As the cold, rainy months of winter stretch on, many of us enjoy having a cozy room to settle into when the weather takes a turn for the worse. But how much do you know about the heating system used by your home, and is it the best one for your lifestyle?
Up to 60% of the energy used to run your home is used for heating. As a home owner (or new home buyer), choosing, changing, or upgrading your heating system can result in significant savings and a more comfortable home, so long as you take the time to examine your options and make an informed decision.
To assist with that, I've compiled a list of the most common heating systems used in Canada, and their benefits and drawbacks in BC.
Insulation & Leak Sealing
While not an active heating system, proper home insulation and leak sealing is a must before undertaking any major changes to your home's central heating. Without it, investing in a new system could result in all your hard-earned dollars slipping out of drafty doors and windows (or even the walls!). With it, you may see enough of a rise in comfort and energy savings to not need a heating system change at all.
An energy audit, insulation upgrade, and air sealing of your house is typically the most cost effective process and is all that is needed for most homes. This may include the application of caulking and weatherstripping, or liquid spray foam. If you have unheated areas of your home such as an attic or crawlspace, new insulation is straightforward to apply.
If you're buying a new home, look for houses that are certified with the R-2000 standard. These homes are held to a high standard of insulation and airtight construction, and include heat recovery ventilation, energy-efficient doors and windows, high-efficiency heating systems, and other features.
If you're preparing your home for an upgrade to increase its selling value, or if you're buying a new home and are uncertain of its insulation quality, make sure to check with your real estate agent before making any decisions.
HRV / ERV Heating
While flaws such as leaks and poor insulation result in drafts and excess airflow, the opposite problem can happen with airtight homes, resulting in poor air circulation. Builders circumvent this issue by installing ventilation systems. Due to the potential energy savings, many airtight homes are fitted with an HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator) or ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) systems specifically.
HRVs eject stale, already-circulated air from your home and draw in healthy fresh air for new circulation. While doing so, the system extracts heat from the outgoing air and applies it to the cooler incoming air, preheating it and preventing it from cooling your home. This preserves the existing temperature level and gives your home fresh air while preventing your main heating system from using extra energy to heat it.
HRVs can be installed in existing forced-air furnace systems, or with their own custom ductwork (a direct-ducted system) in homes that have heating systems such as electric baseboards, hydronic, or radiant heating.
Forced-Air Furnace Heating
Two thirds of all Canadian homes have forced-air furnaces as their main heating system. Two thirds of those furnaces are powered by natural gas, with the remainder powered by propane or oil.
Forced-air furnaces heat houses quickly and can also be modified to work as an air filter, humidifier, and/or fresh air ventilator (such as an HRV), and their ductwork can be used for air conditioning in the summer. Unfortunately, they can also feel drafty, provide uneven heat bursts, and may transmit noise, dust, and odours around the house, especially when the furnace is started up for the first time after a long summer.
Since 1995, the minimum Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) level for furnaces sold in Canada has been fixed at 78%. Furnace models from before 1995 typically have an efficiency level of 60-65%, meaning $0.35-0.40 of every dollar you spend on fuel is never actually used for heat. Luckily, since forced-air furnaces are popular they tend to benefit from the most technological advancements, and development has allowed for the production of furnaces with efficiency ranges as high as 90-98%.
"Mid-efficiency" furnaces are about 80% energy efficient, while "high efficiency" (or "condensing") models range from 90-98% efficiency. Mid-efficiency furnaces cost less to purchase, but a high efficiency furnace may be a bigger money saver in the long run, especially if gas prices rise. The lifetime of an average furnace system is 15-20 years, so make sure to take that into account when calculating your long-term costs.
Additional energy-saving features you might consider are direct venting, electronic ignitions, two-stage gas valves, and variable speed blowers, which are more efficient and allow your furnace to work in different gears depending on the weather.
On top of the long-term costs that a higher efficiency furnace can save you, applying to the ecoENERGY program from the federal Canadian government may earn you thousands of dollars in rebates, including up to $500 for upgrading your furnace.
Fireplaces / Wood Heating
An attractive feature in almost any climate, having a well-designed fireplace in your home can boost your house's value by a noticeable amount. Available fireplace types include wood-burning fireplaces, gas-powered fireplaces, and electrical fireplaces.
Fireplaces offer a decorative sense of "hearth and home", provide localized radiant heating, and gas and wood-burning ones can be a relief during power outages. On the other hand, wood-burning fireplaces also require a large amount of air intake, which can increase drafts even in airtight homes. Wood fireplaces are also extremely inefficient and emit several harmful emissions that can harm both indoor and outdoor air quality.
Unsafe fireplaces and chimneys can also result in failed home inspections, so if you're selling your home, a fireplace cleaning and upgrade may be worth the expense.
Gas and electric fireplaces do not require heavy air intake, have a convenient on/off switch, use safely sealed combustion units, and don't require masonry chimney venting, so they can be installed throughout your home. Be careful when buying, however, as some gas fireplaces can be very inefficient and cause issues with indoor air quality. For a more thorough guide to gas fireplaces in Canada, try the Natural Resources Canada brochure All About Gas Fireplaces.
Electric fireplaces tend to be the most expensive, but they can also provide the most heating, keeping as many as two rooms warm at once. Both compact portable models and freestanding traditional fireplaces with mantels are available, and some allow you to display 'flames' of various styles and brightness without having the heat turned on.
Hydronic / Radiator Heating
Homes heated by a hydronic system use boilers to provide hot water to heat distributors such as radiators, baseboards, or even radiant floor systems. They can be much more efficient than many other forms of heating, and are typically installed when a home is first constructed. Depending on the age and style of your home, you may have a single boiler with a radiator in each room, space-saving baseboard-style radiators, or even an outdoor boiler furnace that burns wood (more common in rural areas).
Current boiler models must meet a minimum of 80% AFUE to be sold in Canada, while older models may run at as low as 60% efficiency. Condensing boilers with extra heat exchangers, previously popular in Europe, have now made their way to Canada and often boast an AFUE of up to 95%.
Hydronic heating can heat your entire house or supplement an existing system by bringing extra heat to specific rooms, such as the bathroom. But beware — hydronic systems can be expensive and difficult to remove once installed, limiting your ability to change to a different heating system in the future.
Electric baseboard heaters, also known as zone heaters, are another extremely common form of heating system in Canada. No ducts or furnace are required to use them, making them ideal for extra heating in condos and similar properties. They are also nearly 100% energy efficient, as all of the energy used by the heater is converted into heat.
Baseboard heaters are available in a range of sizes and colours, are more energy efficient than portable heaters, and are controlled by onboard or wall-mounted thermostats. You may also encounter convection heaters, which are very similar to traditional baseboards but often use up to 30% less electricity.
The high energy efficiency and (comparatively) extremely low initial cost of baseboard heaters is a benefit for most homeowners. Even so, a high or even mid-efficiency gas furnace may be hundreds of dollars cheaper in the long run, depending on the size and condition of your home.
Heat Pumps / Geothermal Heating
Heat pumps are one of the most efficient and least environmentally damaging options for heating your home. They do not burn fossil fuels (though they are powered by electricity), do not interfere with air quality, and are not a fire risk. They can also be run in reverse during the summer, cooling your home by removing ambient heat and depositing it outside.
There are two main varieties of heat pump systems: air-source heating and ground-source (also known as geothermal or earth-energy system) heating. Both types can be installed in new and existing buildings, although air-source heat pumps are easier and less expensive to install in existing homes than ground-source heat pumps. Ground-source heat pumps are more expensive, but are much more efficient than air-source, provide more heat in the winter, and may save more money in the long run. Both types can also be used to heat the water for your home.
Air-source heat pumps can be all-electric, bivalent (using gas or propane to assist in the heating process), or add-on (designed to supplement another source of heat). Bivalent systems in particular allow for the use of air-source year-round in colder climates. They also come in ductless mini-split heat pumps, which are wall-mounted units that can be installed in individual rooms of a home.
Natural Resources Canada has determined that the west coast of BC is the most viable for air-source heat pumps, providing high heat pump performance due to our mild climate. The BC interior is the next most suitable (along with Nova Scotia and southern Ontario), requiring heat pumps with a slightly higher performance rating. Depending on the climate and your current heating system, changing from an electric furnace to an all-electric air-source heat pump could reduce your home heating costs by up to 65%, and your water heating bills by 25-50%.
There are generally two kinds of radiant heating: hot water radiant heating (installed in floors), and electrical radiant heating (installed in floors or ceilings). Radiant floor heating can be considered one of the most energy-efficient ways to heat a home, and though expensive to install, is rapidly increasing in popularity.
Radiant floor heating can restrict the placement of carpeting in rooms, but also offers increased comfort and allows for lower thermostat settings.
Supplemental heating, including both secondary heating systems and portable space heaters, can play an important part in the lowering of your heating bills. Your choices will depend on your budget and the types and cost of fuel available in your area. Before you choose, you should make sure to confirm your primary heating system and consult a real estate agent and/or contractor as to what kind of heating would best supplement your primary system and reduce your heating costs.
Regardless of your choice of primary and supplementary heating systems, regular maintenance will be crucial to getting the most efficiency and cost effectiveness out of your home. This includes servicing from a certified contractor and (in some cases) regular filter changes (which you can do yourself).
Most portable heaters are only meant to heat single, small rooms, but there are some available that will work for larger spaces. While rarely as efficient as a baseboard or convection heater, their portability can be convenient when you only need heat applied to a selective area of your home. Tests have shown that turning down your primary heating system and supplementing with a space heater can net you some energy savings.
The size of a portable heater will not determine its efficiency or ability to heat; you will need to look at the unit's BTU, wattage, and the square footage of the room it will be used in. Overstock.com has a simple guide for calculating the right heater BTU for your space.
When using portable heaters make sure to always keep the following safety concerns in mind:
- Make sure your heater is ULC safety rated.
- Most portable gas, propane, kerosene, and oil heaters are designed for outdoor use only, and can become a big fire and/or fume risk if used indoors. You may be better off using them to heat your patio or deck.
- For electrical heaters, always make sure that your home's electrical system can carry the heater's load. Use a designated plug-in for the heater, with nothing else plugged into the same outlet. Do not use extension cords.
- Do not put portable heaters on tables or other surfaces where they might get bumped or the cord might be tripped over. Always keep them on the floor.
- Never place a portable heater against a wall or curtain. Without good air flow, the unit can overheat and become a fire risk.
No matter what heating system you decide to use in your home, it always pays to keep an eye on the lifetime cost of the unit. Pay attention to your annual heating requirements, your desired fuel type and price, and the efficiency of your system, and you're sure to find the heating system that's right for you.