Maximize your home's degree of comfort by learning about the different types of heating and cooling systems before you buy.
A good heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system should last 20-25 years, so you'll want to do your homework before choosing one for your home. There are a variety of ways to heat your home, including forced-air systems with a furnace, heat pumps (for heating and cooling), duct-free systems, steam systems, air conditioners, and in-floor radiant heat. Familiarize yourself with hvac tools, options, and terminology, and then ask a licensed contractor to do heat gain and loss calculations for your home. By taking into consideration a number of factors—such as your home's size, construction method, type and amount of insulation, and even the direction it faces—a professional can recommend the best type of system for your house. When choosing among specific models, be sure to ask about energy efficiency as well as the initial price tag. Paying more now can often save money later—plus more efficient models can enhance comfort and improve indoor air quality.
Pros: New furnaces feature variable-speed technology that can cut down on energy use. (These units don't run at full capacity until temperatures drop really low.) Can be installed with a high-efficiency air-conditioner and a whole-house air cleaner that utilize the same ductwork. Less expensive than hydronic systems. Can be fueled by oil, natural gas, or propane.
Cons: Can produce uneven heat, with some rooms or areas warmer than others. Can be noisier than hydronic systems that don't use a blower. Blower can stir up dust and other allergens when circulating heated air throughout the home. Requires furnace filters that must be replaced regularly.
Price: About $2,500-$3,000 for a new, high-efficiency furnace (including installation). About $2,500 for a new air-conditioner (including installation). Prices vary depending on size, efficiency, and installation considerations.
Pros: Very efficient and less expensive to operate than many other systems. Same system is used to heat and cool your home. Can be set up as a split system (with an indoor and an outdoor unit) or as a packaged system (with everything outside), depending on how the house is constructed. Can be a good choice if electricity is the only heating option or if gas prices are high. Can use the same ductwork as an existing forced-air furnace system. Improvements in technology allow these systems to be used in nearly any climate.
Cons: Can be expensive to run if electric rates are high in your region. In very cold climates, the electric heating elements that act as a supplemental heating source may make the system less efficient and more expensive. (Dual-fuel systems that pair an electric heat pump and a gas furnace can be a better option for cold climates.) Forced-air system can stir up dust and other allergens. Filters must be regularly replaced.
Price: About $4,500 for a mid-price system with an indoor and outdoor unit. A dual-fuel system will likely cost $600-$1,000 more. (A geothermal heat pump that circulates water through underground pipes can cost twice as much or more.) Prices vary depending on size, efficiency, and installation considerations.
Pros: Can be a good choice if you're adding a small addition and your current heating and cooling system can't accommodate the new space. Requires no ductwork. Quieter than traditional room air conditioners. Interior unit hangs on the wall or sits on the floor, rather than taking over a window like a traditional air conditioner unit. Costs less than adding a separate central heating and cooling system for an addition.
Cons: With a mini split system, you'll need an additional heating source if the outdoor temperature drops below 25-30 degrees. (Some models, like the systems used in hotels, include electrical heat as a backup heating source in colder weather.) Inside unit is visible in the room and may detract from the overall aesthetics.
Price: About $1,500-$2,500 for a mid-price mini split system. Prices vary depending on size and efficiency.
Pros: Steam that rises from radiators can provide even heat with a small amount of humidity, which many people find comfortable. There's no blower circulating the heated air (or dust), which can be helpful for people with allergies or asthma. With a new, high-efficiency boiler, these systems can be much more efficient than in the past.
Cons: Large radiators used in these systems can limit furniture placement and detract from the overall look of the room. You can't add central air-conditioning with these systems. Heat may be uneven throughout the home. Radiators can make a lot of noise if pipes leading to them are angled incorrectly.
Price: About $5,000-$6,000 for a new high-efficiency boiler (including installation). Price varies depending on size and efficiency. (New steam heat systems are rarely added to homes today.)
Pros: Can be used to heat the whole house or a single room. (Generally, hydronic systems that circulate water through installed pipes are recommended for whole-house applications, while electric systems that use electric mats are used for single-room applications.) Heats people and objects (not just the air), so it's more efficient and you can leave the door ajar without losing heat. Radiant heat system is hidden beneath your choice of floor covering. Doesn't stir up dust or other allergens.
Cons: Whole-house system can be expensive to install, particularly when remodeling. Hydronic systems can leak if improperly installed. Can't be used to cool the house (or clean the air) like a forced-air system can.
Price: $7-$10 per square foot for a whole-house hydronic system that includes a boiler, tubing, controls, and other parts (including installation). Expect to pay about $300-$700 for an electric system in an average-size bathroom. Prices vary depending on size of home and specific installation considerations.