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Boiler or Furnace???

Do you have a furnace or a boiler? I ask this question quite often and many customers don't know there is a difference. Most of you probably refer to your heating system as a “heater” well that pretty much covers it all but it’s important to know what type of heating system you have in your home. I will attempt to clear the confusion so you can seem super smart when you call Air Done Right for your annual heater maintenance.

So, are you ready for the big reveal? OK, here goes:

A furnace heats air.

A boiler heats water.

Got it? I’m sure that clears things up. Right?..maybe not.  There’s no way it’s that easy. So…how do you know if your heating system is heating water or air?
A furnace has ductwork that distributes air back from your space to the furnace to heat up, then heated air goes back out into the space. Air = Furnace. Easy!

Well, let’s start simple. Do you have ductwork? Does your ductwork blow warm air out in the winter? If it does, you probably have a furnace. I say probably because there are heat pump style HVAC systems that use a “reverse refrigeration” process that allows the same unit you use for air conditioning, to do a little switcheroo (that is the technical term, by the way) and also produce heat. I know! Mind. Blown. Anyway, heat pumps also use ductwork to blow out warm air, but are not considered furnaces. I’m not going to start down this path it would be just too confusing so we’ll just use the scenario of furnaces versus boilers. sigh…I tried.

Let’s see if boilers are easier… In most homes, a boiler would heat the house using baseboards that have water piping inside of them or radiators. The warm water moves through the pipes and uses fins to distribute the heat from the water into the air of the room. In older homes, you often see warm water radiators instead of baseboards – those iron beasts that are sometimes gorgeous, but most times very big utilitarian beasts. Or, if you’re REALLY lucky, you have my personal favorite, underfloor radiant heat which uses warm water from your boiler to heat your floor and radiate warmth into your room from the floor up. This is especially delightful because you not only have toasty toes, you also have a room that is warmest where you need it most, near the floor, where you are. Unfortunately, just the presence of a baseboard/radiator/underfloor heat isn’t 100% indicator of a boiler. There are baseboards, radiators and underfloor radiant heat systems that use electricity instead of water, so just because you have one of these, it does not necessarily mean you have a boiler. Darn, darn!


Well here’s another kicker. Most HVAC units look about the same from the outside. Big metal boxes. It’s what’s inside and how they operate that defines what they are called. And just to make things extra fun, there are often multiple terms for the same unit. Ugh! But I promised to attempt to make this clear and easy right?

So, assuming you have a simple system (which is unlikely if you live in the Philadelphia metro area) go into your basement/mechanical room/etc. wherever your heating system is. Look at what is going into and coming out of the metal box that is your heater. Is it ductwork? Ductwork = air = furnace. Or is it pipes? Pipes = water = boiler. If your system is NOT simple, well then I’m sorry to say that it might take a trained eye to get it right. Some systems are so darn complicated and customized that the only way to know what it does is to look up the model and serial number with the manufacturer! And that is reason #7,642 why it’s important to find a qualified HVAC contractor like Air Done Right, that you can trust.

So, did I help or make it worse?
Call us at 267-297-6791 for your heating (furnace or boiler) needs in Philadelphia and surrounding areas.

Air Done Right is a heating, cooling and ventilation contractor, providing honest service at competitive prices.

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Phone: (267) 297-6791

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