% but the total system efficiency is based on the quality of the ductwork and other factors that are not easily defined. High efficiency gas furnaces actually vent using plastic pipe. The exhaust is cool but can be acidic.
Hydronic Heating (Boiler)
Hydronic heating or hot water heating the most efficient way of distributing heat in a home. These systems use a boiler and zones to distribute hot water to heat different part of the house. Each zone can use baseboard heat exchanges or the entire floor can be used as the heating element. By installing heating lines under the floor, between the joist, the entire floor can be a heat source. Boilers can be over 93% efficient but the total system efficiency is great than other options because so much of the heat generated goes into the areas where you want it.
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