Why Installing a Hydronic Heating System is a Good Idea – Advantages and Benefits 

Vintage radiator installed in an old houseImage by Peter H from Pixabay

Is your existing heating system too expensive to operate, or it is old and breaks too often, costing you too much for frequent repairs? Are you planning to switch from the electric or oil powered system to a more affordable and reliable gas heating? No matter if your home size and number of family members, a hydronic heating system might be a solution you are looking for. Here you will find some useful tips either you are building a new house, upgrading an existing system, or simply replacing it.

Choosing or changing the heating system could be a decision that will make a significant relief on your household budget and enhance your comfort. More than 60% of the annual energy is required to operate home heating, so choosing wisely can get you great cost reduction, long-term and comfortable solution.  

Also, about 20% of the energy is required for water heating, which is the second-largest energy consumer in one’s home. So, combining home and water heating into one system with the installation of a tankless combi heater might be one of the cost-effective solutions for you.

Check out Rinnai RUR and Takagi-H3 tankless water heaters; they are designed for combined domestic water and space heating.

Whatever change you make your investment should be effective, bring you a decent return, and worry-free use.

How to select the right heating system - Factors to consider

  • Fuel type or energy source. Electricity and natural gas are the most popular fuels in the US and Canada. Natural gas is cheaper and operational costs are lower, making it our first choice. Electricity costs more, but the heat pumps, such as the air source or geothermal, will get you an efficient system that will pay off in the long run. This system is recommended in regions where natural gas is not available and in less severe climates.
  • Heat distribution. Before choosing a heating system, decide how you want the heat to be distributed. The way how heat is distributed affects the efficiency of the system and your comfort. Two methods are the most popular; forced air and hot water circulation.
  • Efficiency. According to some experts, efficiency is the most important factor to consider. If the efficiency is high, your operating costs will be lower. Check out the AFUE or Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency for gas and oil systems, HSPF, or Heating Season Performance Factor for the electric air-to-air heat pumps and COP or Coefficient of Performance for geothermal heat pumps. Look for the high-efficiency gas furnaces with the AFUE of above 90%, HSPF of 9, and higher for the air source heat pumps and COP of 3 for geothermal.
  • Cost. Cost is also an essential factor for many, but here is the catch. Don’t look at the initial cost only, but the operating cost, or how much money you will spend monthly to run the unit and have decent comfort.

The right heating system is the efficient one, lasts for a long time, is affordable, has low operating costs, and is clean (it does not emit various pollutants into the atmosphere).

When it comes to pollution, every heating device is directly or indirectly involved in pollution. Gas furnaces would emit pollutants at the point of use, while electrical units where the energy is generated.

For me, hydronic heating, powered by natural gas is the way to go. It provides clean and low-cost heating.

Types of home heating systems

There are several types of heating systems available, and based on the fuel source, you can buy units running on electricity, oil, wood, gas, and solar energy, including a combination of different energy sources. Plus, there is a variety of equipment and many manufacturers, so it is harder to decide which one to buy.

The most common heating equipment used in North America are:

  • Furnace
  • Baseboard heater
  • Boiler
  • Heat pump

Two systems are the most present in central home heating: forced air and hydronic (hot water systems).

What is forced air heating?

Forced air heating systems use warm air to heat. These systems are equipped with the furnace as the heat source, ducts, registers, and controllers, all working together to produce and distribute the heated air throughout your home.

What is hydronic heating?

Hydronic systems use warm or hot water to distribute heat. Warm water is used in radiant floor heating while hot water in radiator systems.

Hydronic radiant floor systems use warm water with temperatures of around 70 F, running through the pipes that are installed below the flooring. The floor acts as one big radiator. Floor heating is ideal for heating large areas in homes and buildings, and it works well with almost any floor covering. The main advantages are even heat distribution, efficient use of space, and no maintenance required.

Panel radiator with the thermostatic valveImage by ri from Pixabay

In hydronic systems that use radiators, hot water is prepared inside the boiler, circulating through the pipes using the circulation pumps. Hot water is delivered to the baseboards and radiators, where it transfers the heat to the surrounding room air. While circulating through the house, hot water delivers heat and then returns to the boiler for reheating. These systems also have controllers such as thermostats and valves that are installed to regulate the process.

Hydronic systems that use radiators are often found in European homes and buildings, and since they are installed above the floor and on the wall, they occupy living space and sometimes are not much visually appealing. Unless you have vintage radiators. The hydronic system typically produces and circulates water in a closed system where the temperature of hot water is around 80 F. Older homes have wrought-iron pipes and cast-iron radiators, and modern homes have mostly copper or plastic pipes, and aluminum radiators or panels installed. Radiators or panels are installed in each room of your home while in bathrooms, you can also include towel warmers.

Radiators use convection to heat the air inside a room. When they heat the air, the air rises toward the ceiling, then it cools down and falls to the ground where it is heated again. This creates a non-stop circulation of hot and cold air. Keep in mind if the system is not designed correctly, you might end up with many cold and hot spots, which will reduce your comfort.

Radiators are usually installed below windows and by the doors. The cold air from outside drops on the radiator or baseboards where it gets heated, thus eliminating the effect of cold windows, open windows, and doors.

A typical piping arrangement in residential homes is one or two pipes system.

Except for indoor heating as described above, hydronic heating systems can also be used in outdoor applications such as melting the snow on a driveway or heating the pool.

Basic components

Depending on the energy source, hydronic heating systems contain more or fewer components.

The main components are:

  • Heating source – a boiler equipped with the immersed heating elements, gas or oil-powered boiler, tankless water heaters and heat pumps are some of the examples
  • Heating elements – radiators, panels, and baseboard heaters
  • Circulation pump – circulates water from the heat source (boiler) through the pipes, to the heating equipment such as radiators and baseboard heaters, and back. You can also find systems without the pump. These are known as gravity systems as they use natural convection to circulate water.
  • Liquid – hot water is a typical method of transferring heat, while glycol is a common antifreeze used in such systems if there is a risk of freezing. 
  • Tubing – plastic, copper or steel pipes
  • Controllers – thermostats, radiator valves, etc.
  • Expansion tank

Advantages of hydronic heating

  • Even heat distribution. When comparing hydronic vs. air-forced heating systems, hydronic systems provide better home comfort as they can heat your home more evenly. There are no cold basements, hot attics, cold drafts, and no sudden bursts of air.
  • Energy efficient. Water is a better heat conductor than air, so less energy is used to heat the medium. So, as the hot water holds more heat than air, also longer, it will transfer heat easier and more efficiently than air, bringing you more savings.
  • Quiet. Air-forced systems use powerful blowers to distribute heat throughout the house making hydronic systems quieter.
  • Healthier. As the hydronic systems do not use ductwork and blowing air through it, they don’t spread dust and allergens around, as the forced-air systems. It does not dry the air when heating in the winter.
  • Convenience and comfort. Using zoning with multiple thermostats, hydronic heating is easier to control and provide even distribution of heat. By using multi zones inside your home, you can personalize the temperature in each room. In the case of floor heating, tiles and flooring will always be warm, so no more cold feet.
  • Less energy loss. Again, due to the lack of ductwork, hydronic systems are not prone to high heat losses.
  • Flexibility. Due to the smaller pipe size, running piping is easier than ducts. You can also install infloor heating, which provides even better comfort. You can add radiators, warmers, and units for snow melting.
  • Versatility. Boilers that are used for space heating can also be used to provide domestic hot water.

Disadvantages of hydronic heating

  • The hydronic heating systems take longer to heat the space.
  • Heat exchangers and its pipes occupy room space and usually do not match with the interior design.
  • The water inside the pipes is prone to leaks and freezing.
  • No ventilation and air conditioning, which is available in forced-air systems.
  • Higher installation costs.
  • Hot and cold spots if not properly designed.

Basic steps to make your home more efficient

  • Lower the temperature of your home. Set your thermostat to the recommended temperature. The optimal temperature is around 70 F. If you reduce the temperature, just one degree, you will save approximately 3%.
  • Check for air leaks. Don’t keep your doors and windows open. Reduce air leakage using caulking and weather-stripping. If you have to install new and more efficient ones. Make sure to insulate your home effectively.
  • Reduce energy usage by installing thermostat-controlled valves and through zone control.
  • Insulate hot water pipes.
  • Refill the radiators with water and bleed the air bubbles.
  • Do not cover the radiators and its pipes, allow the free airflow.

Conclusion

The most significant advantage of the hydronic heating systems is that they can use a variety of energy sources for central heating of a whole house, even a portion of it. No matter if you are using natural or propane gas, electric, oil, solar, geothermal, wood, or a combination of these sources, your comfort is guaranteed.

The article should help anyone make an informed choice when planning to install a hydronic heating system in his home.

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