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A forced-air system is one which uses air as its heat transfer medium. These systems rely on ductwork, vents, and plenums as means of air distribution, separate from the actual heating and air conditioning systems. The return plenum carries the air from several large return grills (vents) to a central air handler for re-heating. The supply plenum directs air from the central unit to the rooms which the system is designed to heat. Regardless of type, all air handlers consist of an air filter, blower, heat exchanger/element/coil, and various controls. Like any other kind of central heating system, thermostats are used to control forced air heating systems.

Forced air heating is probably the type most commonly installed in North America. It is much less common in Europe, where hydronic heating predominates, especially in the form of hot-water radiators.


Natural gas/propane/oil[edit]

  • Heat is produced via combustion of fuel.
  • A heat exchanger keeps the combustion byproducts from entering the air stream.
  • A ribbon style (long with holes), inshot (torch-like), or oil type burner is located in the heat exchanger.
  • Ignition is provided by an electric spark, standing pilot, or hot surface igniter.
  • Safety devices ensure that combustion gases and/or unburned fuel do not accumulate in the event of an ignition failure or venting failure.


  • A simple electric heating element warms the air.
  • When the thermostat calls for heat, blower and element come on at the same time.
  • When thermostat is "satisfied", blower and element shut off.
  • Requires very little maintenance.
  • Usually more expensive to operate than a natural gas furnace.
  • Safer operation—a home with an electric furnace does not have to worry about being poisoned by carbon monoxide (CO) or the possibility of a natural gas leak which could cause an explosion.
  • Very quiet operation.
  • Does not produce on-site emissions. (The electric power company will generally produce emissions especially if burning coal, oil, or gas).
  • Many cities or states offer incentive programs to home owners who install electric furnaces, in an attempt to reduce fugitive emissions. Many utility companies also will have a secondary, cheaper electricity rate offered to those who run their home with electric heat. A separate meter must be installed and hooked to the heater, this will cost the consumer at first, but the discount will pay itself off in less than a year.
  • Electric rates vary greatly across the US, so it is important to do research on local KWH prices with different utilities.

Heat pump[edit]

  • Extracts heat from outdoor air via the refrigeration cycle
  • More efficient than fossil fuel fired furnaces (gas/oil) and electric resistance heating
  • Not suitable for cold climates unless used with backup (secondary) source of heat. Newer air/air heatpumps can provide heat for coping with temperatures well below 0 degrees Celsius (32 °F).
  • A refrigerant coil is located in the air handler instead of a heat exchanger or element. System can also be used in cooling, just as any central air-conditioning system.
  • See Heat pumps

Hydronic coil[edit]

  • Combines hydronic (hot water) heating with a forced air delivery
  • Heat is produced via combustion of fuel (gas/propane/oil) in a boiler
  • A heat exchanger (hydronic coil) is placed in the air handler similar to the refrigerant coil in a Heat Pump system or a Central AC. Copper is often specified in supply and return manifolds and in tube coils.[1]
  • Heated water is pumped through the heat exchanger then back to the boiler to be reheated

Sequence of operation[edit]

  1. Thermostat calls for heat
  2. Source of ignition is provided at the boiler
  3. Circulator initiates water flow to the hydronic coil (heat exchanger)
  4. Once the heat exchanger warms up, the main blower is activated
  5. When call for heat ceases, the boiler and circulator turn off
  6. Blower shuts off after period of time (depending on the particular equipment involved this may be a fixed or programmable amount of time)

Advantages and disadvantages of forced air systems[edit]


  • Can accommodate central air conditioning, humidifiers, HRVs, and whole-house air cleaners
  • Excellent for programmable thermostats - takes a short time to recover
  • Initial cost tends to be lower than hydronic systems, although maintenance and operation can easily offset initial costs[citation needed]
  • No risk of structural damage due to water leaks
  • High efficiency furnaces are more readily available than high efficiency boilers[citation needed]


  • When improperly installed, they are prone to air infiltration; especially if the ductwork is located in an un-conditioned space. Air infiltration typically lowers humidity in the heated space and increases energy consumption.
  • Stratified (uneven) temperature differences when compared to e.g. hydronic heating
  • Noisier than hydronic systems
  • Can distribute allergens and cooking odors throughout heated space.
  • Requires a filter, which must be replaced periodically.
  • Can be difficult to retrofit a property with the required ducting.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Finned coil heat exchangers (water to air heat exchangers); Brazetek;