Your Furnace and Home Heating System: The Beginner’s Guide

Alexandra Frost
Written by Alexandra Frost
Updated April 26, 2022
Woman on sofa in yellow sweater
Photo: simona pilolla 2/ Shutterstock

Furnace care starts with being in-the-know

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Learning the basics of a home heating system can save you money, time, and prevent potentially dangerous situations, as well as keep you cozy and carefree through the winter.

While it may seem daunting at first, even a novice can learn to identify types of furnaces, select which is best for you, and troubleshoot minor issues with the system. This can save time waiting for a professional, only to potentially find out it was a quick and easy fix. 

What Is a Furnace?

Illustration of a furnace depicting the different parts

A furnace, or home heating system, is a complex system that ensures your family stays toasty even on the coldest winter nights. But it can also be a potential fire risk, posing a danger if it’s not working properly or if you try to fix it without the necessary precautions and know-how. Your furnace may be referred to as part of the HVAC system, which includes heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, three subsystems that often are intertwined with one another.

What Are the Differences Between the Types of Furnaces?

One type of furnace isn’t the perfect solution for every household, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to heating system decisions. Instead, keep in mind these considerations when choosing one for your home.

1. Natural Gas and Oil Heating Systems

A natural gas furnace works by igniting a permanently lit pilot light when the thermostat indicates the temperature in the home has dropped below a certain level. If you’re considering a natural gas furnace, it’s important to consider:

  • Natural gas furnaces typically cost between $3,800–$10,000.

  • The cost of natural gas varies from region to region, meaning that a natural gas heating system may be affordable in some areas and much more expensive in others. 

  • Natural gas and oil heating systems are generally reliable and effective. This makes them a good choice for homeowners who live in areas with major temperature fluctuations that need a lot of heat in the winter or a lot of cooling in the summer. 

2. Electric Heating Systems

While an electric heating system can achieve a high efficiency rating, it still relies on burning coal or other fossil fuels. Before you call a pro to install an electric heating system, keep in mind:

  • Electric heating systems typically cost between $2,000–$7,000.

  • Electric furnaces are generally lower cost than other furnace types, making them a good choice for homeowners on a budget.

  • Electric furnaces are often a good choice for homeowners with limited space as they tend to be smaller and take up less space than other systems.

3. Geothermal Heating Systems

Geothermal heating systems use natural temperature fluctuations to heat or cool your home depending on your needs. In the winter, a geothermal heat pump pulls cold air from under your home and warms it in underground pipes before delivering it to your house. In the summer, it pulls hot air from your home and cools it underground before delivering it back to your house. If you’re geothermal-curious, it might help to know that:  

  • Geothermal heating systems cost an average of around $10,000.

  • Installing a geothermal heating system can typically be offset by your reduction in heating and cooling costs within five to 10 years. 

  • Geothermal heating systems are generally considered the most energy efficient options for heating and cooling systems. 

  • Geothermal heating systems are not usually considered a good option for homeowners who live in areas with major temperature fluctuations as they are best suited to those in more consistent climates. 

How Do I Measure Heat Efficiency in My Home?

If you looked at your last heating bill and had a bit of sticker shock, you may be learning about furnaces to figure out how you can make yours cost a bit less each month.

Heat efficiency is measured with an Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency Rating (AFUE), which is a percentage that determines how much energy used actually becomes heat. If your furnace has a 90% efficiency rating, that means 10% of the energy isn’t turning into usable heat. Furnaces have to meet certain efficiency standards, which average around 80% depending on the type, though it’s better to have a higher percentage rate than the minimum required.

If you have high heating costs and energy efficiency on your list of things to improve at home there are a number of steps you can take. These include:

  • Increasing insulation

  • Sealing leaky zones

  • Checking and potentially replacing your furnace filter

A heating and cooling pro should be able to take a look at your home heating system and let you know what the best next-steps for you are. 

How Do I Properly Maintain a Furnace?

You can maintain your furnace properly by getting regular annual checkups by a licensed HVAC professional near you. And don’t wait until winter, as this can be the busiest time for HVAC pros.

You shouldn’t leave all maintenance work to your pro. You’ll need to change your furnace filter every month to prevent complications. If you don’t, your furnace will have to work harder to do the same job, increasing your energy bill and decreasing the efficiency of your heating system.

To give your furnace a rest, keep your expectations reasonable. For example, setting your thermostat to 67 F on the hottest day of the year will make the furnace work extremely hard. You can also help your furnace last by using a programmable thermostat that allows you to give your furnace a rest when you are at work and have it get to your desired temperature in time for you to get home.

If you are ever unsure of how to repair or check for issues on your heating system, don’t rely on YouTube and hope to do it correctly, or you can end up doing major damage to yourself or your home. Instead, research and have on hand the number of a licensed and insured professional who you trust to give you advice and to make repairs.

How Does a Furnace Differ From Other Heating?

While furnaces are an excellent heating option, they’re not the only choice homeowners have.

Boilers push heat into hot water that is then distributed around your home though radiators in different locations and can be a good choice for homes with existing pipes and radiators. Wood stoves and fireplaces require constant tending but offer natural, low-cost heat and can be a great choice for smaller spaces that don’t need constant heating. 

Other heating options, like radiant floor heating and ductless heating systems are effective but usually cost more to install than a furnace system.

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