Which Fuel Is Best for a Forced-Air Furnace?
For years, the forced-air furnace has been the most popular method of heating homes in the United States and across the world. The name comes from the method by which the heat is transferred to every room in the home: a large fan blows (or “forces”) heated air throughout a series of ducts. Each of these ducts then terminates in a vent. The heated air enters the room and warms it up to the desired temperature, which is controlled by a thermostat.
While the basic principle remains the same, there are many different ways that heat can be generated for a forced-air furnace. Generally, some type of fossil fuel is burned, although electric furnaces are also widely used. So, what is the best forced-air furnace? The answer will depend on the setup of your home and your geographical location.
Forced Air: What You Need to Make It Work
There are several different parts of a forced-air furnace, each of which must be properly maintained in order to maximize energy efficiency. The first, of course, is the furnace itself. This is the structure in which the fuel source is burned to generate heat. The furnace will require some method of accessing the fuel that it uses. Usually, it’s through a system of pipes that may lead to a tank somewhere on the property or to a public utility source.
Typically, fuel sources such as propane are kept in pressurized tanks outside the home, while other sources such as natural gas might be pumped in by a utility company. Some furnaces make use of electricity, which of course is supplied by your utility company or by a generator, solar panels, or other nearby sources. Furnaces may also use oil, wood, or other combustible materials.
The furnace is controlled by a thermostat, which nowadays is often computerized to increase energy efficiency. You simply set the thermostat to the temperature you desire. If that temperature drops below the target, it will cycle the furnace on and circulate more heated air into each room until the right temperature is achieved. Conversely, if the home becomes too warm, the thermostat will shut the furnace off until the temperature drops a bit.
After the heat is generated, a large fan circulates the heated air throughout a series of ducts hidden inside the walls of the home, as well as behind the ceiling. The constant movement of air through these ducts means that, over time, dirt and dust will build up, ultimately necessitating duct cleaning. Failure to have the ducts in your home regularly cleaned may reduce the energy efficiency of your system and ultimately drive up your energy costs.
Finally, the insulation in your home is also crucial to the effectiveness of your forced-air furnace. This includes the insulation material in your attic, as well as the seals around the doors and windows. If cold air is allowed to leak in, it will force your furnace to cycle on more than it would otherwise need to, burning more fuel and increasing your heating bill.
Comparing the Fuel Sources
When looking for the best forced-air furnace, your primary consideration should be energy efficiency. A more efficient fuel source can generate more heat by burning less fuel. Generally, this means that it burns hotter. The price of the fuel is important, and so is the safety of the fuel source.
Natural gas is one of the most commonly used fuel sources. It is sourced by utility companies, which is a major benefit because you only pay for gas when you use it. Unlike with many other energy sources, you do not need to stockpile it at home. This means that it can be a good deal cheaper than other fuels, even though it may not be technically as efficient as some other sources.
Propane is more energy efficient than nearly any other way of heating the home. This is because it burns especially hot, meaning you need less of it to achieve the same temperatures as other fuels. This is a major benefit, as is its safety rating; propane is less likely to lead to fires than other combustibles. The only serious drawback is that you will need to have a large propane tank on your property in order to make use of it. Depending on how easy it is for you to access this, this may not be practical.
Electricity is possibly the safest method of heating the home since it doesn’t require burning anything to generate heat. It also doesn’t produce any toxic byproducts, which fossil fuels do. Electric heating utilizes a method called resistance heating, which is the same method that your toaster uses to make toast. An electric current passes through a medium that “resists” it, causing heat energy to be generated as it does so. The downside of this method is that it is very inefficient and therefore significantly more expensive to use than other methods.
Solar heating has the great benefit of not requiring a fuel source (other than the sun) to generate heat. By adding some solar panels to your roof, you can absorb heat energy to then use to bring your home to your preferred temperature. Although solar heating generally isn’t integrated with a forced-air furnace, it certainly can be. However, this is generally not the most efficient way of heating your home with solar energy. If you choose to use it, radiant heating or heat pumps may be more effective.
So, what is the best forced-air furnace? For most homes, natural gas is the easiest and likely the cheapest method, but this will vary a lot depending on your location and access to fuel sources. We recommend discussing your specific needs with the experts at Entek HVAC. Our technicians can advise you as to what the best fuel source for your area is and what type of infrastructure your home is set up to utilize.