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Comparing Hydronic Water and Forced Air Heat

Chicago and the surrounding areas are known for their cold, windy and harsh winters. To combat the extreme temperatures outdoors, Chicagoland homeowners rely heavily on heating equipment. There are two primary ways of heating your Chicago area home: hydronic systems, which include radiator, baseboard and radiant floor heating, and forced air systems. Understanding the differences between the two options, as well as the pros and cons of each, will help you make an informed choice regarding heating your home.

Heating with Air vs Water

Both types of heating systems provide warmth to your home, but in different ways. Furnaces use forced air and boilers use hot water. This means that furnaces provide heated air throughout the home using the ductwork system and air registers while boilers use hot water (or steam) through a piping system that heats up the radiators or baseboards.

Energy Efficiency

Both boilers and furnaces are evaluated for energy efficiency, which is reflected in the equipments' annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) rating. AFUE measures how effective the boiler or furnace is at producing heated air when compared against the amount of electricity used. Federal law mandates that manufacturers provide their products’ AFUE rating on new units. This allows customers shopping for a new heating appliance to make an educated decision.

A unit's AFUE rating provides the ratio of heat energy produced versus the amount of energy required for the boiler or furnace to run. The higher the AFUE score the better. An AFUE score of 80 percent means that 80 percent of the energy consumed by the boiler or furnace is turned into heated air, while 20 percent is lost due to the unit’s inefficiency. Some degree of loss is expected for every system.

It's important to note that the AFUE ratings don't take into consideration the energy loss from other areas in the home like windows, doors and ductwork. The minimum national AFUE requirement for furnaces is 78 and the minimum for boilers is 82.

Enhancing the Performance of Your Furnace or Boiler

Both furnaces and boilers can be altered to improve efficiency, safety and overall performance. Be sure to thoroughly investigate the costs of both repairing/enhancing your current home heating system versus replacing it.

Available enhancements for your heating system include:

  • Programmable thermostat
  • Zone control for radiant/hydronic and forced air heat systems
  • Outside air reset control for boilers
  • Upgrading ductwork in forced air systems

Replacing or Installing a New Unit

Homeowners are often concerned with cost when looking at HVAC upgrades. The cost of a new unit can vary greatly based on the needs of your home. The best way to receive an accurate pricing estimate and evaluate the needs of your home is to contact a qualified, NATE-certified technician. Factors such as the size of your home, number of windows and the overall energy efficiency of your home will help determine your HVAC needs.

Maintaining Your Furnace or Boiler

Having regular preventive maintenance performed on your HVAC system is important for the useful life and performance of your unit. A trusted HVAC technician should do the following for both forced air and radiant/hydronic heat systems:

  • Check the chimney and the connections to the chimney
  • Inspect the heat exchanger
  • Adjust controls as needed
  • A combustion-efficiency test when considering a new or replacement system.
  • Test for carbon monoxide and address if needed
  • Inspect the fuel line and correct issues if found

Your technician will also perform some additional checks for your specific unit based on whether you have a furnace, boiler or another type of heating system.

To learn more about the differences between hydronic and forced air heating, or to locate a qualified HVAC technician in your area, visit Comfort24-7.com. The contractors in our database serve homeowners in and around the Chicago area, as well as northwest Indiana and southwest Michigan.

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