Home heating types – which are best for warmth and efficiency?

Climate, cost and performance are all important considerations when selecting the best heating for your home – here’s all you need to know about the 7 most popular types

Radiator with valve and hands
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With the global energy crisis, it's no wonder many of us are thinking harder about home heating types, their efficiency and running costs. Whether you are remodelling, building a home from scratch or simply wondering if you could be paying less, this feature will answer your questions.

In short: the most popular and efficient type of home heating is a combined forced air and cooling system that uses a furnace with a blower fan to force warm air into all rooms via ducts. However, there is no one home heating type that will suit every abode, though some are more efficient than others. When choosing the best heating system for your home, there are some essentials you will need to think about, whether you are wondering which type of heating is the cheapest to run or are investigating eco heating. We cover them all below.

Which is the best type of home heating?

To help you decide which heating system is best for your home, here’s the lowdown on the 7 most popular types.

Forced air heating and cooling systems

The most popular and efficient is a combined forced air and cooling system that uses a furnace with a blower fan to force warm air into all rooms via ducts. The benefit is that you can adjust the temperature easily and quickly, and you can also have your air conditioning running through the same ducts so you get two in one. 

The furnace can use a number of fuels depending on what’s available to you and the cost you are happier with. There’s natural gas, liquid propane, fuel oil and electric. Use air filters and humidifiers to prevent the air becoming too dry and if anyone in your home suffers from allergies. 

Cost-wise you’re talking anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 to install a new system. 

‘Forced air heating and cooling systems can be costly,’ confirms Alex Woollam of Waterline Plumbing, ‘but there are many factors to consider when making this decision. The main cost associated with installing and running these systems is the energy required to power them. Additionally, you will need to factor in monthly maintenance fees and attic or basement repairs that may be needed. 

'To ensure optimal performance, forced air heating and cooling systems require regular cleaning of filters and ducts. In some cases, entire system replacements may also be necessary due to wear and tear on components or failures.’

Gravity air furnace systems

When you want a low-maintenance solution, gravity air furnaces also deliver warm air through wall ducts to each room but instead of forcing the air (like the forced air system we mention above), gravity systems work on a simple gravity method. 

This means that warm air rises and cool air sinks, naturally. So, a gravity air furnace in the basement will work by heating the air, which rises and distributes through ducts into each room. 

Price-wise, the cost for installing a new one ranges from around $8,000 to $10,000 with running costs at around $50 to $100 per year.

In-floor radiant heating systems

For warmer climates where house winterizing isn't so much of an issue, in-floor radiant systems use plastic tubes filled with water, which are laid underneath concrete or timber floors. 

This is one of the quietest heating methods, which is also really effective – eliminating cold spots – and super-efficient too with lower running costs. It might take a little longer to heat a room and any issues can be more difficult to solve as the pipes are harder to access, but you will receive a consistent heat.

You can also run an in-floor radiant heating system with electrical wires instead of water-filled pipes. This is the preferred option when you have ceramic or natural stone tile flooring and they will cost more to run so are best used in smaller rooms such as bathrooms and utility areas. It’s best to choose this option if you’re doing a remodelling project as it is a lot of hassle and upheaval.

When it comes to cost, for both water and electric in-floor systems, you’re talking between $1,800 and $6,000 and a larger area should bring the cost per square foot down.

Traditional boiler and radiators

When you want radiant heat all around the home, a traditional boiler with radiators on the walls is the most efficient solution. 

Boilers on average will cost from $3,000 to $6,000 to install while new radiators can cost anywhere up to $1,500 each. 

This kind of system works via the boiler circulating steam or hot water through pipes to the radiators. Look for classic cast iron column radiators to complement a period property or modern aluminum designs for a more contemporary look. Aluminum is more energy efficient as well as lightweight and available in a wider range of shapes, sizes and colors.

Keep in mind that you won’t be able to run any air conditioning through a boiler system so you would need a separate unit if you also want cool air in the summer months.

Hot water baseboard radiators

Similar to an in-floor radiant heating system but using baseboards instead of under-floor pipes, this hydronic method also uses a boiler to heat water, which is then delivered through pipes to baseboard heating units. 

It’s a pretty durable solution with costs between $500 and $1,200 to install new. 

You can power these boilers with electricity, fuel oil, natural gas or liquid propane as well as solar panels for a really energy efficient solution.

Heat pump heating systems

An extremely energy efficient option is the air-source heat pump. These work by extracting heat from the air and delivering it inside your home via an indoor air handler. You can also buy ground-source heat pumps, which take heat from the earth, or water-source, which use a nearby pond or lake.

How much does it cost to run a heat pump? Installing and running a heat pump heating system can be costly, depending on the size of your home and the type of heat pump you choose. 

‘The average residential installation costs around $15,000 to $20,000 plus,’ says Alex Woollam of Waterline Plumbing. ‘If you're looking to reduce your energy bills and increase your indoor comfort levels during colder months, then a heat pump is an ideal choice. There are many different types of heat pumps on the market today that vary in efficiency, features and price range.’

‘It's important to select the right one for your needs based on factors such as climate zone, insulation level, occupant load, ductwork restriction and room layout. Once you have decided which type of heat pump to buy or install, consult with an experienced HVAC contractor who will walk you through all the details so that everything goes smoothly from start to finish.’

Electric resistance heating systems

When you just want a little extra heating for a home office or guest room, an electric resistance heater is a popular choice and starts from around $450. They will use more in terms of energy, so running costs can be high, but it depends how much you use it so only turn them on when needed for small bursts of heat.

Which heating system is the most efficient?

Overall, furnace systems are the most efficient for heating the home and especially natural gas designs. Heating air with a heat exchanger, they force warmed air through wall ducts into all rooms for a whole-house cosy feel during all weathers.

Which heating fuel is currently the cheapest?

Prices for fuel are rising all the time but at the moment if you want to cut energy bills, it's worth knowing that natural gas is the most cost-effective way of heating your home. Next is electric, then propane then heating oil. Make sure your home is sufficiently insulated to prevent any hot air escaping so check for drafts around doors and windows as well as in any floorboards.

What is the best type of heating for a house?

The most popular and efficient home heating system is a combined forced air and cooling system. However, it may not be suitable for your home. These considerations will affect your choice: 

Climate: The first thing to consider is your climate. If the winters are particularly harsh, you need a powerful heating system that’s also energy efficient to save on running costs. If you’re lucky enough to have only mild winters then you can get away with something less so. 

Property size: Look at the size of your property, too. Smaller homes need less heat than larger ones, otherwise you’re just wasting energy and money. Fuel is also one of the most important factors. 

Fuel availability: You may also be restricted by what fuel is available in your area or you may have a preference due to efficiency or running costs.

Insulation levels: ‘Choosing the best home heating system can be overwhelming, but there are a few things that you should keep in mind,’ advises Alex Woollam, licensed plumber and founder and CEO of Waterline Plumbing. ‘First and foremost, verifying that you have an accurate insulation level is essential. If your house isn't adequately insulated, heat will escape through the walls and floors, resulting in higher energy bills. 

Your heating environment: 'Next, consider what environment you want your heating system to operate in,' continues Alex. 'Do you want it to warm up quickly or do you prefer a more even temperature?' 

Your household size: 'Finally, consider how many people will be using the space simultaneously. Some systems allow for multiple users while others require one person at a time,’ concludes Alex.

Hayley Gilbert
Contributing Editor

Hayley is an interiors journalist, content provider and copywriter with 26 years experience who has contributed to a wide range of consumer magazines, trade titles, newspapers, blogs and online content. Specialising in kitchens and bathrooms, she has twice won the CEDIA Award for Best Technology feature. Hayley writes for H&G about kitchens, bathrooms, cleaning, DIY and organizing.