Most people know the basics of central heating. It relies on a single heat source and a system of ductwork and vents throughout a home. The furnace produces heat, which circulates through the ducts into every room of the house. Ductwork is standard with newer construction, although it can be installed into an older home. It’s often a costly but necessary upgrade.
Central heating is much more convenient than using a small heating source for each room. These systems are usually controlled by a thermostat placed in the center of the home, away from windows and exterior doors that would cause inaccurate readings. When the temperature hits the thermostat’s set point, it triggers the furnace to kick on and the heat to circulate through the entire home.
We explained the basics of central heating, but did you know there are multiple types of central heating available? If you’re having a central heating system installed or want to know a little more about the one already in your home, you’re in the right place. Let’s look at some of the most common central heating systems out there.
Types of Central Heating Systems
There are multiple types of heating systems available. They differ in how they disperse heat throughout the ducts and vents and in how they produce that heat. Before we get into the various heating sources, let’s look at the two main types of systems: wet air and dry air.
Wet Air Central Heating System
Wet air central heating systems are common in older construction. Not only are they the most common type of heating system in the UK, but most people who have a dry system replace it with a wet system. Burning fuel generates hot gasses that pass through a heat exchanger, where the heat is transferred to water. The hot water then travels through a network of pipes throughout the home.
Radiators in each room give off radiant heat, though their name is a little misleading. In addition to the radiant heat they emit, radiators also deliver heat through convection. The warm air around the radiator naturally rises, and cold air moves in to take its place. The radiator heats this cold air, and it also rises. Eventually, all the air circulates by convection, warming the entire room.
In most cases, the boiler in a wet heat system uses a gas furnace. Oil and coal or wood burners are also used, though rarely.
New energy-efficient condensing boiler models consume much less energy than older models – some are up to 90 percent efficient. If you have an older boiler in your home and are thinking about upgrading, take a look at some of the newer condensing furnace models. They may save you a significant amount in energy costs and heat your home more efficiently. Beyond the energy savings, many states have requirements or incentive programs for energy-efficient boiler installation.
Some wet air central heating systems use a combi boiler, which means that the hot water is not only used to provide heat but also as hot water from the spigots. This approach can free up a lot of space as you don’t need to have a conventional hot water tank.
As for maintenance, newer boilers don’t require much. Because they are sealed systems, you don’t have to worry about pressurizing them. Generally, you only have to top the system off every so often as the pressure drops. This process is simple and common as tiny leaks can occur as the system ages.
Some areas in the UK use a district heating system. It works similarly to a wet heating system in your home, only on a much larger scale. In this type of central heating, the district where you live uses a large boiler to heat water for a large area. This water is then transported into the homes in the area through a system of pipes, eliminating the need for a boiler in every home. There are many positives about a district heating system, most notably that it’s more energy-efficient and has a smaller carbon footprint than the traditional system.
Dry Air Central Heating System
Dry air systems, also called forced air heating, are still popular in the States and frequently used in the UK in the 1960s and 70s. In this system, a boiler heats the air, which then travels through the vents. A wet air central heating system relies on convection from hot water traveling through a radiator, but in a forced air heating system, the warm air directly enters the room through a vent on the wall or floor.
In the UK, this type of heating system is still popular in commercial buildings, and it can also accommodate a central air conditioning system. As we mentioned, most homes with a dry air system have replaced them with a wet air system.
Electric vs Gas
You might not have a choice as to whether you have electric or gas heating in your home. If your home does not have a gas line, then you’re stuck with electricity. That said, each of these methods has its pros and cons.
Electric Central Heating System
An electric central heating system is the only option for homes not connected to the gas grid, so a very simple pro is that it allows people to have central heat even if they do not have access to a gas line.
Electrical heating is more expensive overall. There are ways to mitigate this a bit, though. Using storage heaters helps you take advantage of lower electricity rates. Plus, some of the newer models have smart features that allow you to set timers and schedules and determine when to release heat and how much. If you’re invested in electricity and want to do something that will truly deliver the most bang for your buck, look into installing solar panels. Using this energy to power a heating system dramatically lowers your monthly operating cost, but it requires a large upfront investment. Thankfully, the cost of solar panels is dropping rapidly with mass adoption and improvements in solar technology.
Gas Central Heating System
Gas is cheaper than electricity, and newer energy-efficient models have a relatively low operating cost. If you have a gas central heating system and an old boiler, it’s worth looking into a new one as it’s likely to save you money in the long run.
Gas tends to be cheaper than electricity, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Gas prices do fluctuate, so it’s smart to do everything possible to ensure that your boiler runs as efficiently as possible.
Although it has the significant advantage of being inexpensive and effective, gas does have some downsides. Not all homes are connected to the gas grid, and unlike electricity, there is no way to generate your own natural gas or get a carbon neutral supply.
If you want gas heat but do not have a gas line to your home, it’s possible to have one installed, but the process is complicated and expensive. You may save more money in the long run by staying electric and investing in solar panels instead.
If you have a gas boiler in your home, make sure that it’s serviced and maintained regularly.
Other Types of Fuel
While electric and gas are the two most popular types of heating systems, there are other options. Here are a few of them:
LPG Central Heating System
Liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, is another option for homes not connected to the gas grid. A tanker truck delivers the fuel, and it is stored in a tank that is typically buried underground in the garden. This type of system is typically a wet system, which, as we mentioned, means that the fuel heats water in a boiler and that the heat travels through the home through radiators.
While this is an effective and affordable heating system, there are some downsides. First, saying the tank is unsightly is an understatement. Some homes may already have them, in which case they may already be buried in the garden. But this is not always the case as some people rent them from the supplier.
Another problem is that there’s always a risk that the fuel will run out while you’re waiting for a delivery. There are usually monitors in the tank that will alert you to the fuel level to help avoid this situation. We should also note that LPG is a fossil fuel and produces carbon emissions, so it’s not considered a clean form of energy. LPG heating systems are expected to go out of fashion, and the UK plans to stop installing new systems. So, if you don’t already have one, you’re probably out of luck.
Oil Central Heating Systems
Oil heating is similar to LPG in that it’s delivered to your home and stored in a tank. It’s most commonly used in wet heating systems, just like LPG.
Oil heating can also be used in combination systems to deliver hot water, too, which means you don’t have to invest in a separate water heater.
The biggest benefit of using oil heating is that it’s extremely efficient. Plus, you can stock up on oil when the price is decent. The price of oil fluctuates, and it’s likely to be highest in the middle of winter when you need it most. Just like LPG systems, you risk running out of fuel, but there are monitors in the tanks that can automatically alert your supplier when you’re ready for a refill.
Oil is a fossil fuel, so this type of heater is not environmentally friendly, and, like LPG systems, oil systems are being phased out to make way for greener energy sources.
Which Is Best?
What is best for you is based entirely on your circumstances. Gas-powered wet heating systems are the most common, but since that is not an option for someone not connected to the gas grid, it’s nice to know that there are other alternatives out there.
That said, there are some things to think about if you’re installing a new heating system or moving into a new home that has one that you’re unfamiliar with. While LPG and oil systems have their benefits, both are slowly being phased out in favor of more environmentally friendly options. There’s no reason to think you won’t be able to get fuel and maintenance in the future, but these systems are on their way out.
If you aren’t connected to the gas grid, electricity is your best option. While not perfect, it doesn’t have the same problems as oil or LPG, and there are some things you can do to help mitigate the cost.
While it’s possible to upgrade and change your current heating system, for most people, it’s not realistic. Replacing an old boiler with a modern, more efficient one is the best way to lower operating costs and increase performance. Having a gas line installed to connect you to the grid is not only expensive, but it’s also a long process that’s involved. Installing a solar panel also has a high upfront cost, but unlike a natural gas line, installation is relatively quick and simple. Is it worth it in the long run? That’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
Wet and dry systems each have their pros and cons, but wet systems are much more popular, and a lot of homeowners have their dry systems replaced with wet systems.
How to Choose
When it comes to choosing a heating system, you have to consider your own needs. If you’re on the gas grid, gas heat is probably going to be the most convenient. If you’re not, then electricity is likely your best option.
If you’re most concerned about price, there’s no clear winner. On the whole, gas is less expensive than electricity, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheap. If you’re stuck with electric heat, there are many things you can do to make your heating more efficient to mitigate the cost. The biggest thing you can do is ensure that your home is properly insulated to prevent any heat from escaping. If you can, invest in a new boiler as modern designs are more efficient, which can go a long way to saving you money on your heating bill.