Forced air heating systems are the most popular home heating systems in North America. But how do they work? And are they right for all homeowners, or are there other options?
Here we’ll explore how a forced air system works and take a look at its pros and cons. Then we’ll introduce a few alternatives that may work for certain homeowners.
Table of Contents:
1. How Forced Air System Works
The main components of a forced-air heating system are the thermostat, the furnace (which is located centrally in the home), the blower and a system of air ducts to move the warm air around the house.
The furnace at the heart of the system can be powered by electricity, natural gas, propane, fuel oil or even firewood. In some cases, a heat pump can also provide the heat source for the system.
Once you set the thermostat, the forced-air heating system is hands-off. When the temperature in the home drops below the set temperature, the furnace powers on, using electrical energy or combustion to generate heat energy.
In a gas furnace, the heat source is called a “heat exchanger.” In an electric furnace, the heating coils provide the heat.
The “forced” in “forced air” comes from the blower, which pushes the warm air through the ducts and throughout the house, then into your rooms via heat registers.
As the blower forces heated air downstream from the furnace, it pulls in cooler air via the return vent, keeping the cycle moving.
Heat registers within a room are located at the floor. Warm air rises in the room, displacing cooler. This circulating pattern is known as convection.
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2. Benefits of Forced Air Heating (Pros)
There are reasons why so many homes are built with forced air heating systems as a default. These systems offer many benefits to homeowners.
A. Cost-effective. Compared to boilers or hydronic systems, which require complicated plumbing to be installed, forced air systems are less expensive.
B. Faster heating. Forced air systems directly heat the air and release it into the room, so the wait time for the room to get warmer is shorter than for radiator-based systems.
C. Easy installation and repairs. Forced air systems are simple, and use easy-to-replace parts like motors, fans and belts.
D. Cleaner air. As long as your furnace filter is maintained—filters should be changed regularly, and ducts must not have build-up—a forced-air system can clean the air in your home as it works. Dust, allergens and other airborne particles are trapped in the filter as the air cycles through the home.
E. Improved air comfort. With the addition of a dehumidifier unit to decrease humidity or a humidifier to increase it, a forced air system can help to keep the air in the home at a level that is neither too dry nor too muggy.
F. High efficiency. Thanks in part to government regulations, forced air systems are much more efficient now than they were in the past. A highly rated system uses less energy to heat the home, reducing both your energy footprint and your bill.
G. Heating and cooling in one system. Once the ducts are installed in the building, it’s typically easy to add an air conditioner. The system can then move both warm and cool air as needed.
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3. The Downsides of Forced Air (Cons)
While forced air systems are the most common heating systems in North America, there are a few potential pitfalls. For most homeowners these are minimal, but for others they may provide an incentive to select a different type of system.
a) Uneven heat distribution. Because you’re relying on vents to move the air, anything that obstructs the vents (less than ideal placement, furniture in the way, etc.) can alter how well a particular area is heated.
b) Unmaintained units can spread unhealthy particles. If your filtration system is not working properly, forced air can pass allergens, dust and other undesirable contaminants throughout the home.
c) Noise. While the air in the vents generally falls into the “white noise” category, forced air systems cycle on and off, and the sounds can be disruptive to very sensitive individuals.
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4. Alternatives to Forced Air
In current building practices, forced air heating systems are the default, but those who are building a custom home or looking at replacing an existing system have some additional options.
A. Room heaters. Intended to heat only one room at a time—and therefore generally not suitable for heating a whole house—room heaters come in portable and built-in varieties. Built-ins can be wall-mounted or baseboard-mounted.
B. Hydronic heating. Instead of circulating air, hydronic systems circulate hot water through radiators or floor pipes.
C. Hybrid or Combi Systems. These systems that use one boiler or tankless water heater to raise both the ambient temperature in the house and the temperature of water for the faucets.
D. Heat pumps. Pumps can heat, cool or even do both. They get their heat from the air outside (cheaper and easier to install) or from underground (more expensive and labor-intensive to install). Ground-source pumps, also known as geothermal heating, can work in any temperature, relying on the constant temperature below the surface. Air-source pumps work best when the outside temperature is above freezing.
E. Wood stoves. If you have easy access to firewood, you can use an EPA-certified wood stove for heat— it can be primary source for a small house or a room, or supplemental for the whole house.
F. Solar heating. Homes can be built to maximize passive solar heating, reducing the need to use central systems. Windows oriented toward the sun for exposure allow the interior to heat up during the day; lots of insulation and airtightness reduce heat loss at night. Thermal mass can store heat and radiate it after dark.
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5. How to maintain your forced air heating system
With simple but regular maintenance, you can expect your heating system to operate effectively for years. Make sure to attend to the following:
a) Clean your filters. Experts recommend checking your filter monthly and replacing it about four times per year. If that schedule is too ambitious, at least change them annually.
b) Schedule regular maintenance. Having a professional service technician check the system before you turn it on or off for the season will allow problems to be spotted early.
c) Keep your ducts in order. Damaged air ducts reduce efficiency.
d) Check your registers. Make sure the air flows freely as it enters a room.
e) Consider an upgrade to your thermostat. A programmable thermostat will let you set a schedule so you don’t waste energy heating the home when you’re not there.
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Economical and ubiquitous, forced air heating systems are likely to work for most homeowners. When they’re kept in good shape, they will provide a comfortable environment in any weather.