Nearly every home in the US has some sort of central heating – even homeowners in Florida and Arizona like a little heat at some point during most winters.
What is the best heating system? What do heating systems cost? What are the best brands? What’s right for my climate?
This guide to heating systems explains the best heating systems available and gives you the details you need to make an informed buying decision. That’s always our goal at Straight Line Designs – give our readers the most comprehensive information anywhere, so you can choose a heating system that’s right for your situation – one you’ll be happy with for years to come.
Types of Heating Systems
In this Heating System Types guide, we give the most space to the top system types. Here we go.
Gas Furnaces / Oil Furnaces
A gas furnace is the equipment of choice in more homes than any other type – but it’s total market share is shrinking as heat pumps become more popular. Most burn natural gas (NG), but where gas lines don’t run, propane (LP) and heating oil are common fuels. According to the Department of Energy, these fuels make up 60% of the market.
Price: $2,200 to $7,000+ installed. The wide range of gas furnace prices is due to size and performance differences.
Best use for a gas furnace: A gas furnace makes the most sense when you have ductwork in your home and winter temperatures drop well below freezing. In terms of cost, if you want the most affordable split system in warm climates, pairing a gas furnace with a central air conditioner is an economical choice.
How it Works: It’s pretty simple. The furnace burns gas or oil to create heat. The combustion gases travel through a heat exchanger and leave the house through the vent. The furnace’s blower fan pulls cold air into the furnace through return air ducts. The air passes over the heat exchanger and is heated. The blower pushes the heated air through supply ducts and grilles/grates/vents. This process is why these are called forced air heating systems. The combustion gases don’t mix with air being brought into or pushed out of the furnace.
Brands to Consider: Brands that are identical are combined with a slash/. Carrier/Bryant, Trane/American Standard, Heil/Keeprite/Day&Night/Tempstar/Comfortmaker, Armstrong/AirEase, Rheem/Ruud, York/Luxaire/Coleman, Lennox, Ducane, Payne and Goodman.
Sizes: Furnaces start at about 40,000 BTU/hour. The largest residential gas furnaces and oil furnaces produce about 150,000 BTU per hour. Sizing a furnace properly is very important, so be sure to hire a qualified HVAC technician to do something called a load test to determine how much heat your house needs based on your climate, home size and layout, windows quality, levels of insulation, tightness/air drafts and more.
Pros and cons: Gas furnaces are more affordable than air source heat pumps and geothermal heat pumps. You’ve got performance options too: Single-stage furnaces are the most affordable but don’t control indoor climate very well. In the middle of cost and indoor comfort are two-stage furnaces that run on low (65% capacity) most of the time for quieter, more balanced heating. The most expensive but best for temperature balance and efficiency are variable capacity/modulating furnaces that burn at anywhere from 40% to 100% capacity based on the heating demands of the moment. There are no variable capacity oil furnaces, just NG and LP. Finally, in terms of operating costs, a gas furnace costs a little more to run than an efficient air source heat pump.
Standard Split System Heat Pumps (Air Source)
There are two air source heat pump types: Standard split system and mini split heat pumps. Let’s start with the first of these.
Standard air source heat pumps (ASHPs) are the most common heat pump type. And they are one of the most popular home heating types with market share growing annually. All the top brands make heat pumps, but Carrier, Trane, Goodman and Lennox continue to be best-selling brands.
Price: $3,300 to $10,000+. An average 3-ton/36,000 BTU heat pump with two-stage heating and air conditioning costs about $6,500 installed. This includes the outside unit, an indoor coil placed in the air handler, refrigerant lines, refrigerant and additional installation supplies.
Best use for a heat pump: We recommend the installation of a heat pump in all but the coldest climates. Yes, some heat pump manufacturers produce what are called CCHPs or cold-climate heat pumps that can efficiently heat in temperatures below freezing. But realistically, they do lose some of their efficiency. And if you have to rely on the electric heating strips to keep your house warm, your energy costs will zoom upward. In these climates, we still recommend the old standard – an efficient gas furnace.
How it Works: Refrigerant is the key. First, about the equipment. This is a two-part system. A condenser unit is the outside part. It contains the compressor that pumps refrigerant, a coil that collects and disperses heat, a fan to help cool the coil in AC mode and a reversing valve – the key to a heat pump providing both heating and air conditioning.
The indoor unit is an air handler that also contains a coil. Refrigerant lines, two of them, are connected to each coil to circulate refrigerant.
OK, here’s how they work. This is a condensed version of this fascinating process. When in AC Mode, refrigerant absorbs heat from the indoor coil and pumps it outside where it is transferred through the coil into outside air. In Heat Mode, the process is reversed by reversing the flow of refrigerant. Heat is collected by the refrigerant through the outdoor coil, pumped inside and released in the indoor coil.
Indoors, the air handler is connected to the home’s ductwork. It has a blower fan. The blower sucks in untreated air and pushes out treated (heated or air conditioned) air using the two sets of ducts. In AC Mode, the indoor coil gets very cold, and humidity in the air passing over it condenses on it and drains into a pan and out of the house through a tube.
Inside the air handler of most heat pump heating systems, electric heat strips ranging in wattage from 3kW to 20kW will turn on if the heat pump fails. This is called Emergency Heat. If the heat strips are needed on very cold days for supplemental heat, this is called Auxiliary Heat.
Brands to Consider: They are the same brands that make gas furnaces.
Sizes: Standard split system heat pumps are available in these approximate capacities – 18,000, 24,000, 30,000, 36,000, 42,000, 48,000 and 60,000 BTU. In common heat pump lingo, this is equal to 1.5 to 5.0 tons, with each ton representing 12,000 BTUs per hour of heating or heat removal.
Pros and cons: Standard split system heat pumps are efficient, so operating costs are lower than a gas furnace. You have single-stage (basic performance), two-stage (better) and variable capacity (best) compressor options. Cost goes up as performance/climate control improves. A heat pump is an ideal heating source for most regions. Heat pumps aren’t as efficient in freezing/sub-zero weather. And if your home is in a climate where central AC isn’t needed, a gas furnace costs much less than a heat pump.
Dual Fuel Heat Pumps
This type of system is for areas with very cold winters. A heat pump is paired with a gas furnace that can do the heating when temperatures are below freezing and a heat pump isn’t efficient. They’re not very common due to higher equipment costs – a furnace costs more than an air handler.
Packaged Heat pumps
These systems combine the major components into one cabinet that is installed outside on the ground or on the roof. They aren’t as efficient as split systems, and are typically only used when there is no room in the home, such as a basement or attic, for the installation of an air handler.
Mini Split Heat Pumps
These are a smaller version air source heat pump, and they do not require ductwork, so are often called ductless heat pumps. In numbers of installations, they are the fastest growing among all types of heating systems. And today’s most efficient units are twice as efficient as standard air source heat pumps. Most brands make units designed for cold climates too.
Price: $900 DIY to more than $10,000 professionally installed. The average cost of a two zone 36,000 BTU mini split system is about $5,200.
Best use for a mini split heat pump: Skip the ductwork! If you’re building a home or addition, go ductless with a mini split HVAC system. Ductwork is expensive, it leaks up to 30% of the treated air passing through it, ducts can hold mold and germs…Go ductless in any new construction project.
A mini split heat pump is also the ideal choice for supplemental heat or AC in an area of your home that the central HVAC system doesn’t adequately serve. Ductless systems are also perfect for the garage, converted attic, insulated pole building or workshop.
How it Works: Ductless mini split heat pumps move heat to inside and to outside the same as standard split system units. But they don’t use ducts to circulate the air. Instead, the outdoor condensing unit connects directly to one or more indoor units with bundled power, refrigerant and drain lines. Most mini split heating systems are 1-4 zones, but when a double-condensing unit is installed, 5-8 zones are possible.
Brands to Consider: Fujitsu, Gree, LG, Daikin, Mitsubishi, Senville, Pioneer, MrCool, Klimaire, Panasonic, Blueridge and Friedrich. Trane, Carrier, Lennox and other large HVAC equipment manufacturers have begun offering them too.
Sizes: Single-zone systems (see below) range in size from 8,000 to 48,000 BTU/hour. Multi zone ductless systems range in size from 24,000 to 48,000 BTU from most manufacturers, though few larger systems are available.
Pros and cons: The pros include high efficiency, excellent climate control and that ductwork isn’t needed. Single-zone systems are affordable, but installation cost goes up and might exceed the cost of standard split system heat pump installation when 4 or more indoor units must be installed and connected. If you have a large home with ductwork already in place, choosing a standard split system heat pump might be more economical.
Single Zone Mini Split Heat Pumps
This remains the most common configuration – one outdoor unit and one indoor unit. Capacities from 8,000 to 48,000 are readily available.
Multi Zone Mini Split Heat Pumps
These ductless mini split heat pumps have one condensing unit and up to 8 indoor units. Most range in capacity from 24,000 to 48,000 BTU/hour. The capacity of the indoor units can exceed the condensing unit’s capacity by about 25%. For example, a 48,000 condensing unit could serve two 24,000 and one 12,000 BTU indoor units.
Geothermal Heat Pumps
A geothermal heat pump taps into the stable, 55-60F temperatures in the earth to make it easier to dump heat in AC Mode and collect heat in Heat Mode.
Price: $15,000 to $30,000 installed. An average 3-ton geothermal heat pump costs about $21,500.
Best use for a Portable AC: These are the most efficient types of heating systems. But they are expensive, so not always the best value. If you spend $10,000 more on a system and it saves you $500 per year, it will take 20 years for the payback – or about the lifetime of the system.
Do we recommend geothermal? Only in certain situations – you have plenty of land for a more-affordable horizontal system, and your commitment to the greenest possible AC and heating system outweighs the significantly higher cost of geothermal vs air source heat pumps.
When is a geothermal heat pump heating system a good idea? When you have a large home, plenty of land for a horizontal loop system and plan to live in your home for the life of the system. Finally, a geothermal heat pump system makes more sense in climates with extreme heat and/or cold, climates where the higher efficiency can help you recover the high equipment and installation cost through low energy costs.
How it Works: The heat pump technology using refrigerant is the same as with other heat pump heating systems. What’s different is that these are ground source rather than air source systems.
There are closed loop and open loop systems, and they can be installed horizontally or vertically based on how much land you have to work with. The piping can be sunk in earth or water. Horizontal systems cost less to install because excavating trenches is cheaper than digging wells. A qualified geothermal heat pump system contractor can inspect your property and tell you what options are best for your situation.
Brands to Consider: WaterFurnace, Bosch, Carrier/Bryant, Climatemaster, GeoCool, Daikin/McQuay, Nordic, Geostar, Bard, Miami HP, Trane/American Standard and Spectrum.
Sizes: 3 tons to 6 tons for most systems, aka 36,000 to 72,000 BTU/hour of heating and heat removal (AC).
Pros and cons: Excellent efficiency and good indoor climate control are offset by the much higher equipment and installation costs.
Electric furnaces are affordable to buy, but they are the most expensive of all types of heating systems to operate, since the cost of electricity is much higher than the cost of NG and other fuels. As a result, we recommend them only in warm climates where you need heat infrequently.
Price: About $900 DIY to $3,700 installed by a pro.
Best use for an electric furnace: If you need central heat less than 30 days per year and want affordable equipment, then an electric furnace is worth considering.
How it Works: These are 240-volt, high-wattage heaters with a powerful blower fan. In a home with ductwork, they can be attached to the ducts like a gas furnace with supply ducts for heated air and return ducts for cool air coming into the furnace to be heated.
Brands to Consider: Revolv, King, Winchester, Direct Comfort, Goodman, Amana, Stelpro, Heil/Tempstar/Arcoaire, York/Luxaire/Coleman.
Sizes: 34,000 BTU to 85,000 BTU. They are also sized by kW, with a range from 10kW/hour to 25kW/hour. Each kW is equivalent to 3,400 watts.
Pros and cons: The equipment and installation is affordable, and no venting is required. They are also durable, with units lasting 20-30 years with minor repairs and upkeep. Maintenance is easy. The negative part is the high cost of running the units, and if you use a furnace more than 30 days per year, you’ll be better off with an affordable single-stage gas furnace.
Boilers are one of the oldest types of heating systems in the industrial age. Most these days don’t boil the water, just heat it.
Price: $3,300 to $11,500 with cost based on size and features.
Best use for a boiler heat system: We like boilers for new construction, especially when the home or addition has in-floor heating. If you have allergies or asthma and don’t want dust blowing around the house, a boiler system is ideal.
Just keep in mind that this heating system type doesn’t offer air conditioning, obviously, so we recommend pairing them with ductless ACs.
How it Works: The boiler heats the water when signaled by the thermostat. The water is circulated through tubing to baseboard radiators or in-floor tube grids, in most systems. You can also route the water through a towel warmer in the bathroom or piping in the water heater tank to produce hot water.
Brands to Consider: Bosch, Peerless, Buderus, Weil-McLain, Utica Boiler, Laars, Slant Fin, New Yorker and Navien.
Sizes: The range in most lines is about 60,000 to 180,000 BTU per hour, but some 200+ BTU boilers are available for residential use.
Pros and cons: There’s no forced air to push pollutants around your home. Radiant heat is very comfortable. Boilers are reliable and durable, so you get good value over their lifetime. The complaint is that the system takes a long time to heat up when you come home to a cold house. Plus, you have to provide a different equipment type for AC.
There are a few kinds to consider:
- Standard Boiler: These units have a tank where the water is heated. They are the traditional style, durable and cost-effective. Operating costs are a little higher, since when the water in the tank cools off, it is reheated, even if not circulated.
- Tankless Boiler: These on-demand boilers heat water quickly, though it takes a while for the circulated water to warm a home. They take less space, but aren’t as long-lasting as standard boilers.
- Combi Boiler: Either standard or tankless boilers can be combination or combi boilers. It just means they provide enough heat for your home and to heat the water in the HWH tank.
Outdoor Wood Boilers and Stoves
These units provide large-capacity heating. Obviously, both burn wood or other organic fuels such as corn to create heat.
Price: $8,500 to $20,000 installed including running lines or ducts from the stove or boiler to the home’s radiant heat system or ductwork.
Best use for a wood burning stove or boiler: If wood is cheap or free where you live, then consider a wood-burning heating system. They are common in wooded areas in the northern regions of the US and Canada.
How it Works: A boiler heats water and circulates it through tubing/pipes like a standard or tankless boiler.
A wood stove uses a heat exchanger to heat air that is pushed through ducts as with a forced air furnace.
Brands to Consider: Central Boiler, HeatMaster, Heatmor, Crown Royal, Hawken Energy and Mahoning.
Sizes: 125,000 to 250,000 BTU/hour.
Pros and cons: Operating costs are lower than for other types of heating systems. The heat can be comfortable. However, feeding wood to the unit takes time and energy. And the equipment costs can be quite high.
Indoor Wood Stoves
Most of these units are free-standing or fireplace inserts. They’re vented through their own flue or through the fireplace chimney.
Price: $2,800 to $5,500 installed.
Best use for an indoor wood or pellet stove: If you have access to free or affordable wood – and don’t mind filling the stove or the hopper that feeds pellets to the stove – then they can be an economical way to provide main or supplemental heat. They are best suited to rural areas because they do vent wood smoke, and some neighbors might object. If you like rustic living, you might enjoy a stove.
How it Works: Wood or pellets can be fed directly into the burn box. If you use pellets, a hopper can be used that automatically feeds the stove when necessary. Combustion gases pass through a heat exchanger; air is circulated over the exchanger if the unit has a blower, and blown into the room. Some units simply radiate the heat without a fan.
Brands to Consider: US Stove, Drolet, Harman, Comfortbilt, PelPro, Castle, Clarry, Ashley Hearth Products, Englander, Vogelzang and Cleveland Iron Works.
Sizes: 40,000 to 100,000 BTU/hour.
Pros and cons: Warm, comfortable heating that can be cost-effective based on how much you pay for fuel. Some people don’t like the smoky smell many stoves give off. If you have a large home with a segmented floor plan, a wood or pellet stove won’t deliver heat to all rooms unless it is attached to ductwork.