Educational Consumer Tips

Heating Systems

Author: Better Business Bureau

The following is BBB general information and is not intended as a report on any specific company.

Efficient heating units can save money for consumers, and regular maintenance of your heating systems may not only save money but also prevent emergency situations from arising. It is a good idea to have your furnace checked annually in late summer during the off-peak season. In addition, gas furnaces need to be cleaned no less than every two years, and oil furnaces no less than every year. 

Types of Systems

1. Forced air heating. Forced air "ducted" systems use ducts and an air blower to circulate warm air. The blower pushes the air through the ducts to registers from which the warmth blows into the rooms. The cooled air is then pulled back to the furnace through return ducts. The furnace warms it once again, and the cycle is repeated. Forced air systems may be used in homes with or without basements. Since the warm air is circulated, central locations are more efficient. The furnace may be located in the basement, in a utility closet, in a crawl space, or in an attached garage. Supply registers are usually installed in the floor or wall in such a way as to prevent cold spots and maintain an even air distribution. An advantage of a forced air system is that a central air conditioning system can be connected to the furnace and the ducts, and if large enough, can be used to distribute cooled air. 

2. Hot water/Steam/Hydronic heating (Boilers). In a hot water system, a boiler heats water and circulates it using either a one or two-pipe system, or a "series loop." Either system uses the pipe to supply radiators with hot water and return the cool water to the boiler. A circulator is used to pump the water through the pipes. 

How Different Heating Units Work

*A gas unit consists of a burner through which gas is delivered and burned; a heat exchanger where the heat produced from the burning gas is transferred to the distribution system; and a vent pipe through which combustion waste is vented outside of the home.

*An electric furnace has resistant wire strips that are heated by electricity. A fan blows through the strips and heats the air. The air is then distributed through ducts to the rooms. Since there are no fumes, the system does not require a flue or a chimney. 

*An electric heat pump extracts heat from the outside and delivers it to the inside (in the winter), and extracts heat from inside and pumps it outside (in summer). This is not recommended for the Northeastern U. S. climate. 

*An oil furnace is similar to a gas furnace in that it has a fan and a blower system to distribute the heat throughout the house. In an oil furnace, a power burner is used to mix oil with air. The mixture is then sprayed or "fogged" out of a nozzle where the fuel is ignited by electrodes. Air is then blown into the heat chamber, heated and then shunted outdoors through a vent pipe. 

Choosing a contactor can be the most important aspect of heating system maintenance, repair or replacement. To assist in your search, the BBB offers the following advice: 

1. Check with friends and neighbors for recommendations on a contractor you are considering. Check with the BBB for a Business Review on the contractor. 

2. Make certain bids for extensive repair or replacement of systems are in writing and include a full description of services to be provided. The company will give you ideas suited for energy efficiency and the proper size unit to heat your home. Read the contract carefully before signing. New York State law provides you with 3 business days to change your mind. To cancel the contract, do so in writing. 

3. Ask the contractors to show you their current insurance and if applicable, their license. Do not be afraid to ask for copies of the insurance and license numbers. 

4. If a heating contractor claims the furnace is dangerous or "Red Tags" the furnace, the local utility will come out to your home & verify the findings. If possible, all three parties should be present at the inspection - the utility representative, the contractor and the homeowner. 

5. Do not allow the company to use a sense of urgency in their selling methods. Unless the situation is indeed an emergency, installing a new furnace should not start until at least 3 days after signing the contract. 

6. Energy efficiency and safety also relate to chimneys. If a contractor finds major problems with the chimney itself, consumers should get other written estimates before deciding on repair or replacement. 

7. Carbon Monoxide in a home can be deadly. Consider installing a detector to monitor Carbon Monoxide levels. When scheduling a furnace cleaning, ask that a test for Carbon Monoxide be performed. 

For additional information, to check on a contractor's reputation or to file a complaint, contact: 

Better Business Bureau
(800) 828-5000 

New York State Association of Plumbing, Heating, Cool Contractors

NYS Attorney General 

Your Own Local Utility For All Emergencies 

This report is general in nature and is not intended as a Business Review on any company, service or product.