Most people don’t think about the machine that heats their home. Unless they built and designed their home, most likely they are just using the system that was previously installed without much thought.
Because of this, most people also don’t know the difference between a boiler and a furnace. They may provide the same end product, but the units, they maintenance required, and the way they work couldn’t be more different.
The most common type of heating system in a home is a furnace. Your typical furnace is much cheaper to purchase and install than a boiler system. Almost all new houses come standard with a furnace instead of a boiler, while older homes have mostly boilers.
How does a furnace work? It is made up of the actual unit plus a series of extensive duct work that travels through your home and vent into every room in your house. The furnace itself heats the air that is then forced through those ducts and out of the vents, heating the room.
Controlled by a thermostat, the furnace can regulate temperatures pretty easily and the heat in your house can quickly adjust to your requested temperature. With all of the technology on the market today, changing temperature has never been easier. There are devices that sync to your smartphone that lets you change the temperature of your home even while you are away. Most newer thermostats are also programmable to change heat settings during the day and at night to keep you comfortable while you are in the house, and to save you in heating costs while you are not home.
Another way to regulate the heat in your home is by using the vents that cover the duct work. These vents are created to be turned on, turned off, and slightly closed so that each room has a small window of temperature settings. If your furnace is in your basement, it is likely that your basement will heat very quickly because the warm air does not have far to travel. This can cause an area where you may not spend much time to be very warm while the rest of the house is just mildly warm. By opening the vents in the upstairs portion of the house and closing the vents in the basement, you are forcing the hot air to travel to the parts of the house that need the heat.
Boilers operate completely differently than furnaces do. With a boiler, there is no forced air. Instead they use hot water to heat your home. There are two different kinds of boilers and the way they produce heat.
A hot water boiler pumps heat through cast-iron radiators, baseboards and radiant flooring system by using a heat pump that distributes the heat that hot water pushed through small pipes creates.
A steam boiler uses steam to heat your home. With this model, a system of pipes run through the radiators into each room and they give off heat, warming the room.
Boilers are able to run on gas, oil, electricity and even alternative fuel. They are extremely efficient and usually get the job done a lot better than your average furnace, especially during the colder months. The reason they can be found in so many older homes is because of their efficiency and reliability.
Boilers are also often responsible for your hot water heater as well. While not every boiler and hot water heater are connected, many are and they function as one unit, which a furnace and hot water heater are usually two separate entities, though they often remain close to each other in their set up.
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Boilers, like furnaces, require annual maintenance. The biggest difference here is in the type of service they require. One thing is for sure, to keep them running at their peak performance, annual maintenance is a necessity.
Having your furnace checked seasonally can ensure it is running great and nothing needs replaced. This is usually a fairly easy inspection by a professional that takes less than an hour to complete. They are just looking for anything not firing correctly, signs of wear and damage, and make sure everything is safe to operate for the winter season. Another common thing they check for is the release of carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that can kill you if not caught soon enough. While every furnace lets off a small, non-toxic amount of carbon monoxide, the technician ensures that there are no leaks that could cause harm to your family or your pets. This is one large reason everyone should install a carbon monoxide detector in the room near your furnace.
Along with your seasonal inspection, furnaces require their air filter to be changed every so often. The timing of your air filter changes is really up to each individual person. If you are someone who suffers from allergies or who has a lot of pets in their home, you may want to change it more regularly, or monthly, while those without these common air filtration problems can change it only quarterly. This not only clears the air in your ducts, it helps your furnace run more efficiently since it is not combating the buildup in the filter.
A boiler should also be inspected annually by trained technicians. These inspections are a little more in depth than your furnace inspections and can take considerably longer. Cleaning the unit to ensure there is no damage or corrosion is an important part of the inspection, adding time to the overall process. But it is not something to be left out. A boiler that is running at full efficiency is much better at heating your home than a furnace, especially during very cold periods.
Along with the maintenance provided by a service technician, boilers require regular check-ins by the homeowner. Things that you can look for to make sure your boiler is not heading toward needing serviced are:
● Leaking water in or under your unit. There should be no water leaking at any time.
● Unexpected or loud noises while the unit is running. Boilers are relatively quiet and should not be making loud or prolonged noise at any time.
● Check the pressure readings occasionally and determine if they are in the safe and functioning range. This is just a quick glance every now and then that can save you from an emergency down the line.
● Ensure that the area around the unit is clear from debris and clutter. The unit should be in a spot where nothing else is kept. This is safety 101 when it comes to boilers.
● Keep vents clear of blockages and maintain good air flow.
Doing these simple tasks will take you virtually no time at all but can mean the difference between a smooth-sailing winter and problems down the line. If you notice anything unusual during your inspection, it’s time to call a service technician and have your boiler serviced.
Bills, Bills, Bills
While keeping you warm in the winter is the primary focus for boilers and furnaces alike, there is always the question of how much is everything going to cost me. And this goes far beyond the price of the actual unit. When you are deciding between a furnace and a boiler, first you might want to determine your heating budget.
The cost of the unit itself can vary, but overall it is much cheaper to purchase and have a furnace installed than it is a boiler. Both, if well maintained, can last more than 20 years, so their lifespan is similar, making it a battle of how much you want to pay up front.
Where the real difference comes in is in your heating bill. A gas furnace can lose up to 35% of its heat through the forced air system. Even if your furnace is at peak proficiency, this is a lot of wasted energy, and ultimately money. A boiler is much more cost-effective when it comes to the heating bill.
A boiler also has less moving parts, which for you means less money on maintenance beyond your yearly inspection. Furnaces unfortunately are not as lucky and require a lot more maintenance than the boiler. With so many parts, there are bound to be issues along the way. Having your ductwork cleaned can also be an added expense that boilers don’t have. While this is not a necessity in every home, at least once every 5-10 years a thorough cleaning of your duct system should be done to ensure you are blowing clean, warm air through the home.
If you choose to have central air conditioning with a boiler furnace, you will have to have the duct work installed anyway and will still need that cleaning, eliminating the savings in that aspect. Furnaces and central air conditioners use the same ductwork so it’s an all-in-one system cost to have the ducts cleaned.
Regardless of the system you choose, having a newer model is going to save you thousands in the long run on energy bills. Old furnaces and boilers are less effective and efficient due to their age and their set up. Newer models are built to save you money over time and to heat your house as efficiently as possible, using the least amount of resources.
Furnace vs. Boiler
Both are great systems that provide heat to your home. So, given the choice, is it better to purchase a boiler system or a furnace? The answer is going to vary based on preference and location.
A furnace is a much cheaper option when purchasing the unit and having it installed. It can cost thousands of dollars less to install and maintain a furnace. Additionally, beyond changing the filter, there is little maintenance a homeowner has to worry about. In regard to safety and function, having an annual inspection should prolong the life of your furnace and ensure it will operate smoothly for the season.
The downside is it is not going to be as efficient as a boiler. Your heating bills are undoubtably going to be higher with a furnace. Due to the forced air, there is the possibility of allergens and dander to be circulated, causing those with allergies to suffer more inside the home. And lastly, inconsistent heating between rooms can exist, although remedied by closing vents, can be hard to pinpoint.
A boiler is much more expensive to both purchase and install. An installation can also take a few days to complete instead of the few hours that is typically needed for a furnace. However, your monthly energy bills will be far less due to the boiler’s efficiency and the need for less fuel to heat your home. The heat is much more evenly distributed through your home without the need to make adjustments in each room. The boiler is also much quieter than a furnace. This is particularly important for those with finished game rooms who don’t want to hear the heating system as they try to relax and watch television.
Unfortunately, the boiler has disadvantages as well. The largest disadvantage is the cost of installing central air conditioning with a boiler system. Since A/C uses the same air ducts as a furnace, it is relatively cheap to install the two systems together. It can be very expensive to have to add ductwork to the whole house just to run air conditioning. The second big disadvantage is the cost of purchase and installation. It can be very high, and while it will pay for itself over time, it is not an investment everyone is prepared to make.
The bottom line is there is no better system than the other. Each comes with their own very specific set of pros and cons, mostly relating to cost. It is truly the preference of each individual on which system they would prefer to install and maintain in their homes and how they feel about their heat source.
Regardless of which system you choose, regular maintenance will keep your system running efficiently and save you money as the years go on.