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The idea of using an external heating source to warm the air of a home is not new. As a matter of fact, people have been using external heating sources for thousands of years.
Fire has been used as a primary source of heat for many years, though the methods in which it has been used has evolved over time. Early man discovered that not only could fire create light and cook foods, it could also provide heat. They used open fires to provide warmth for themselves and their families and protect them from the harsh winter months.
The use of fire for warmth continued well into more modern times. Brick wood burning fireplaces and cast iron wood burning stoves like the Franklin Stove, invented in 1742, were the main source of heat for most American homes until 1885, when, for the first time, coal replaced wood as the main source of fuel. Wood burning fireplaces and wood stoves are still popular today and continue to provide heat in many homes.
The main drawback to the use of fire for heat include:
-Burning wood for heat produces toxic by-products including carbon monoxide and soot. These substances can poison homeowners or cause fires.
-Burning fire for heat is inefficient due to the design of wood burning fireplaces. The majority of the heat is absorbed into the masonry or lost through the chimney
Coal Fired Boilers and Furnaces
By the end of the 19th century, cast iron radiators were quickly starting to replace wood burning fireplaces and stoves. Americans began moving away from such direct methods of radiant heat to installing cast iron coal fired boilers in the basements of their homes. The boilers would super heat water and push either the water or the steam into radiators above, which were located in every room of the home.
During the same period, David Lennox invented and began selling an alternative to the coal fired boiler-the first riveted-steel coal furnace. The furnace was also located in the basement, however instead of super-heating water and pushing it or the resulting steam into satellite radiators throughout the home, this technology relied upon the more efficient natural convection to heat the home. Air warmed by the furnace would simply rise naturally from the basement through the floors and heat the rooms above. Because there was less equipment to purchase, the system was less expensive which made it appealing to many households across the country.
The main drawbacks to these systems included:
-Radiant heat is not efficient. The areas around the radiators and furnaces were warm, but not much else.
-Coal fired boilers and furnaces required constant stoking to keep the fire going.
In 1935, home heating units became quite a bit more efficient in providing heat thanks to the invention of electricity. Electric fans were installed into the boiler and furnace units that allowed fans to force warm air throughout the home using duct work. These were the predecessors to today’s modern forced air heating units.
Much of this technology continues to be used today, however coal furnaces have long been replaced with oil and gas fueled boilers and furnaces.
Today, over half of the homes in America are heated using gas fueled forced air units. The gas of choice is natural gas as it is plentiful and inexpensive to use and burns cleanly. Natural gas has a lower combustion point than heating oil, kerosene and other heating fuels which makes it more cost efficient since it takes less fuel to heat a home. However, ten percent of homes, mostly those located in the New England states, utilize oil fueled forced air furnaces to heat their homes during the harsh winter months. This is because while natural gas has a lower combustion point, heating oil contains more energy per gallon and is more plentiful than natural gas in the northeast area of the country, making it the most cost efficient solution.
Those located in warmer climates that experience milder winters tend to rely on electricity powered heat pumps that utilize a heat exchange system to both heat and cool their homes. These units are incredibly efficient and use much less energy than either gas or oil fueled forced air units, however do not operate well in very cold conditions, making them ineffective in parts of the country that experience very cold winters. Heat pumps can be installed in homes located in climates that experience shorter winters as long as they are equipped with a supplemental heat source designed to take over when the heat pump can no longer keep up with demand.