September 10, 2020 (Reston, Virginia)

Whether you’re building  or buying a new home or considering heating upgrades, there are three primary factors:  your energy source, how heat is generated/distributed, and how well your home retains heat.

Heat n' Glo MEZZO 60 Fireplace
Heat n’ Glo MEZZO 60 Fireplace

A healthy home environment requires circulation of fresh air—so maintaining a comfortable temperature is a balancing act between conserving energy and avoiding drafts and excess heat (or cooling) loss, while ensuring adequate fresh air. Checking and caulking doors and windows annually is important, as is having your furnace or boiler inspected and serviced. Insulating exterior walls, attics, and basement spaces is one of the best ways to improve efficiency of your heating or HVAC system—but it’s important to do it properly.

Improperly taped batt insulation that goes between studs can let air escape around the edges and through electrical outlets, and over time it can sag and increase air loss. Foam insulation is more airtight, but depending upon the type can create a moisture barrier that can cause condensation, leading to mold. Permeable foam insulation is available, allowing moisture to evaporate and providing some airflow. But another drawback to foam insulation is that it blocks access to in-wall plumbing and electrical components; if you have a problem, you have to tear out the wall and the foam insulation to locate and repair it

What about the heating system itself? There are several key types, all with pros and cons.

Forced-air heating systems are the most common, with a central furnace that forces air through ducts. A key advantage is that the ducts can also distribute air conditioning. Furnaces are often fueled by heating oil, propane, or natural gas. Forced air can also distribute allergens, so it is important to change your filters regularly and may be worth investing in an electronic filter if you or your family are sensitive. Forced air heat can increase dryness in winter; homeowners often install dehumidifiers and humidifiers with these systems to improve comfort and reduce the expansion and contraction of floors and trim and thus maintenance. Newer furnaces are much more efficient than old models and are often a worthwhile upgrade.  Sometimes a switch from propane to natural gas (if available) can create some monthly savings.

Radiant heating systems use pipes, baseboard radiators, or traditional vertical radiators to radiate heat… often from hot water or another fluid (hydronic systems)… through a space or the home. It’s easier to provide zoned heat with a radiant system, with thermostats and controls for individual rooms or spaces. Radiant heat doesn’t dry out the air and is more efficient than forced air heating. It heats people and surfaces rather than just the air,  so it feels warmer, but a radiant system takes longer to heat up, and more time to adjust temperatures. Radiators restrict furniture placement, and central AC requires its own ducting. As with furnaces, boiler fuels vary and replacing an old boiler can significantly increase efficiency.

Radiant floor systems use fluid-filled pipes or electrical resistance units to provide heating and  cooling. They can be powered by a boiler, a heat pump and chillers, or even a geothermal heat pump (see below). They are expensive and require expert installation. They can also impact floor finishes and repairing a problem can be disruptive and costly. In homes, they are most often used in baths and other small areas, particularly over unconditioned garages.

Heat Pumps are electrically powered systems that use the outdoor air as a heat source in winter, and as a heat sink in summer. Because they move heat rather than generate it, they are extremely efficient—up to a point. They have auxiliary heating strips to generate heat when it is very cold—at a very high cost. As the sole system, they work best in moderate climates. Homeowners in areas with colder winters often use a hybrid approach: employing heat pumps for cooling and heating until very cold weather sets in, then switching to a furnace or boiler to generate heat.

Geothermal systems are based on heat pumps that use the earth rather than air as a heat source and heat sink. While expensive to install, they are extremely efficient and energy savings can repay installation cost difference in 3 to 10 years. Shallow heat exchangers go down three to eight  feet from the surface, making it hard or even impossible to retrofit an existing home for a geothermal system.

About Gulick Group, Inc.: Established in 1987, Reston-based Gulick Group has developed communities throughout Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, including One Cameron Place and Newport Shores in Reston, The Reserve in McLean, Autumn Wood, Grovemont, and the three Riverbend Communities in Great Falls, Red Cedar West in Leesburg, and Wild Meadow in Ashburn.