How Heating Systems Work

For many first time home buyers, one of the most confusing and costly parts of a home is the heating system. Read on below for a summary of the main heating sources and distribution systems.


All heating systems have three basic components. If your heat isn’t working property, you may need to address one of these components.

1. The Heat Source
Usually a furnace, boiler or heat pump -- provides warm air or water to heat the house

2. The Heat Distribution System
Such as forced air or radiators which moves warm air, steam or hot water through the house

3. The control system
Usually a thermostat which regulates the amount of heat being distributed


Usually powered by gas and using a forced air distribution system, a furnace forces air through a series of ducts, which distributes heat throughout the home. Furnaces can heat the air with electricity, propane or oil, but the most common fuel source is natural gas. 

A boiler sends hot water or steam through pipes to provide heating.

DID YOU KNOW: Furnaces and boilers are often called central heating systems because the heat is generated in a central location and then distributed throughout the house. 

Heat Pump
Using electricity and refrigerant, heat pumps can be used to both heat and cool the home. They are much more efficient than other types of heating systems, but work best in moderate climates where temperatures rarely dip below freezing.

Hybrid Heating
Hybrid heating is a combination of a heat pump and a gas furnace. The heat pump is the main source for heating and cooling, but the furnace will kick on in extreme temperatures.

Radiant Heating
Radiant heating sends hot water or electric heat through tubes located in the floor (and sometimes in walls or ceilings). The heat can be generated by oil, gas, propane or electricity.

Baseboard Heating
Usually reserved as supplemental heating, there are two choices for baseboard heating: electric or hydronic (hot water).


Forced Air
The most common type of heating system, a forced air system distributes heat from a furnace through ducts and vents. 

Steam Radiant
One of the oldest types of heating systems, steam radiant heating uses radiators (usually located underneath windows) to distribute heat.

Radiant Heating
Radiant heating transfers heat directly from a hot surface to people and objects in the room and can be installed in the floor, ceiling or wall panels.

Hot Water Baseboards
Also called hydronic heat, hot water baseboards use hot water to heat a space via wall-mounted baseboard units.

Electric Baseboards
A type of zone heater, electric baseboards release air out of the topping while pulling cooler air to the bottom of the unit.


Although it's typically the most expensive fuel source, heating oil lasts longer than natural gas and also heats hot water twice as fast.

An affordable, cleaner alternative to oil, cheaper than electricity, and more efficient than natural gas, propane heat is a desirable fuel source for a home.

Natural Gas
The most common type of fuel (used in about 60% of American homes) and also the most efficient and cleanest.

While electric heat may be easy to maintain, it’s a slower heating process and can lead to higher costs with inefficient furnaces.

DID YOU KNOW? In the Northeast, heating oil is the most popular fuel source as there is limited access to natural gas. 

Brought to you by
Brittany & Christa

We're not your typical real estate agents. As former city dwellers, we appreciate the qualities that make city lifestyle so unique, from the convenience of walking to your favorite restaurant or corner store to the vast and diverse cultural and entertainment activities. But we’ve also experienced the challenges and frustrations that are motivating you to seek change. During our transition from the city to the suburbs, we had the same thoughts, concerns and questions, prompting us to create a better way to navigate the suburban home buying journey for others.