What Type of Heating System Do I Have? Do I Have A Heat Pump?

Not everyone knows the answer to this question. To some, it’s an issue that they just never thought about. To others, it’s a question they have had, but didn’t know how to go about finding the answer. 

What Type Heating System Do I Have?

So let’s get started on finding out how you can know what kind of heating system you have. We go about this a couple different ways designed to help you identify your heating system type and to learn something about how it works. 

Central Heat or Direct?

In most parts of the U.S., central heat is the most common way to heat a home, be it a single-family or a multiple-family building.

Central Heat – If you do not have any of the above mentioned sources of direct heat in your home – sources that are actually inside the room – then the heat is coming from somewhere else in the home or building. This is what is called a central heating system. This means that the heat to keep your living space warm during cold weather is being produced at one location in the building and being transferred to different locations through ductwork. 


Heat Pump

Heat Pump

Examples of central heating systems are:

  • a furnace in the basement of a house that supplies heat to all the rooms within that house.
  • a furnace inside a closet in a mobile home that sends heat to several locations in the mobile home, but not always to every room.
  • a heat pump located outside your house that extracts heat from the outside air and transfers it into the building.
  • one or more very large furnaces in the basement or on the roof of an apartment or condominium building supplying heat to all the living units within that building.

Direct Heat – This may be a heater that is installed in the wall, or quite close to the wall of a particular room. The heat that it supplies will usually be limited to that room, plus whatever can move down a hallway or through a door into an adjoining room. This type of heater might be fired by either natural gas or propane, in which case there will be an exhaust vent to the outdoors. This vent may be visible, but with a wall-mounted unit it will usually be behind the unit inside the cover and not visible from inside the room. 

Fireplaces and wood-burning or pellet stoves are yet another form of direct heat sources to heat your home. These need to have specific kinds of pipes and/or chimneys to ensure that the smoke and burned gasses from the wood or pellets are vented from your living space to the outdoor environment. 

wood stove with a heat-proof glass window
Pellet Stove

Any of the above types of direct heat may have an internal fan to help circulate the heat they produce throughout your room, but they are considered direct heat because they are located inside the space they are heating. 

Now, let’s look at another way to identify the type of heating system you may have in your home. 

Forced Air or Radiant Heat? 

The difference between forced air heat and radiant heat is like the difference between holding your hand out in front of a hair dryer and holding your hand near a hot stove in the kitchen. The first heats your hand by blowing hot air on it while the second does it by the heat being simply transmitted (radiated) through the air.

Here is what to think about when determining what type of home heating system you have. 

Forced Air – Does warm air come from vents or registers in the floor near the walls or at the base of the walls – or perhaps in the ceilings? Do you see curtains moving or feel warm air blowing every so often during cold weather? If you do, this indicates that your heating system uses forced air to move heat from the furnace into your rooms. It is called forced air heat, because the warm air is literally being forced – blown by a large fan into heat ducts to heat your living space. 

Forced air heating systems may use either electricity, natural or propane gas, oil or even the sun to heat the air to be blown through the heat ducts. There are many different styles and models of each, but one of these will certainly be used in your home if you have forced air heating. 

Radiant Heat – During cold weather, does the floor of your home – or the walls – seem warm most of the time? Do you have metal radiators that stand against the walls or are mounted at the baseboard at various places in your rooms? If you do, this indicates that your heating system uses radiant heat to heat your house. 

Radiant heating systems may use either electricity, air or water to transmit the heat into your living space.

  • Electric radiant heating is powered by electricity just like a toaster or electric oven, except it uses insulated electric wires that get hot enough to produce heat without burning. These heating wires can be in the floors, walls, baseboards or ceilings of a dwelling.
  • Air radiant heating uses hot air that is forced through hollow tubes, usually in or under the floor, but they can also be in walls or ceilings. As the hot air travels through the tubes, it gives off radiant heat to keep your space warm.
  • Water is also used to provide radiant heat in homes. Called hydronic heating, hot water is pumped through tubes in floors, walls, baseboard units or ceilings to give off radiant heat in the rooms where you live. 

Pro Tip for Allergy Sufferers: One big advantage of radiant heating over forced air heating is that there is no air being blown around the home. It is often favored by people who have allergies to dust, which moves through the air produced by the forced air system.

Gas, Electricity, Oil or Sun? 

Once you have determined whether your heating system is direct or central, forced air or radiant –  the only part of the question remaining is the fuel that is used to produce the heat. Something has to heat the wires, the air or the water that brings the heat to you. Here are a few ways to find out what that fuel is. 

Mr. Heater Indoor-Safe Portable Propane Radiant Heater

Mr. Heater Indoor-Safe Portable Propane Radiant Heater

Natural Gas – If your heating system uses natural gas, one way to know this is if your gas bill suddenly increases with the onset of cold weather. Many homes that use natural gas for heating will also use it for cooking and drying clothes all year. But when the temperature drops, the heater starts using much more gas than during the warm months.

Propane Gas (LP) – If your heating system uses propane, you will no doubt have a propane tank somewhere in your yard outside your home. Larger ones are shaped like a tube with rounded ends and sometimes called a “pig”. You will use much more LP gas during the heating season, and your supplier will need to fill your tank more often. You will be notified that you owe them money.

Electricity – Almost every home in the U.S. uses electricity for many purposes, but if you also have an electric heating system, guess what? You guessed it – your electric bill will take a noticeable jump when the cold weather comes.

Oil – Home heating oil is still used throughout the country, though most often in the Northwest, to fuel oil-fired furnaces.

Solar – the power of the sun is sometimes used for heating, even in cold climates with specialized equipment. If your heating system uses the sun to heat your home, you will no doubt be aware of special panels called, “collectors” on the roof of your home or perhaps on angled stands beside your house. The good news is that the sun is free! The downside of solar heat is the up-front expense of installing a solar heating system – especially in cold climates. 

Check your Utility Bill! It will almost always tell you what fuel source you’re being charged for. If you still have questions when reading the bill, call your energy supplier.

Do I Have a Heat Pump? 

Heat pumps are becoming more popular these days and will produce both heating for the winter and cooling for the summer. If you have a heat pump, you should be able to locate a square-shaped unit sitting beside your home with louvered vents on the side and a metal grille on the top. An air conditioner will look the same, but there is an easy way to tell if you have a heat pump. 

Set your indoor thermostat to heat and set the temperature higher than normal. Go to that outside unit and see if it is running. If it is, you have a heat pump because an air conditioner will not run with the thermostat set to heat. If you are getting warm air into your home and the outside unit is not running, you do not have a heat pump. 

Learn More on PickHVAC!

We trust that the information in this article will help you to determine what type of heating system you have. Learn more about the various kinds by searching Pick HVAC using the search box or by hovering over the tabs at the top that discuss the common options.

Written by

Rene has worked 10 years in the HVAC field and now is the Senior Comfort Specialist for PICKHVAC. He holds an HVAC associate degree and EPA & R-410A Certifications.

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