What’s the best option? It depends…

If you’re trying to save energy, understanding the most efficient home heating options is a great start. Households in temperate climates spend a hefty share of their energy budget on keeping their homes warm.

If you are serious about overhauling your current heating system, or building a new home with the most efficient home heating possible, you should start by understanding what different kinds of heating systems are available.

What are the most efficient home heating options?

The most efficient home heating option is to make sure your home is as well insulated and air-sealed as possible to prevent heat escape, and to use as efficient, cheap, or low-carbon a source of energy as possible. Let’s assume you already know how important proper sealing and insulation is, and that you’re going to take care of that no matter what. What are the most efficient home heating choices, in terms of new systems you can install?

Here are the main choices, from most efficient home heating system, to least efficient:

  1. Solar heating
  2. Geothermal heating
  3. Heat pump (non-geothermal)
  4. Wood heating
  5. Natural gas heating
  6. Oil heating
  7. Electric heating

Note that when we talk about the most efficient home heating choices, we could be talking about efficiency from the point of view of financial cost, environmental cost (greenhouse gas emissions plus other pollutants), or the efficiency of conversion of the original energy source into heat inside your home.

For financial cost we can consider lifetime costs (installation plus yearly energy costs) or just installation or yearly costs.

For energy conversion efficiency (what most people are really interested in when asking about the most efficient home heating system), we can start from the assumption that solar is free, and geothermal is almost free, since up to 4 times as much heat energy is extracted from the ground as the energy in the electricity that pumps the heat out.

Here again are the heat sources above; this time I’ve reordered them, for each of these three categories, from most efficient home heating source to least efficient. Note that this ordering is not completely scientific – it’s a mixture of research I’ve done, calculations based on energy output of different fuels, and my own opinion.


Financial cost (install and operate) Environmental cost Conversion efficiency
Solar Solar Solar
Natural gas Geothermal Geothermal
Wood Heat pump Heat pump
Heat pump Wood Natural gas
Oil Natural gas Oil
Geothermal Oil Wood
Electric Electric Electric


Solar heating is the most efficient home heating system on all three criteria, and electric is the least efficient and least affordable. If you want to know why electric heating is so inefficient and expensive, or how to save on electric heating, see my Energy efficient electric heaters page.

Solar heating is ranked as the cheapest in terms of installation plus operation because you don’t actually have to buy any specialized equipment, you just need a home designed and built to take advantage of sunlight’s ability to be converted into heat once it passes through closed, sun-facing windows, a home that will hold that heat inside through proper sealing and insulation.

Once the system is set up, there are no operating costs – the energy is free, except at times when lack of sunlight and very cold temperatures require you to supplement with some other source of heat. But I know several people whose homes are heated almost entirely with solar power, and the homes didn’t cost any more to build than a conventional home, they just look different. Solar really is the most efficient home heating option all around – if you can find a way to make it work for you.

Note that you can build features of solar heating into your home regardless of heating system type.

Geothermal is the next most efficient home heating source in terms of its environmental costs, because the energy used to heat your home is actually extracted from the ground. (Geo means earth, and thermal means heat.)

A geothermal system uses the same kind of compressor/evaporator system that extracts heat from a refrigerator. It does use some electricity, which may have been produced by burning coal or other fossil fuels, but even so geothermal will release far fewer greenhouse gases or other pollutants than heating with natural gas, oil, or electric heat.

Geothermal heating systems can be a great way to save on both heating and cooling costs – but the installation cost can be prohibitive, especially if you live in a densely packed neighborhood like mine, where the only option is to drill a geothermal bore hundreds of feet straight down! A few years back I was quoted $35,000 for installation of a system for my 1,300 square foot city home. Check out my Energy saving geothermal page for more information on geothermal heating and cooling.

Wood heat can be very low-cost if you have access to free firewood, or if you cut your own from your woodlot. And burning wood is kind of carbon neutral. After all you’re not releasing CO2 from millions of years ago. On the other hand, if everyone switched to wood, we’d have to chop down all our forests to heat our homes, and the end result would be a lot more CO2 in the air. So wood only works from a carbon neutral perspective if harvested sustainably.

Also, wood heat is only energy-efficient if you have an energy efficient woodstove, wood pellet woodstove, or fireplace insert, and it is only environmentally benign if your woodstove or insert burns cleanly. If you try to heat your house with an open fireplace, there’s a good chance you’ll actually make it colder rather than warme, because the open fireplace combined with heat from the fire will pull a lot of air from inside your house up the chimney, because hot air rises. That in turn will pull cool air in through leaks in your windows, doors, and exterior walls.

Even if you don’t use your fireplace to heat your house, there’s a good chance that if you have one, it is a net energy drain on your home energy bill. Fireplaces typically have a flue damper, which should be closed except when a fire is burning. Make sure you have one, and if you do, keep it closed. Otherwise, hot air from inside, given its tendency to rise, will flow straight up the chimney even without a fire burning.

In fact, even fireplace chimneys that do have a flue damper often do not prevent hot air from escaping, because just a few really hot fires burned over the lifetime of the chimney can cause the metal of the damper to warp, preventing it from giving a good seal. If you wet your finger and hold it by the fireplace, and feel a draft pulling air into the chimney flue, or you feel cold air falling out of your fireplace in winter, your flue damper is probably not providing a good seal. You can solve this problem with a draft stop plug balloon, which you push up the chimney from the fireplace until just below the damper; you then inflate it. It can be easily removed as well, and reused later. It provides a proper seal and may significantly cut your heating bills.

We should add other biofuels to the wood category. Some people, especially farmers, heat their homes with corn kernels in pellet stoves. But while this might seem energy efficient – after all, the corn came from the sun – you have to factor in the fossil fuels that were used in the production of that corn. And unless that corn was grown using only organic fertilizers, and the disc and plough and planter and harvester were all pulled by horses or oxen, there were fossil fuels involved in the production of that corn. Just to grow and harvest a bushel of corn takes between a third and a half gallon of fossil fuels. Of course, there is probably more heat in that there bushel of corn than in a half gallon of Number 2 heating oil, but the corn story suddenly isn’t as compelling.

High efficiency heat pumps (ones that extract heat from the outside air, not geothermal heat pumps) are a special case: their energy efficiency depends on how cold the climate is. In all but the coldest climates they can be very efficient at converting a given amount of the energy source, electricity, into a given amount of heat (but still not as effective as energy saving geothermal heat). In a climate with very cold winters, like the high arctic or the Canadian praries, their efficiency will be about the same as electric heat on those super cold days, but better than electric heat otherwise. For the table above I’m assuming a moderate climate, where winter temperatures don’t drop below -5C or 23F for more than a day or two at a time. I live in Toronto and own a Carrier Infinity Heat Pump myself and I’m very happy with it so far.

Natural gas has traditionally been the cheapest conventional heating fuel – substantially cheaper than electricity, and often cheaper than home heating oil, although fluctuating prices for both commodities can put oil prices lower than natural gas for several months or years at a time. However, in 2021 I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone considering a new home heating system should consider any fossil fuel based system, given how serious the climate crisis is and how little governments are doing to cut our CO2 emissions – it’s up to us. Heat pump systems, for example, are actually cheaper to operate than natural gas systems, and don’t emit any CO2! (at least, not directly).

Oil is falling in popularity because of the need for a storage tank, the environmental and health risks of having a storage tank, the unpleasant odors that often come from an oil furnace or oil tank, and the fact that some home insurers will not insure a house that has an oil tank (even one that is no longer in use) when the house changes owners. Oil based heating systems have the added inconvenience that you have to remember to fill up the tank.

In terms of cost per unit of heat, comparisons are difficult. Heating oil prices are more directly tied to the price of crude oil, so that spikes and dips in the price of crude oil can make oil seem much more expensive than natural gas, or a better deal, depending on the whims of the market. As of December 2, 2021, using prices in terms of BTU output (British Thermal Units, a measurement of heat energy), here’s how heating oil and natural gas compare in terms of commodity exchange markets:

  • One gallon of heating oil produces 138,500 BTU and costs $3.39. 138,500 BTU for $3.39 means 40,855 BTU per dollar
  • Natural gas is sold in units of 1,000,000 BTU at a current cost of $6.58, which is 221,240 BTU per dollar.

Compare this to figures from 2008 (when I first wrote this article):

  • Heating oil cost: 67,000 BTU per dollar
  • Natural gas cost: 151,975 BTU per dollar

In 2008, natural gas provided 2.26 times the heating power per dollar as oil. In 2021, that has increased to 5.41 times.  Retail prices are quite different due to the different distribution costs, taxes, and retailer markups for natural gas and heating oil.

The reasons the ratio of heat production between natural gas and oil have skewed so much in favor of natural gas over the years include short term trends (rising oil prices in the past few months due to the current supply chain disruptions and supply actions from OPEC countries and Russia) and longer term ones (expansion of natural gas production in North America between the two periods, with the huge increase in fracking and other forms of natural gas extraction.

As for the question of which is the most energy efficient home heating system between natural gas and oil, the two systems are pretty close at the high end – there are systems that convert up to 96% of the heat available in natural gas, and 94% of the heat available in heating oil, into heat for your home. But there are far more natural gas furnaces in the 92-95% efficiency range than oil furnaces, where only a handful in the ENERGY STAR list go over 86%.

In terms of CO2 emissions per BTU, natural gas and number 2 heating oil are very comparable – per BTU of heat output you’ll get about the same CO2 emissions. Still, the case for natural gas looks pretty compelling in the short term.

Electric resistance heating is almost always the most expensive heating choice, except in areas where electricity rates are artificially subsidized. (But see the section above on heat pumps – they are a cheaper choice than oil and potentially cheaper than natural gas, and although not as efficient on electricity consumption as geothermal, the total life cycle costs are lower because installation and components are cheaper.)

But back to electric resistance heating… meaning, typically, either an electric furnace or baseboard heating:

Electricity produced from heat involves the production of steam, then the conversion of that steam to mechanical work moving a turbine, then conversion of that motion to electricity in a generator. Steam can be produced by burning coal, natural gas, oil, other fossil fuels, or biofuels, or by nuclear, solar, or geothermal energy. But the maximum efficiency of conversion of the original heat energy into electricity has a hard limit, at around 40% (a few designs can theoretically reach 48% but few actual such systems exist). So if the original energy source is heat, you are probably losing around 60% of the energy to waste heat at the power plant. 3-6% of what’s left disappears as transmission losses on its way from the power plant to your home, so you could be left with as little as 37% of the original heat energy available to heat your home.

Unless you have an unlimited source of renewable electric power that no one else can use, heating with electric heat is going to be both expensive and environmentally wasteful. But if that’s what you’re stuck with, there are still options – see my Energy efficient electric heaters for the full details.

Heat distribution systems

We also need to consider the energy efficiency of different heat distributions such as:

  • Forced air
  • Hot water or steam rads
  • Single heat source with natural airflow
  • Radiant floor heating
  • Individual room heating

To a considerable extent, the type of heat distribution is dependent on the heating source involved:


Distribution type Typical heat sources
Forced air Natural gas, oil, geothermal, heat pump
Radiators Natural gas, oil, geothermal (heat pump options for lower water temperature systems)
Natural airflow Solar, wood stove
Radiant floor heating Natural gas, oil, electric, geothermal
Individual room heating Electric, passive solar

Forced air: This is the preferred heat distribution system by most North Americans. Forced air does tend to distribute heat more evenly and quickly around a room than radiator heat, so may be more efficient for homes where a programmable thermostat is used. You can even obtain individual room control for forced air heating systems using a programmable heating register. These battery-powered heating registers, available in sizes to fit most heating registers, can be programmed to open or close at specific times, so that you can shut off the heat (or air conditioning) to particular rooms at certain times. For instance, if you need a warm living area during the evening but only use the home office during the day, you could program the home office vent to shut off at 6pm and come back on at 8am.

Radiators: Radiators are common in older homes but many people with allergies or dust sensitivity are also moving from forced air to radiator (or radiant floor) heating because radiators operate without stirring up dust or allergens. Radiators do not distribute heat as quickly as forced air. Another possible drawback of radiator systems is the noise from the water circulation pump, if the water does not flow by convection. Steam-filled radiators found in some older homes, such as the one I lived in for three years in Ohio, can be extremely noisy as well as letting off steam into the house every so often. Note that even radiator systems with new rads and a new, high efficiency boiler can be substantially less efficient than the rated efficiency, if they are not configured (or not properly configured) with an outdoor reset. An outdoor reset is a thermostat placed outside the home that measures outdoor air temperature and sends feedback to the boiler to set the water temperature based on outdoor temperature. The warmer the outdoor air, the less heat is needed in the rads to provide enough heat. Boilers are most efficient at the low end of their temperature range, but in the absence of an outdoor reset, they always burn at their top range. Some installers skip the step of installing the outdoor reset, either because they don’t realize how important it is for energy efficiency, or because they assume the customer won’t know any better and it’s one less step for them. If you have a high efficiency boiler, ask your installer if there’s one on your system – if there isn’t, get one installed!

Natural airflow: This isn’t so much a heat distribution system as a challenge to overcome when there is no heat distribution system. How do you get the heat from your living room woodstove or the spread of south-facing windows to the rest of the house? There are several solutions: increased use of ceiling fans; running your forced air system on fan-only (if you have one); for woodstoves, using the woodstove fan. The other solution to restricted natural airflow is opening up the home interior more. If you produce some of your heat with a wood stove or pellet stove or solar heat, removing interior walls can help distribute that heat more evenly.

Radiant floor heating is a more energy efficient way to distribute heat than forced air or radiators, because heat rises slowly from the floor rather than being blown straight up from a heating vent.

Individual room heating, which is usually accomplished using energy efficient electric heaters, can be more energy efficient if the amount of energy you save by restricting energy to certain rooms makes up for any added expense of the individual-room energy source. Many people argue that you can cut your heating bills by heating individual rooms with electric heaters, and turning the central heat down or off. While this will save you energy in terms of total heat emitted in your home, it will almost certainly cost you more if your central home heating is done with any source other than electricity, because electric heating is so much more expensive.

You’re stuck with what you’re stuck with

In real life, few of us have the luxury of being able to choose between seven different types of heating systems. We have to choose the most efficient home heating system for the house we already have, which usually means upgrading our current system to a similar but more efficient system, or supplementing a less efficient system with the most efficient home heating system we can afford (like installing a fireplace insert).

If upgrading to the most efficient home heating system is an option you’re still considering, remember:

  • Factor in the total cost of ownership of each choice – not just the installation cost, but the maintenance cost of the equipment, plus the energy cost of the heating for the next twenty years. And remember Rule number 1: that energy prices keep rising faster than we expect, even when we factor in Rule number 1!
  • When people do payback calculations, to figure out how many years it will take for the energy savings of a purchase to cover the cost of the purchase, they are usually too conservative. They typically overestimate the up-front costs, and under-estimate the energy costs. So payback periods on the most efficient home heating systems are typically shorter than payback estimates.
  • No matter what type of system you buy, your habits after the system is installed can have as big an impact on energy savings as the energy efficiency rating of the heating system

Just one example: In 1997 I upgraded my oil furnace to a 94% efficient natural gas furnace, the most efficient home heating system I could find that worked for my house. It cost me something like $4,300 to install – which was a ton of money back then. I did a payback analysis and found that the 83% efficient furnace, at only $2,800, would have had a shorter payback period. But I had other reasons to go for the most efficient. And in the long run, my incorrect choice proved to be the better one – because natural gas prices have risen more than I, or most other people, could have predicted. The payback on my decision to purchase the most efficient home heating system I could find was probably only four or five years – not the twelve I had originally predicted.

If you do decide you need a new furnace, my advice is: go with the lowest capacity, highest efficiency furnace you can find. Energy efficient HVAC design starts with an assessment of your heating needs. If you have a smaller house and don’t mind it taking a little longer for the heat to come up to your comfort level, you’re better off buying the lower BTU model, to save money up front, but the higher efficiency model, to cut costs down the line.

There are even solar heating tips you can use in a more conventional home – like opening the window coverings in southern-exposure rooms in the morning, and shutting them in the evening, or planting deciduous trees on the side of your house that gets the most sunlight (usually south in the northern hemisphere). The leaves provide cooling shade in the summer, and fall off in the winter to let in the sun!

Higher end options for home heating include the zero energy home, which produces as much energy as it consumes. They are building zero-energy homes all over Germany now, homes that heat themselves entirely through passive solar.

Choosing the most efficient home heating system

Once you have decided what types of heating systems you’re able or willing to chose from, you’ll need to find out where to find the most efficient home heating equipment for your heating source.

In 2021, we need to factor in not only cost efficiency but carbon efficiency. If we want to do our part for the planet, and contribute to averting catastrophic climate change, the best option is going to be passive solar; after that, a geothermal or air-source heat pump. Burning wood is, in the longer term, carbon neutral at least in theory, but it very much depends on the wood harvesting practices, Chopping down old growth forest to produce wood pellets for fuel has a far greater carbon footprint, for example, than selectively harvesting dead trees from a hardwood forest.

For oil and natural gas heating systems, see the US-based ENERGY STAR or Canadian-based Office of Energy Efficiency websites. On the ENERGY STAR site you can find spreadsheets listing all ENERGY STAR qualified manufacturers of oil or natural gas systems, which can help you narrow down your search to manufacturers and models that meet your efficiency criteria. From there you can contact the prospective manufacturers, by phone, email, or by checking out their website, so that you can find contact information for the local authorized vendors of their products. Then call the authorized vendors and ask for a quote.

This process is described in considerable detail in my Energy saving air conditioners page, in the section Hire the right HVAC contractor – when buying a new unit.

37 replies
  1. Paul
    Paul says:

    Hey, thanks for putting this advice up. It is a good starting point as I begin to educate myself on the different options in heating my home efficiently.
    Really appreciate it,
    Seattle, Washington.

  2. Curt
    Curt says:

    Without doubt the most efficient and comfortable heating system I have enjoyed in all my more than 60 years living in western Canada, Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC has been hydronic radiant heat using natural gas. The downsides are significant as well: cost of installation and the lack of ventilation in a 100% radiant system being the most prevalent. Electric baseboard heating systems present the same lack of ventilation issues. The cost recovery time is longer for a natural gas hydronic radiant system than for a high efficiency force air system. Unfortunately, there are too few companies in Canada, and western Canada especially, that have the knowledge and experience to do an effective, economical installation.Too much focus on duct work and not good at that.

  3. Brian
    Brian says:

    The chart at the top is way off. A heat pump can be well over 200 percent efficient. Electric is 100 percent efficient. So what do you mean?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      It’s true that heat pumps can be up to 400% efficient. When I wrote this article, they were not very efficient at cold outdoor temperatures – efficiency tended to drop below that of electric heat when temperatures dipped below 5C as they often do in Canada, where I’m from (they’re currently in the -20C range). But I understand heat pumps have improved since then. Nonetheless you have to consider the entire life cycle of the electricity. If it’s produced from a fossil fuel based power plant, which has an efficiency somewhere in the 30-40% range, then even though the electric heater is 100% efficient at converting the electricity to heat, the power plant was only 40% efficient at turning the original heat into power. A 200% “efficient” heat pump would be equivalent to 80% efficient when factoring that in. From a fossil fuels perspective, wood and solar are both carbon neutral.

    • Thomas
      Thomas says:

      I Agree with Brian. In regards to the most btu’s/unit of energy, electricity is the highest with no emissions in terms of at the home itself. If power companies could distribute electricity without the use of fossil fuel’s, we would all be using electric heat. A simple baseboard electric heater in your home has no moving parts. It uses no fossil fuel’s. It is 100 percent efficient with 0 emissions. Heat pumps require energy to pump the refrigerant but the heat of compression gives back. Heat pumps also take a few minutes of run time to warm up and need to defrost on reverse cycle once in a while. I still would choose heat pumps over a fossil-fuel-using unit any day. When we get more advanced with solar, it will give us free electricity to heat our homes. Electricity is expensive for heating a home due to the expence of generating and distributing it, therefore it is perceived as inefficient. Electric baseboard heat also takes a fraction of time to install. Every room can be zoned, No moving parts so less service and heaters can last for many decades. Like any baseboard heat, it is slower than forced hot air. Baseboard electric heat gets a bad rap but it is probably the most efficiant. I would still choose heat pump because the same equipment is used as an air conditioner.

      • Danny
        Danny says:

        How would you make the calculation if the electricity supply wasn’t an issue? My parents have hydronic baseboard heaters and an oil-fueled boiler. Since installing that system about 30 years ago, they put in a huge photovoltaic system that generates far more electricity than they use, so they have all this surplus electricity that’s available for heating. They live in a three-story house in Massachusetts, so winters are cold but not arctic. I thought getting rid of the oil-fueled boiler and replacing it with an electric one would make sense because they could just use their existing hydronic baseboard heaters but they’ve been advised by several sources to get mini-split heat pumps. Baseboard electric isn’t something that’s even come up in discussion. Thoughts?

        • Robin
          Robin says:

          A mini-split heat pump will almost certainly be more efficient than baseboard heaters. If they have enough surplus electricity they could use it to run either the heat pump or baseboard heaters, but if selling the electricity back to the grid is an option, it may be more economical to feed the electricity back to the grid and keep burning the oil. (This may sound like a non-eco-friendly way to go, but if your local utility is burning coal to produce electricity, it may still be a net win in terms of greenhouse gases to burn oil for heat and pump the electricity back to the grid.)

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Actually, temperate climate is the correct term. Temperate climates are those between the tropics and polar regions, including almost all of Canada, much of Alaska, all of the Continental US, and all of Europe except the northern tips of Scandinavia. Temperate climates are mild, not hot and not freezing. Most people in North America and Europe, other than the hottest sections, do spend a sizable part of their budget on home heating in the cooler months.

      • Randall
        Randall says:

        Damn, You’re right. The definition doesn’t match the climate map I just looked at. “relating to or denoting a region or climate characterized by mild temperatures”
        I need another beer.

  4. Jon
    Jon says:

    Hey so I don’t own my own home just yet. We haven’t taken that step but we live in an apartment where I don’t control the stat unfortunately. They have gas heat with baseboard and they don’t run them when its above 55F. That’s pretty cold and we are looking at home heating options that wont burn my wallet. Do you have any suggestions? The biggest space is probably 550-600 sqft.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      So the first thing to note is that in most jurisdictions, landlords are required to provide a minimum level of heat to tenant living spaces. Check your state or provincial statutes on landlord/tenant legal requirements. I cannot imagine too many jurisdictions where the landlord is not required to provide heat of at least 65F. 55F seems way too low.

      The main things I would suggest are weatherproofing. Any electric heater you use will have the same degree of efficiency so there are no real savings choosing one over another. Also see my page on renters staying warm.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Propane heating can be energy efficient if you have a high efficiency furnace or boiler.
      However propane tends to be significantly more expensive than natural gas and is typically only used in places that don’t have access to natural gas (rural settings).

  5. Lawrence Sidell
    Lawrence Sidell says:

    Robin, my wife & I live in SE Indiana. We own a 3000 sq. ft. 2 story home that is heated with a os wood stove and a water to air exchanger in a high eff. Lenox LP furnace. I’m looking to do away with the wood stove and use a LP Combi-boiler to heat the water in the system. What’s your thoughts?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I’m afraid I’m not that familiar with the application of water to air heat exchangers in furnaces, but there are LP combi-boilers in the 95% AFUE range so it would certainly be an efficient choice. It will of course increase your carbon footprint, as bruning firewood is carbon neutral whereas burning natural gas or propane is a net contributor of CO2.

  6. Dave W
    Dave W says:

    I am going to build a new home 2 or possibly 3 levels in Vancouver BC around 3,475 sq. ft. total

    What would you use based upon least expensive to operate and not about up front costing.

    I will not use solar panels as I have them at my cottage and dealing with batteries is not an option for me

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      First off, you’re talking about home heating, so the solar panels we’d be talking about here are not solar electric panels but solar heating panels. No batteries required! On the other hand, there’s a lot of rain around Vancouver so you probably wouldn’t get that much heat from solar panels.

      If your concern is least expensive to operate, go for a zero energy home. They are expensive to build but can be heated with the amount of energy consumed by a single blow dryer. They involve super thick insulation under the basement slab, top quality imported windows, and so on. (Just make sure ventilation with a heat exchanger is part of your design, otherwise you’ll have a sealed home that will suffer from serious moisture and air quality problems.) Check out books like The New Net Zero for advice on how to build a zero energy home. There are also builders in the Vancouver area who can build one for you (I know because my brother for a time worked with one of these builders – I can find a contact name if you like.)

  7. Ole
    Ole says:

    I like your article. Do you know if there is any energy efficiency between forced air and hot water radiators?
    I am used to radiators from Denmark, but now staying in Saskatoon.
    And the forced air heater here is so noisy and turns on an off all the time and I just can’t wonder if a constant flow through a hot water radiator wouldn’t be more efficient?
    Also, water radiators shouldn’t make much noise, with the exception if there is trapped air inside the radiator but there should be a bleed valve for that.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      If your walls are well insulated then the relative efficiency between forced air and radiators probably “boils down” (pun intended) to the AFUE of the boiler vs. that of the furnace.

      However, one thing to bear in mind is that radiators tend to be installed along outside walls, and they get warmer than the ambient air (so that they can radiate heat and warm the air) and you are therefore heating an outside wall to considerably warmer temperatures than you would with forced air. Since outside walls are where heat escapes, I suspect you lose some efficiency to that heat loss and this likely makes radiators somewhat less efficient than forced air heating.

  8. Seann
    Seann says:

    Hi, what a great resource! I live on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It doesn’t get very cold here in the winter. Maybe a week or two down close to 0C, usually more like lows of 5C. I have an old drafty house with an old oil furnace. I never use it and just use my wood burning insert. Thinking of upgrading to a new furnace just to take the edge off around the house and continuing to supplement with the wood. No natural gas here so it’s either propane or electric. Any recommendations on best efficiency there cost wise to run. I don’t mind up front costs as long as the ongoing costs are reasonable. Any advice at all would be really appreciated.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      For your weather I would really recommend a heat pump, or even geothermal. You’ll pay a fortune for propane and the choice between electric furnace and heat pump is easy – a heat pump can be four times more efficient than an electric furnace.

  9. Lori
    Lori says:

    Hi. We located to Canal Flats BC and we are seeking advice on how to heat this home. We have spent 2400.00 so far on heating this home with propane this winter and the winter wasn’t that cold (only 2 weeks below minus 20 to minus 30) the rest of the time maybe minus 10 to minus 15. I was told the last two years have been not average winters (warmer than normal) So I am concerned about heating in our retirement years! We just completed a energy efficiency audit (waiting for report). We probably have to replace our furnace (1995 York propane forced air). I have tried to figure out what is the best system to use for heating this home (3600 sq ft including the finished basement) partial open cathedral ceiling. Could you possibly help sort this out? We, of course as in most people, want to install an energy, cost effective system. We were wondering if it would be cost effective to install a new energy efficient propane furnace as back up system with a wood burning stove in the basement as heat rises. Propane, electric and wood are the only options here. Thank you if you can help make this decision a wise one.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I think the first thing you need to look at is, is this the right home for you? a 3600 sq foot home is awfully big (my family of four gets by just fine in a 1400 sq foot home) and whatever heating system you choose will come up against the fact that you are heating a very large space. Is it possible to section parts of the home off that aren’t in use, during the coldest months? I close the heating vents in my basement, so the basement is cooler than the rest of the house; that saves some heating cost.

      The second thing I would do is take the results of your energy audit and do everything possile to improve efficiency – better draftproofing, better insulation, thermal blinds, new Energy Star windows and doors.

      Finally, propane will be the costliest heating option. A heat pump will probably be cheaper, and geothermal, while it has a big up front cost, will be even cheaper in terms of operating cost. And the benefit of a heat pump or geothermal is that it provides both winter heating and summer cooling.

  10. Sparky Heatmeister
    Sparky Heatmeister says:

    Electric heaters themselves are 100% efficient and they are also 100% emission free. The source of the electricity they use however is likely to be horribly inefficient, as you correctly point out. I think that is an important concept for people to understand when they are shopping for home heating solutions.
    Additionally, don’t be fooled fancy electric heaters. You get the same heat out of a 1500 watt expensive Amish heater that you would get from any cheap 1500 watt heater. In fact, you would get the same amount of heat out of fifteen, 100 watt light bulbs, and all three of these heating sources would have equal (in)efficiency.

  11. R White
    R White says:

    quote: ‘After all you’re not releasing CO2 from millions of years ago. ‘
    I don’t want to upset any of your Planet of Apes beliefs but in fact GOD only creeted Earth 6,000 years ago.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      LOL! I’m not quite sure what this has to do with Planet of the Apes, but I really enjoyed your comment – although I shudder to think people still take the Good Book quite so literally. Religious faiths have lots to teach us but I don’t know that the people who wrote the Bible 1900+ years ago knew much about geology or climate science.

  12. Karen P.
    Karen P. says:

    Good writing Robin. I’m in S. VT in an old house where I had a very bad freeze. All 12 of my old cast iron, hot water radiators blew a top corner from an end with the legs. A plumber is telling me to replace all with baseboard because hot water baseboard will need lots less water, not have to heat the water as hot and therefore won’t burn as much oil. Really? Or is this his sales pitch? One friend suggests I’d do best by replacing old with new, modern radiators. Another friend suggests PEX on 1st floor since I can get to underfloor via basement. Meanwhile, I’m looking for old radiators the same size. One I got for picking it up. Dang heavy! Another thought is to use 2 part epoxy to mend in place (how to test them besides a trial run?) I don’t know yet if my newer oil burning Weissman boiler is also cracked. Plumber is saying it probably is. Right now I’m working on getting the house cold water restored. Fittings separated everywhere. Factual suggestions wanted. Thank you.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I would recommend upgrading to new radiators. It’s true they will contain a lot less water, but as for water use I don’t think it’s a big factor because there shouldn’t be that much water leaving the system. As for not having to heat the water as hot – all the heat from your hot water should wind up in your house, whether there’s a lot (old style rads) or a little (new style rads) so the amount of oil shouldn’t change much. Buying old radiators means you really don’t know how good a shape they’re in. A friend of mine replaced all his old rads with PEX tubing and new rads (and underfloor heating on the third floor addition) and is quite happy with the result.

  13. Amy
    Amy says:

    We are in NS and just bought a house built in the 1930’s. It is fairly large, about 2000 square feet, two main levels (plus attic and basement). Currently heated by cast iron radiators and a 25 year old oil-fired boiler. Had our energy efficiency audit done and we did poorly – 232 GJ/year. We were planning on replacing most of the windows already, so that should help, and there is already blow in insulation in the exterior walls. We’ll do the air sealant where possible and add insulation in attic and basement.

    I’d like to get rid of the oil-based system altogether. But I can’t decide what to replace it with. So far the options seem to be:
    1) Gas or propane fired boiler (gas is available to me).
    2) Air to water heat pump (that would replace the boiler) plus add in an electric hot water heater for DHW.
    3) infrared heating panels installed in all the rooms (would also require an upgrade to electrical panel)

    We have a wood stove in our living room but it wouldn’t be able to heat the whole house.

    Looking for the most efficient option that will be cheap on operating costs, even if there is a bit more upfront installation costs.

    Mini split heat pumps aren’t an option since the house layout isn’t conducive to that

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I’d suggest either air to water heat pump (which is really a form of geothermal) or just a plain heat pump. This will have the lowest carbon footprint and the cost will be lower than infrared heating panels. It will however also require an upgrade to the electric panel.

  14. Darryl
    Darryl says:

    I’m a little late to the party here, but felt compelled to chime in regardless. Fair warning – I am not unbiased. Now that’s out of the way, I think perhaps you’re doing a bit of a disservice by not mentioning far infrared radiant heating panels as an alternative to most everything you’ve listed. I get it, it’s somewhat of an unknown so I don’t believe your purposely ignoring the technology. But they’re MUCH less costly to install than geo-thermal (it can cost $40,000 – $50,000 around here), more effective AND more efficient than any form of in-floor radiant heating (and far cheaper to install), and the list goes on…just sayin’.

  15. Zachary Tomlinson
    Zachary Tomlinson says:

    Thanks for helping me learn more about home heating! My uncle gave me one of his old properties and he wanted me to make it look new again, which means I have to purchase my appliances and home heating systems. I like how this article mentioned how I can use wood heat as a source of heat as long as I have convenient access to free firewood or if I could cut down my woodlot. This house has a fireplace and is also close to a forest so I guess wood heat is for me. I wanted to look for more modern heating technologies though, but I guess I’ll settle with wood for now.

  16. Pat
    Pat says:

    We built in1985 so our house is well insulated. We have always used wood to supplement a solar room. Living room ceiling is vaulted & highest point is 20′ to 2nd fl.
    Now, being older, we are considering a radiant floor system or a forced air system. Which would be most cost efficient to operate on propane gas?

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      I would highly recommend NOT using propane gas. It is quite expensive and prices will only rise. Assuming you are connected to the electric utility grid, you will be much better off financially, and you’ll reduce your carbon footprint, by going with an air source heat pump. You can choose either radiant floor system or forced air.

  17. Access Doors and Panels
    Access Doors and Panels says:

    This is very informative and detailed content. Thanks for sharing this here, and looking forward to more in the future.


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