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Technology and design make today’s home heating systems more efficient than ever.
While some of us may still be desperately clinging to summer, the calendar has clearly flipped over to fall, and before long, the frosty months of winter will be upon us. With temperatures getting ready to dip, homeowners in the Northeast need to know they can count on their heating systems to keep their families warm.
If the comfort level in your home isn’t ideal, or the monthly bills are getting out of hand, it may be time to replace that old heating system. Advances in technology and design have made today’s systems more efficient and effective than ever, and there are several options from which to choose.
“I would say almost everybody is concerned with both lowering their bills and [maximizing] comfort level,” says Joe Simone of the Insulation Heating & Cooling Group. “A lot of people don’t realize how many options they have, and how accessible they are. You can save money and be more comfortable; and it’s not hard to deliver that in many cases.”
Of course, a lot depends on the house and its location. For example, some areas might not have access to natural gas, so an electric heat pump or ductless mini-split system may be a better option than forced-air with a furnace. In homes that already have ductwork, the cost of installing radiant heat just may be too costly. It often comes down to what makes the most economic sense, both in terms of initial cost and the long run.
“Whether it be forced-air, radiant, ductless or an electrical heat pump, the question comes down to what’s the most economical solution for the application,” says Chris Cavanaugh of R&D Heating, Cooling & Electric. “That’s really the driving force behind any decision that has to be made.”
The following is a closer look at some of the leading heating systems available, and the benefits that come with each.
The most widespread source of heat in area homes continues to be forced-air, in which heated air is carried through ductwork and distributed into different rooms of the house through vents. When the desired temperature—as set by the thermostat—is reached, the heat shuts off until the temperature drops again.
Most forced-air systems are powered by a gas or electric furnace, although propane and oil are also options.
“Whether it be gas, propane or electric, forced-air is typically the most common system that you’re going to run into,” Cavanaugh says. “With all new construction, they’re using forced-air systems.”
Natural gas is the most affordable way to fuel a forced-air system and therefore the most prevalent, while oil is usually the most expensive. “In the Northeast, there are still a lot of older homes that use oil,” says Henry Shen of Binsky Home. “But normally gas is a lot easier to maintain. Oil can get pricey because of the fuel, and it takes a lot more maintenance.”
No matter what type of equipment a homeowner is using, the advantages to forced-air include lower upfront costs than other applications, as well as the fact that the heating and central air conditioning are incorporated into the same system. And the new systems are much more energy-efficient, leading to significant savings each month on energy bills.
“The furnaces that are typically installed now are nothing less than 95 percent efficient, and the typical furnace that’s being replaced is 80 percent efficient or less. That’s a big deal,” Simone says. “If you have an 80 percent furnace, then essentially 20 percent of the fuel used to heat the house goes out the chimney. It’s just wasted. But when you get a 95 or 96 percent furnace, only four or five percent is going out the chimney.”
“The return on your investment is about 15 percent, and that’s huge,” adds Darin McCaul of C&C Heating and Air Conditioning. “There’s nothing in this world that can return your investment 15 percent back. On an average home, it’s saving homeowners between $800 and $1,200 a year in total energy savings.”
New forced-air systems not only lead to monthly savings, but they also increase the comfort level in the home.
“With the incorporation of variable speed blower systems and modulating gas valves, it allows us to equalize the temperature differential between the upstairs and the downstairs,” McCaul says. “With the old systems, you can walk into someone’s home and it’s 15 degrees hotter upstairs than it is downstairs. Now, you’re within two to four degrees in every room in the house. The comfort level has gotten much better.”
“They’re coming out with better thermostats that have better control,” agrees Shen. “For instance, they have humidity control now, and by controlling the humidity you can make it feel a little warmer without cranking the heat up higher. Just being able to better control energy consumption is really driving the cost down for customers who are replacing their system.”
Another option available today is radiant heat, which delivers heat directly to the floor or the panels in the wall and transfers that heat to the people in the room. Most radiant systems are hydronic-based, meaning heated water is pumped from a boiler through a series of pipes underneath the floor.
“When you run the hot water to the pipes, it radiates the heat from the pipes up through the flooring,” Shen explains. “It’s a very comfortable type of heat; it’s not very dry. Most of the time with forced-air, the hot air is blown through a furnace and it rises to the ceiling. It collects the heat at the ceiling, and eventually the heat trickles down, and that’s how it warms the home.
“The radiant is a very gentle heat that rises through the flooring. So somebody who has radiant heating can set their temperature four or five degrees lower than the furnace heating, and they would still get the same type of warmth, just because they’re getting the heat from underneath instead of from the ceiling.”
Another advantage to radiant heat is that it can be beneficial for people with allergies, since it doesn’t distribute allergens throughout the house.
“It’s not necessarily cleaner air, but it doesn’t circulate the particulates in the air,” Shen says. “If you have a furnace without an indoor air quality [system], what happens is it will recirculate a lot of the air throughout the house, and that will pick up a lot of the dust from your floors and recirculate it into the air. The radiant doesn’t have any forced air, so whatever dust has settled on your floor stays on the floor, and the air is clear of particulates.” Shen says it’s best to install a radiant heating system in new construction, because piping has to be laid under the floors, which can get expensive in existing homes. For that reason, Simone doesn’t see it as a practical option in homes that are already built.
“I had it in a house I owned a few years back. It’s a very comfortable heat and there’s nothing quite like it,” Simone says. “But with a retro-fit, it’s a bit of an undertaking. It’s much better for new construction. Plus, if you only have it on the first floor, you’ll still need an auxiliary heat source for the second floor.”
Cavanaugh warns that radiant heat can damage hardwood floors if not installed properly, while McCaul believes it’s best used in certain rooms with tile floors.
“The only time you see radiant heat is in these estate, custom homes, where they’ll put in radiant heat in specific areas, like the bathroom,” he says. “You can step out of the shower onto a warm floor. But you’re never going to see a whole home with radiant heat in it. There are no builders in the area who build that way.”
A heating system that’s gaining popularity is the ductless mini-split system, which contains an outdoor compressor and an indoor air-handling unit. Copper tubing links the two units, and utilizing heat pump technology, hot air is cycled from the outdoor unit to the indoor unit, which is mounted on the wall and disperses the air into the home.
Mini-splits require no ductwork and distribute air quietly and effectively. They are also used for air conditioning in the hotter months, and another major advantage is the ability to localize the heat to certain areas of the house.
“Say you have empty-nesters living in a three-bedroom house, and they want to heat their bedroom and the living space,” says Marty Drumheller of R&D Heating, Cooling & Electric. “With a gas furnace, you turn the heat on and you’re heating the whole home. With a ductless unit, you can keep that guest room at 62 or 65 degrees and the rest of the house at 72. You don’t have to heat the areas you’re not using.”
Advances over the last several years in mini-split systems have also led to the use of multiple indoor units in the house.
“In the past, you had the ductless unit hanging on the wall and it would really only serve that room,” Cavanaugh says. “Now you can have multiple zones on one [outdoor] unit. So with the advantages in terms of performance, it’s actually becoming a very strong contender against natural gas at this juncture.”
McCaul says mini-splits can even be added to homes with a forced-air system, perhaps in an addition or a room that always seems to be colder than the rest of the house.
“There are limitations in some older homes with the ductwork,” he says. “This is a way to not have to rip the house apart and change all the ductwork, which is very expensive. You can simply add a mini-split system to a specific area. It’s an inexpensive way, and a very efficient way, to heat a whole space or multiple spaces without ductwork.”
The major downside to mini-splits is many people simply don’t like the appearance of the unit hanging on the wall in one or more rooms.
“That’s a factor that some people don’t care for,” Simone says. “But there are some options that are better-looking now. Companies realize that people don’t like the look, and they’re trying to clean them up. So I think the mini-splits are on an uptick.”
While there are several heating systems that offer benefits to homeowners, in the end it comes down to making the best financial decision. Homeowners should also be aware of potential rebates offered in their state for installing an energy-efficient system.
“New Jersey has the best program in the country for energy-efficient upgrades,” Simone says. “They offer [substantial] rebates and they offer special financing for people who qualify. A lot of times, you’ll find that it’s a better investment, or it may even cost less, to go with a high-efficiency system because of the rebates and the financing.”
Drumheller adds that utility companies in Pennsylvania also offer significant rebates.
“People should be doing their research,” he says. “They may spend a couple grand more on a high-efficiency system, but if they’re getting half of that back, it doesn’t make any sense not to do it for the long term.”
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