A guide to household heating

What are your options when your heating system calls it quits?

By Allan Britnell

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As a result of their market dominance, more research and development goes into forced-air furnaces than other heating systems, and so they benefit from the most technological advancements. Some innovations, such as the electric ignition furnace, which have long since replaced pilot lights, are now standard. Other refinements get bundled in as you move up the price list of new furnaces.

A standard furnace has a single-stage gas valve. “When there’s a call for heat, the whole valve opens and you get full capacity going into the furnace,” says Ted Patterson, technical standards manager for Direct Energy in Toronto. In other words, every time your furnace turns on, it’s running at high gear.

The alternative is to upgrade to a two-stage valve. Two-stage furnaces run in low gear the majority of the time. They only kick in to the second stage on the coldest days. “It allows the system to run longer heating cycles at, typically, half the total capacity of that furnace. This allows it to have a constant stage of heating so you don’t have temperature swings. It equals better comfort and better efficiency for the system,” explains Chad Johnson, senior product manager with U.S.-based manufacturer Carrier.

A second upgrade is a variable-speed fan blower. These fans usually run at a lower speed almost continuously, and thereby reduce energy consumption and noise. Another advantage of a variable-speed fan is that it will do the same job for your central air conditioner.

Finally, not unlike cars, as furnaces incorporate more complex technology, diagnosing problems becomes increasingly difficult. Higher-end furnaces now come equipped with self-diagnostic systems that point technicians in the right direction, but it’s not easy for homeowners to isolate problems themselves.

Electric heat

Electric heat is the second most popular heating option in the country, with the highest concentration in hydro-rich Quebec. Natural Resources Canada estimates that 60 per cent of homes in la belle province are heated electrically.

A small percentage of forced-air and hydronic systems are electrically powered but, more often than not, electric heat is generated in baseboards and recessed floor- or wall-mounted heaters. Electric heat is unique in that it is considered to be 100 per cent efficient–all the energy consumed by the heaters is converted to heat. (This does not mean electric heat is environmentally benign. Large-scale hydro dams flood river valleys, displacing wildlife, and the reservoirs behind them produce methane, a greenhouse gas).

For homeowners, the big draw to electric heat is the low initial cost. You can buy a 1,000-watt baseboard heater with enough power to warm a 100- to 125-sq.-ft. room for less than $30. The price increases with sleeker, space-saving designs and enhancements such as circulating fans, but a general guideline is that you need eight to 10 watts per sq. ft. Baseboards are probably the only heating system competent DIYers should consider installing themselves, which could result in further savings.

If you’re looking at electric heating, you should also take long-term operating costs into account. Depending on the size and condition of your house and whose pricing figures you use, heating electrically can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year more than running a mid- or high-efficiency natural gas furnace.

That said, electric heat can be a cost-effective supplemental system, such as baseboards or portable heaters used to complement your main system during a big chill, or for enhanced comfort, as is the case with electric heating cables installed beneath bathroom floor tiles.

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