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Home Heating Guide

selecting a heating system

selecting a heating system

After we survived the coldest and the longest winter in recent history, we’re all glad that it’s finally finished, and there is relief from bitter temperatures and the high cost of heating our homes.

The awful news in Ontario is that the Ontario Energy Board upholds big increases for Enbridge and Union Gas, which took effect Apr. 1st. This means an increase of around $450 per year for the average family home.

Other natural-gas suppliers are also expected to apply for rate increases as they are forced to buy more expensive energy supplies on the open market. Households heating with propane and oil have already experienced a price shock. Propane customers in Ontario saw their home heating bills nearly double in January and February compared with what they were paying in November last year.

Here are some projections for Ontario’s long-term energy plan:


Ontario’s climate means that almost two-thirds of the energy we use in our homes goes to space heating.

Home Energy Use In Ontario

Home Energy Use In Ontario

No wonder we look to space heating when we think of energy savings

Before you start shopping for a home heating system, remember that significant gains in comfort and energy savings can be achieved quickly and inexpensively by making your home more energy-efficient. Doing so requires a series of relatively simple steps — most important, sealing leaks in the walls, ceilings and floors, and around doors and windows.

After the building has been sealed up, it’s time to pile on the insulation. Significant energy savings call for generous amounts of insulation that exceed current code requirements. Like caulk and weatherstripping, insulation not only reduces energy bills in winter, it also reduces heat gain in the cooling season, helping you slash your fuel bills while keeping you comfortable.

Ontarians have many heating choices: furnaces, heat pumps, boilers, solar or baseboard heaters—and a pick of different energy sources, e.g., gas, propane, oil, electricity or the sun. Some of us even use two or more types of heating and/or energy.

The selection of a home heating system for a new or existing home requires an understanding of how various systems operate, their initial cost, and how much they cost to operate.

Whether or not you’ve buttoned up your house, you can probably save a great deal by upgrading your heating system, either by installing a new high-efficiency system or boosting the efficiency of your present system.

Home Heating Guide – Basic Components of a Heating System

But first, when considering the various options for improving or replacing your heating system, it helps to know some of the lingo. A lot of confusing terms and concepts are thrown around by salespeople or heating system technicians, and you don’t want to get left behind.

Central heating systems have three basic parts: the heating plant itself where fuel is converted into useful heat, a distribution system to deliver heat to where it is needed, and controls to regulate when and how the system runs and when it turns off.

Basic Components of Heating Systems

Basic Components of a Heating Systems

The selection of the most cost-effective heating system will depend on the price and availability of different fuels as well as the cost of the initial heater installation. Higher initial investments are often justified by reduced utility costs over the lifetime of the unit.

Types of Heat Sources


Furnaces are one of the most common home heating systems, and they work by blowing heated air through a duct system. Furnaces are typically referred to as “forced-air” heating systems and can run on different types of fuel, but natural gas, oil, and electricity are the most common sources of energy currently available. Furnaces are more energy-efficient than ever, but their cost varies based on fuel rates, electricity prices, and energy costs.


Boilers heat water via natural gas, electricity, or propane—although the water doesn’t boil, as the name implies. As opposed to the forced air of the furnace system, most boilers move heat into your home through a radiant heating system like traditional radiators, baseboard heaters, or aluminum panels in a home’s floors, walls, or ceilings.

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps use refrigerant to absorb heat from outside sources—like the air, the ground, or even a body of water—and then use a heat exchanger to transfer it inside. (The exchange of heat can also be reversed to cool a home.) The most common kinds of heat pumps draw thermal energy from ambient air or the ground. Heat pumps, in general, are becoming increasingly popular heating choices for homeowners. Although air-source and ground-source heat pumps may be more expensive than conventional heating systems, they can provide significant energy savings to homeowners who live in temperate climates.

Solar Heating

Solar space heating systems can be designed to heat the home directly, or they can be designed to work in conjunction with domestic hot water systems. The latter will provide higher paybacks as you can use the system to provide hot water in the summer when space heating is not required.

When designing a space heating system, it is best if you can store of buffer the energy when not needed, this can be done with a large water tank but a concrete slab such as a basement floor also acts as a great storage buffer. Using solar energy directly without a storage tank of the buffer means that heat energy will only be available during the day, and a backup heating source will be needed for the evening.

Electric Heating

An increasing number of homeowners with electric baseboard heating are switching to other energy sources, such as natural gas, oil or heat pumps, because of the high cost of electric heating. While a major constraint is the lack of a distribution system, many homeowners find that air ducts for a central forced-air system, or pipes and radiators for a hydronic system, can be installed at a cost that still makes the whole conversion financially attractive.

Types of Heat Sources

Types of Heat Sources

Types of Distribution Systems

The majority of Ontario’s new homes and most existing homes have forced air distribution. Registers in each room can be adjusted to control the airflow. Return registers draw air from the rooms through separate ducts back to the furnace to complete the cycle of airflow through the house.

Hot Water (Hydronic) Heating

A hot water heating system distributes hot water from a boiler to radiators, convectors or under-floor heating systems in each room. In older homes, large cast-iron radiators are common. Modern systems feature smaller boilers, narrow piping and compact radiators that can be regulated to provide temperature control in each room. Under-the-floor heating systems can be built into the floors of new and existing homes.

Space Heaters

These have no central heating unit or distribution system. Instead, individual space heaters – such as a wood stove, electric baseboards, radiant heaters or heaters fueled with oil, natural gas or propane – supply heat directly to the room.

For safety, all space heaters except electric ones need to be vented to the outside. An appropriately-sized space heater can provide some heat to all parts of a home if the design of the home allows for the natural distribution of heat from the heater location.

Types of Destribution Systems

Types of Distribution Systems

What’s the best option?

It depends. If you’re trying to save energy, understanding the most efficient home heating options is a great start. Households in temperate climates spend a hefty share of their energy budget on keeping their homes warm.

If you are serious about overhauling your current heating system or building a new home with the most efficient home heating possible, you should start by understanding what different kinds of heating systems are available.


The most effective home heating option is to make sure your home is as well insulated and air-sealed as possible to prevent heat escape and to use as efficient, cheap, or low-carbon a source of energy as possible. Let’s assume you already know how important proper sealing and insulation is, and that you’re going to take care of that no matter what. What are the most efficient home heating choices, regarding new systems you can install?

Here are the main choices, from the most efficient home heating system, to least efficient:

  1. Solar heating
  2. Geothermal heating
  3. Wood heating
  4. Natural gas heating
  5. Oil heating
  6. Electric heating

Note that when we talk about the most efficient home heating choices, we could be talking about efficiency from the point of view of financial cost, environmental cost (greenhouse gas emissions plus other pollutants), or the efficiency of conversion of the original energy source into heat inside your home.

For the financial cost, we can consider lifetime costs (installation plus yearly energy costs) or just installation or yearly costs.

For energy conversion efficiency (what most people are really interested in when asking about the most efficient home heating system), we can start from the assumption that solar is free and geothermal is almost free, since up to 4 times as much heat energy is extracted from the ground as the energy in the electricity that pumps the heat out.


  1. I found it interesting that you state that forced air distribution is the most common form of distribution system. My brother and his wife are building a new house and want to have an efficient method for heating. I will send them this information so they can make sure to hire a heating installation service that can get them what they want.

  2. I find it odd that you fail to mention propane as one of the most common heating fuels or any mention of propane at all for that matter. More and more homes are converting from wood, wood\oil, electric forced air furnaces to propane forced air furnaces in rural Ontario;unless you’re including it as natural gas which would be very misleading and\or confusing for the average consumer.

  3. We have the option of paying for a natural gas pipeline installation on our street or opting for different fuel type when we build our home. The cost of the pipeline installation on our street would be an additional 23 cents a cubic metre per gas used until it is payed off in roughly 40 years. What is our best option? We have not built our home yet.

  4. Annual maintenance is the key to ensuring that your heater stands the test of time and that it provides you with the quality performance that you deserve.

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