If you’re considering forced air or radiant heating for your home, you’re probably wondering how these two HVAC systems differ and which is better.
While many people are familiar with forced air systems, radiant heating isn’t as common, and the question of forced air vs. radiant heat often comes up.
However, both systems have their advantages.
Forced air heating systems use a furnace to heat air and push it through a home via ducts or vents. Radiant heating uses heated air, water, or wires to provide warmth on floors, ceilings, or walls. Both methods differ but have their benefits. The best choice depends on the home and its inhabitants.
In this article, I’ll explore forced air and radiant heating systems to discover what they are, how they work, and how they benefit homeowners.
I’ll also cover the advantages of each to determine if one is better than the other.
Read on to learn more about these two home heating systems.
Table of Contents
- What is Forced Air?
- How Forced Air Works
- Benefits of Forced Air Heating
- What is Radiant Heat?
- How Radiant Heating Works
- Benefits of Radiant Heating
- Forced Air vs. Radiant Heat: Which is Better?
Any HVAC system that utilizes air ducts, vents, or registers to send air through a home or building is a forced air system.
Air may be heated via a furnace, boiler, or heat pumps.
Forced air heating systems use electricity, natural gas, or fuel oil for power. Air is the heat transfer medium. Most forced air systems depend on electricity or natural gas.
Forced air heating systems draw cool air from the home into return registers.
From there, the air enters a filter to remove dust and allergens.
Next, the air enters the furnace. In gas or oil-fueled systems, the fuel combusts, producing flames. These flames heat a metal heat exchanger or coil, which heats the air passing through it.
Once warmed, the system forces the air through the house using fans. The air moves through vents or ductwork separate from the heating mechanism.
Combustion products (burned fuel) vent through a flue pipe that goes through the roof.
Homeowners control forced air heat distribution systems using a thermostat. Thermostats turn the furnace on and off and control the temperature of the distributed air.
The majority of forced air systems utilize a single thermostat.
There are many benefits to using forced air heating, as evidenced by the fact that it’s the most popular home heating system in the United States.
Let’s look at some of those advantages to see why forced air is the most popular heating method among American households.
While many believe forced air systems increase dust particles and allergens within the home, it actually depends on the unit.
Homeowners can easily filter the air that moves through their homes using a regularly replaced filter.
Additionally, many new furnace systems come equipped with humidification controls, allowing homeowners to reduce indoor air pollution and control humidity levels.
Also, forced air heating systems are compatible with a wide range of other units, such as central air conditioning and air purification apparatuses.
These units utilize the current heating system’s ductwork or vents, eliminating the need for additional ductwork installation.
We have more information about indoor air quality in our article here.
Natural gas is clean and efficient; most forced air systems utilize this fuel for power.
Most forced air systems today provide energy efficiencies at or over 90 percent. In fact, there are hundreds of forced air furnace units available featuring annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) ratings as high as 98.5 percent making them high-efficiency appliances.
When you need quick heating, forced air furnaces are the best option. These units heat up relatively quickly, especially compared to other home heating systems, including radiant heat.
Once the furnace heats up, it takes minutes to warm the air and distribute it throughout the entire home, quickly providing inhabitants with comfort and warmth.
Not only are most furnaces efficient these days, but they’re also renowned for their dependability.
Despite their high initial investment cost, furnaces can last significantly longer than boilers and heat pumps.
You can expect your furnace to last for at least 15 years.
With regular maintenance, you can extend its lifespan even further — and maintenance, repair, and replacement part costs are much less expensive than other systems.
Some homeowners worry about installing a furnace due to the potentially dangerous combustion process.
If not properly vented, toxic fumes such as carbon monoxide may enter the home, causing severe health issues and, in some cases, even death.
Fortunately, furnaces have several safety mechanisms to prevent fires and harmful gasses from leaking into your home.
That said, homeowners should still invest in carbon monoxide detectors when using a combustion heating system. Install one detector for every level of your home.
I recommend the Kidde Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detector, available on Amazon. This unit detects smoke and carbon monoxide and warns you with voice alerts.
It can detect the smallest fire particles, and the alarm produces 85 decibels, ensuring you don’t miss the alerts.
It operates using two AA batteries, meaning that you’re still protected against carbon monoxide, smoke, and fire if the power goes out,. There’s also a 10-year limited warranty.
Radiant heating utilizes infrared technology to heat homes.
Unlike forced air systems, radiant heating doesn’t blow air into rooms. Instead, it heats all areas within the path of the infrared waves.
Technicians may install these systems on walls, floors, or ceilings. These areas then efficiently transfer heat throughout the room where they’re installed.
This type of heating system is becoming increasingly popular. Today, it’s mainly used for comfort heating in conjunction with forced air systems, especially in areas where space restrictions prevent optimal heating with vents (i.e., near windows, extra-large open spaces, etc.).
Homeowners can install radiant heating throughout their entire home, in single rooms, or in specific small areas, such as near a work desk or a bathroom.
There are three main types of radiant heating used in buildings and homes, including:
- Radiant Air Heating
- Water-Based Radiant Heating (Hydronic)
- Electric Radiant Heating
Each of these heating methods works a bit differently.
Using air as the heat transfer medium, radiant air heating moves warm air through subfloors, ceilings, or walls, where it heats objects with which it comes into contact.
Unlike forced air, radiant air heating doesn’t draw air from the home. Instead, it uses air held within the system, though it doesn’t blow it into rooms.
Unfortunately, air isn’t the best conductor of heat. Therefore, radiant floors aren’t yet a cost-effective way to heat residential homes.
Hydronic radiant heating utilizes heated water to move warmth through homes.
A boiler within the unit heats liquid contained within the system. It then transfers this heated liquid to a pump. The pump distributes the heated water through pipes beneath the floor, in the ceiling, or inside of the walls.
Hydronic radiant systems are much easier to install on walls versus floors or ceilings.
Electric radiant heating systems are the most common form of radiant heating used in homes. They’re usually installed beneath flooring or may be fitted into ceilings or walls.
Radiant heating systems utilize a thin resistance wire. These wires connect to the electricity supply and produce electromagnetic waves. When an object meets these waves, the waves convert to heat energy.
Homeowners control electric radiant heating systems using a thermostat. Unlike a forced air system, there’s no need for a furnace, pipes, ductwork, or vents.
Thanks to the many benefits of radiant heating, these units are becoming more widespread in homes throughout the United States.
Let’s look at some of the main advantages of radiant home heating systems.
As mentioned earlier in this article, air is not the best heat conductor.
Since forced air systems utilize air as the heat transfer medium, electric radiant heating is usually more efficient.
When air is pushed through ductwork or pipes, heat energy can easily dissipate, leading to heat loss as it moves through the system and into the vents.
Heat energy dissipation doesn’t happen with electric radiant heating, which is one of the reasons it is more efficient.
Additionally, radiant heating systems provide higher levels of comfort than forced air systems as they heat the home more consistently.
With radiant heating, there are very low space requirements. The systems are installed under floors, ceilings, or walls, allowing you fewer space limitations when doing home renovations.
Not only that, but these systems are far more aesthetically pleasing, as you don’t need vents or ducts.
Radiant heating systems don’t blow stagnant air throughout the home, moving allergens, pet dander, dust, and other particles around.
Those suffering from severe allergies find radiant heating much more comfortable for their sinuses.
Not only that, but electric radiant heating doesn’t require the use of a noisy furnace or boiler. It provides heat to wires, which travel throughout the home, warming the area to your desired temperature setting.
Unless you have a humidification system installed with your forced air unit, your furnace pulls moisture from your home. Low relative humidity within a living space can cause dry, cracked skin, painful sinuses, and other issues.
Radiant heating doesn’t draw moisture from the home, so it can help maintain acceptable humidity levels.
The best part about radiant heating systems is that you don’t have to install an entire home system all at once.
You can easily pick and choose a few rooms or areas where you’d like to try it out. This flexibility allows you to see whether the system is suitable for you without fully committing.
If you decide to install radiant heating throughout your home, you can start with one room at a time and wait months or even years before moving on to the next room.
Since you can use this system in conjunction with forced air systems, you’ll still have a heat source as you begin switching to full home radiant heat.
For more information about radiant wall heating, read our article entitled, “The Pros and Cons of Radiant Wall Heating: Is It Worth It?“, which goes into detail on the topic.
Both forced air and radiant home heating systems have advantages and drawbacks. Deciding which is best for your home depends on the home itself and those living there.
Some homeowners find that forced air is the best choice for their home due to affordability over time and reliability.
Others, however, opt for radiant heating to reduce allergen exposure, increase home aesthetics, and achieve uniform heating throughout the home.
The best way to decide between the two is by researching each system and its specifications.
Additionally, you should consult with an HVAC technician to discuss the units, their costs, and how they’ll work with your specific home layout.
You could also try radiant heating in one area of your home to see if it’s something you might consider wholly committing to.
With that said, you can use both types of heating together, though it’s not always the most cost-efficient.
For example, you can use forced air to heat the home but have radiant heating installed in areas where the forced air system experiences heat loss, such as near large windows or in expansive, open rooms.
The differences between these two systems can also help you decide between them.
In general, forced air is ideal for those looking for something dependable, affordable, and easy to maintain.
Radiant heating, on the other hand, is best for those suffering from allergies, looking for more uniform heating, or focused on aesthetics.
Choosing between these home heating systems requires understanding what they are, how they work, and their advantages.
Radiant heating is excellent for people who prefer aesthetically pleasing installations, desire consistent heating, or suffer from allergies.
Forced air systems are best suited for families looking for an affordable and dependable system.
Talk to your HVAC technician to determine which one is best for your home’s design and size and your budget.
In the end, it’s impossible to say which is better than the other. Forced air and radiant heating are both designed to heat a home, and each offering benefits, and drawbacks.
If you’re interested in the best ways to heat a NetZero house efficiently, read our article on the subject here.