Chicago can be a wonderful city, for many different reasons. But when it comes to the weather? Sometimes, it’s not quite so wonderful. As anyone around here will tell you, sometimes you need a strong will to make it through our legendary winters. Even when the spring arrives and starts to warm things up, you still may have to keep the heat on while the thermometer gradually crawls upwards.
Adjusting to this cold weather means having the right home heating system in place for your preferences. Throughout the centuries, innovative people have used countless different ways to heat up their living spaces. In modern Chicago, we’ve pretty much settled on a few main heating solutions — including forced air heating, and radiator heating.
In a nutshell? With a forced air system, air is warmed via a central furnace unit (or units), and then transferred throughout the home via air ducts. With radiators, water is heated in a central boiler to create steam, which is then sent through the home via pipelines and delivered into radiators, which use convection and radiation to warm the air. There are also two types: hot water radiators which do not convert the water to steam, but rather pass it through the radiator–one pipe in, one pipe out. Then there are steam radiators which have only one pipe to the radiator, not two.
When considering what home heating method is going to be the best fit for you and your family, it’s important to think about what you like the most. Ultimately, picking a “favorite” between these two heating styles will come down to your unique preferences.
Below, we’ve laid out a few of the most cited pros and cons for forced air and radiator heating. We’ll also dive into some other methods that may be worth considering when it comes to keeping your place comfortably toasty on those cold days and nights.
Forced Air & Radiator Heating: Breaking Down Costs
One of the most pressing questions people have regarding heating systems is: How much do they cost? And between forced air and radiator systems, how do the costs compare? It’s important to remember that there will be a few different aspects that factor into the costs of each type of heating system.
For instance, the costs you’ll face may really depend on how sufficient and well-built your system is to begin with, as well as how you care for it over time. In many cases, the costs really aren’t that much different. The differences may arise when it comes to breaking down factors unique to your system, such as the efficiency of the boiler or furnace, the age of your system, the quality of your pipes/ductwork, and the amount you use the heating system.
Forced Air & Radiator Heating: The Pros and Cons
What are some of the pros and cons of forced air heating systems?
- PRO: Can often heat up the house fairly quickly
- PRO: You can easily close and open vents to control air flow
- PRO: Systems often take up less space than radiators and are less visible overall
- PRO: Systems typically allow you to closely control the temperature, so you can adjust to your preferences
- PRO: Systems can be integrated with air conditioning to provide cooling in hotter months
- CON: The air circulation can be dry, and may potentially irritate skin
- CON: Vent systems can collect dust and negatively affect allergies
- CON: Vents and filters may require frequent cleaning and maintenance
- CON: To ensure a properly working system, you should get furnace serviced regularly
- CON: Certain systems can be a little noisy
- CON: Vents can become drafty and allow warm air to escape when not running
What are some of the pros and cons of traditional radiator heating systems?
- PRO: Compared to forced air, radiator heating may be more humid and comfortable because it doesn’t remove moisture from the air by blowing it over an open flame. Many furnaces require an additional appliance, a humidifier, to replace the moisture the furnace removes.
- PRO: It’s generally easy to switch radiators on and off from room to room
- PRO: Radiator covers can make radiators more appealing or stylish
- PRO: In some cases, individual pieces may be easier to replace if facing defects/issues
- PRO: Are quieter than forced air systems, in most cases
- PRO: Many enjoy the “vintage” aesthetic appeal
- CON: Radiators can be large and bulky, and take up space in a room
- CON: Radiator covers can reduce efficiency, and drive up costs
- CON: Elements can be difficult to clean out
- CON: Can lead to a lot of lost heat if not used and maintained properly,
- CON: Can be loud, in some cases, with hissing clanking, or bumping noises
- CON: Some find exposed pipework and radiator units unappealing
- CON: Are slower to react to thermostat changes. Cold water in the system will take some time to heat, for example.
Exploring Some Alternatives
Of course, there are also plenty of options out there beyond these two common heating styles, including some alternative methods that could prove cost-efficient and environmentally friendly, in the long run.
If you’re really into the idea of a vintage look and feel, you could go the old-fashioned pot-belly stove or fireplace route. Gas, electric, and wood fireplaces can help warm up a room in no time. As cozy as that image is, it can also be difficult to heat a whole home with nothing but fireplaces, making practicality an issue. It’s also going to be important to make sure that your fireplaces are properly maintained and inspected over time. For single rooms, portable electric space heaters are also a feasible fix, though again, they aren’t entirely practical for heating up large rooms or multiple spaces, and can be expensive and unsafe if used improperly.
Another heating system you may encounter is radiant heat flooring. Radiant floor heating relies on a system that utilizes hot water tubes or electric wires buried underneath the floor. Thermal radiation is transferred up from the floor, helping to keep you comfortable even though the surrounding air stays relatively consistent. Many find radiant flooring appealing because it is quiet and largely invisible, compared to other types of heating systems. Radiant heat may also offer more energy efficiency than other systems, making it appealing to those who may wish to lower that heavy Chicago winter price tag.
On the flip side, depending on your specific home, these systems can be costly to design and set up, and you may still need a different system in place for cooling. Moreover, radiant flooring is often used on lower levels and/or tiled bathroom floors, in combination with–not in lieu of–other heating solutions. They also don’t have practical application in retrofitting older homes, but common in new construction in Chicagoland.
If you have an older home that doesn’t have ducts, a retrofit solution is ductless heating and cooling. You may have seen a ductless device on a wall before. These systems are comprised of a small outdoor unit and one or more indoor units, which require access to electricity and a place to be mounted. There are many advantages to these systems, including a lower carbon footprint, better air quality, and even a reduction in overall costs due to their smaller overall size and greater efficiency.
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