If you're constructing a new home or renovating an existing one, then you will need to make several crucial HVAC decisions. The type of heating system you choose will have an especially significant impact on your home's comfort level throughout the winter. A well-designed HVAC system is an essential part of having a home that is cozy and inviting, but the choices available may seem confusing.  If you are not experienced with HVAC terminology, then the difference between hydronic and forced air systems may be especially hard to understand.

The Heart of the Matter: Furnace vs. Boiler

While many people use the two terms interchangeably, furnaces and boilers are two drastically different appliances. Both pieces of equipment serve as the heart of your heating system, but they use very different approaches. A furnace heats air and that air warms the rooms in your home directly. By contrast, a boiler heats water. Depending on the design of the system, the hot water may be used directly or the water may be converted into steam. Whatever the case, boiler-based systems are known as hydronic heating systems, while furnace-based systems are known as forced-air systems.

Note that some hydronic heating systems use water heaters instead of boilers. Boilers provide hot water (or steam) more quickly than water heaters, which is why water heaters make use of tanks to store heated water.

Types of Hydronic Heating

Hydronic systems all make use of a boiler or water heater to provide heat, but they may distribute that heat in multiple ways. The three most common types of hydronic systems are baseboard heaters, radiators, and radiant floor heating. Believe it or not, the physics behind these three types of heaters are very different.

Both radiators and radiant floor heating, perhaps unsurprisingly, transfer their heat through radiation. Rather than warming the air, they directly warm objects in the room. This style of heating often produces a more even, comfortable sense of warmth. On the other hand, baseboard heaters use convection to warm the air, providing a similar effect to forced-air heating.

Are Hydronic Systems Right For Your Home?

Forced air heating is standard in many newer homes, and it has the advantage of piggy-backing on the HVAC ductwork required for a central air conditioning system. While this makes forced air cost-effective, it does not mean that it is the best option for all homes. Hydronic systems can be more energy-efficient, and they can be better for those with sensitive allergies since they do not require air circulation to function. Additionally, many people find the warmth provided by radiant-style heating systems to be more comfortable than that produced by forced air or convective heating.

Choosing the right option for your home will depend on your personal preferences, your budget, and your willingness (and ability) to add plumbing as needed. As with any significant heating decision, consulting with an experienced HVAC contractor is the best way to ensure that you arrive at a solution that works for you.