Bringing the Heat: 8 Options for Heating Your Home This Winter

With summer in the rearview mirror, now’s the time to start thinking about warming your home for the winter. But this is hardly a one-size-fits-all proposition, because you have lots of options that vary in efficiency and effectiveness. Each one has pros and cons—but which one is right for you? Here are eight possible choices:

Central Wood-Burning Heat Systems

Since the dawn of humanity, people have used fire and wood to create heat. Today, wood-burning fireplaces and stoves remain a popular choices in many homes. But these days, they’re often used for décor rather than as an essential element of survival.

While an open fireplace feels cozy and warm if your toes are just in front of the hearth, the convection currents actually cause an open fireplace to suck indoor air up and out of the house through the chimney. So while they may be pretty, an open fireplace is a fairly inefficient way to heat your home. Sealed wood burning systems are often more efficient.  Often a wood-burning system’s advantage is the fuel.  If you have an abundant source of your own wood it avoids paying for natural gas, propane, or electricity to heat your home.  Central Wood-burning systems are often limited to how much of your home can be heated, unless additional means of heat distribution are added to the system.

Boiler Systems

Boilers provide radiant heat, which warms objects in a room. Some people prefer boilers because they can set their thermostat at a lower temperature and the radiant heat makes the room feel warmer than the actual air temperature. In commercial settings, boilers are often still used to heat schools, offices, institutions, and manufacturing facilities. If your home still operates on a boiler system, be sure to check out these 10 things to know.

While older boilers are inefficient, newer, high-efficiency systems can operate similarly to a gas furnace. Energy efficiency in boilers and furnaces is measured the same way, by Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE). A unit that has an AFUE of 70 means it converts 70% of its fuel to heat. High-efficiency systems must have AFUE ratings of 85% or higher.

Geothermal Systems

Compared to wood-burning stoves and boiler systems, geothermal heat pump systems might seem like a spaceship blasting into the future. They use the constant temperature of the earth as the exchange medium rather than the outside air. Up here on the surface, it may feel like weather changes rapidly, but a few feet below the surface, the ground remains at a relatively constant temperature—roughly 45°F to 75°F.

Like a cave, this ground temperature is warmer than the air above it during the winter and cooler than the air in the summer. A geothermal heat pump takes advantage of this by exchanging heat with the earth through the ground heat exchanger. This is quite possibly the most efficient way to heat or cool your home.

It’s true that geothermal heat pumps cost more to install. However, we offer a rebate to help you save on the up-front cost. With a lifetime of more than two decades and a roughly 30% difference in efficiency compared to the most common heating options, you’ll be saving for years to come.

Air Source Heat Pump

Unlike geothermal systems, air source heat pumps essentially pull heat from the air. In the summer, the system pulls warm air from your home and pumps it outside. In the winter, it pulls the heat from the air outside and pumps that heat into your home. An energy-efficient air source heat pump can provide long-term energy savings compared to using liquid propane or fuel oil as a heat source.  Current Air Source Heat Pumps are able to efficiently grab heat, even when temperatures drop below freezing.  But once the outdoor temperature drops below the air source heat pump’s balance point, it will rely on either backup electric resistance, or some other form of backup heating.

If you decide an air source heat pump makes sense for you, we can offer a $750 rebate for upgrading from electric resistance, propane, or oil heat. You can even earn a $250 rebate simply from upgrading an old air source heat pump to a new one. Contact your energy advisor to assess your needs and options, or check out our Rebates page for an application and instructions on how to apply.

Gas Furnace

Gas furnaces are very common, and if your home has one, it’s likely a forced-air system that uses a natural gas burner to heat the air. These furnaces also use a heat exchanger, which heats air as it moves through. When cool air is drawn into the system, it’s warmed by the gas burner before being circulated through the rest of your house. These days, 95% AFUE is a common rating among new gas-powered furnaces. Older gas-powered furnaces often operate at significantly lower efficiency, so if you’re still using one, it might be time to think about upgrading.

Electric Furnace

An electric furnace is similar to a conventional gas furnace, except it produces heat with electric heating elements instead of gas burners. You can basically think of an electric furnace as a big hair dryer.

One advantage of electric heating over gas and other combustion fuels is no need for exhaust venting.  Gas appliances need to remove the water vapor, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and sulfur oxides that are made when those fuels are burned by the furnace.  Electric furnaces do not have any combustion taking place in the home, so it is a little less restrictive about where it can be located in the home

Mini & Multi Split Systems

Mini (and Multi) split air conditioners and heat pumps  are an excellent way to maintain constant internal temperature efficiently in your home. There are two main differences between a Mini/Multi Split system and a traditional air source heat pump: the outdoor compressor, and the way the heated or cooled air is delivered in the home.  Mini & Multi-split systems have a much more efficient outdoor compressor with the ability to ramp up and down to more efficiently meet the heating or cooling needs of the space.  Mini & Multi-split systems also have access to a wide range of ways to get the conditioned air throughout your home.  The most common method is with a single indoor ‘head’ without any ductwork.  But you can also have multiple ‘heads’ connected to the same outdoor compressor, turning your mini-split into a multi-split!  The indoor heads can be mounted on the wall, ceiling, along the floor, similar to a baseboard radiator, or can be installed in ductwork to condition several rooms, similar to a traditional ducted heat pump.

These mini split systems are more flexible than most conventional cooling and heating solutions, and they can be installed in almost any room due to the lack of ductwork required. Each indoor unit is independently controlled, making them ideal for apartments and offices.

Cold Climate (Air Source) Heat Pump System

But wait, there’s more!  Remember how we mentioned traditional air source heat pumps can operate without backup heat, but only for a little below freezing temperatures?  That means traditional air source heat pumps, and some mini/multi-split systems, end up using backup heat when the temperatures really drop.  Not so for cold climate air source heat pumps.  These special heat pumps are capable of heating, in heat pump mode, well below 5 degrees Fahrenheit.  The Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership (NEEP) has a directory of cold climate air source heat pumps.  

We just threw a whole bunch of HVAC information at you and know it’s a lot to digest. If you’re a little overwhelmed by the options, we understand—and we’re always here to help. Contact your energy advisor to learn more about the best way to heat your home this winter and to learn more about all the residential rebates available to you.