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The Differences Between a Furnace, Boiler, and a Heating System

Whether it’s time to upgrade your heating system or you’re simply hoping to understand your home in greater detail, you may be wondering: what is a heating system? Is a furnace different from a boiler? Or, what is the best heating system for my home?

In short, a heater is a generic term for the entire system that warms your home with the help of a furnace, boiler, and all the connective parts that distribute its steam or air-based heat. But how do heating systems work? We’ll take a look at each of these major terms so you can get a better sense of what keeps your space cozy when the temperatures take a dive.

What is a Heater?

Your heating system—or your heater, for short—is the complete set of parts that work together to send warmth throughout your home. The source of the heat typically comes from either a furnace or a boiler, which uses either heated air or water respectively. The heating source is typically located in a safe, centralized area of your homes such as the basement, a utility closet, or an attic.

Once the heat is created—which we’ll break down a bit more below—the heat is then transferred through pipes or duct system to be distributed to each room. For example, a hot-water boiler may transfer the heat to radiators or baseboards while a furnace will send hot air through vents to warm-air registers. From your point of view, the whole system is controlled by a thermostat, which determines when the system shuts on or off to warm or cool off your space.

What is the Difference Between a Furnace and a Boiler?

Boilers and furnaces both create heat by burning fossil fuels like oil, gas, and propane, but they use different methods to distribute this heat throughout your home. As we mentioned above, the furnace utilizes hot air while the boiler utilizes water and steam. Let’s dive into the two systems in a bit more detail.

How Does a Boiler Work?

Hot water boilers heat up a tank of water to send steam through pipes, baseboards, and radiators in your home to literally radiate heat. Depending on the system, either an electrical boiler or gas boiler will boil the water tank using gas, oil, renewable resources, or electricity to boil the water.

Copper pipes or jets within the boiler raise the water’s temperature to the appropriate level, sending the accumulated steam shooting into your baseboards and radiators. If you’ve ever lived in an old apartment, you’ll know when your system contains trapped water from condensed steam by the loud banging sounds it produces.

A boiler is considered a highly efficient method of heating your home. Heat itself is more easily carried throughout the pipes in the form of steam than air or water. The steam also returns to the tank after heating your home and transitions back into the water, making this an efficient, closed-loop heating system.

It’s easy to confuse your boiler with your hot water heater—which heats and stores water to be used in your showers, sinks, and washing machines. Both systems use water for heat, but the purpose varies.

How Does a Furnace Work?

A furnace uses a process called forced-air or ductwork heating. Similar to a boiler, fossil fuels or electricity heat a centralized tank—but this time, it’s filled with air, not water. The air is either warmed via heated coils, such as in an electric furnace, or through a metal heat exchanger in a gas furnace. The hot air is then forced throughout your home’s ventilation system to warm your space, typically through what is known as grills or registers.

You’re more likely to find a furnace heating system in homes with proper ductwork. They require a bit more maintenance than a boiler, specifically because you must replace the filters from the circulated air more frequently.

How to Choose the Right Heating System for Your Home

Though modern furnaces and boilers use similar scientific methods of creating and distributing heat, efficiency is now one of the key goals of a great system. AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) measures the amount of energy used to heat up, distribute the heat, and cool down. AFUE can be used to meet the minimum standards in the US and help you choose the right system to save money on utility costs.

The ARS / Rescue Rooter team takes a collaborative approach to choose the right heating system for your home. If it’s time for a new heating system, we can walk you through everything you need to know about choosing the best furnace or boiler for your home, region, and budget.

We offer a free consultation and no-obligation estimate based on:

  • The size and design of your home
  • Your family size
  • Your budget and preferred operational costs
  • Your current system and ductwork
  • Thermostat options, including smart home upgrades

Give us a call to discuss the best heating system for your home today. We will walk you through today’s best options and how a new installation can help you save money while keeping your home warm and welcoming all year-round.

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