Facebook tracking pixel
(707) 539-4533 |  Sonoma Napa and Marin Counties

Updated 5/27/23

Investigating the Radiator Heat vs Forced Air Debate

If you live in the North Bay Area, you probably know that there are several ways to heat your home in the winter. However, there are two commonly used systems that seem to be constantly battling for supremacy.

Home heating options have changed drastically over the last few decades in places such as Sonoma and Marin Counties. There was a time, for example, when many homes in Napa Valley, Santa Rosa, and other Redwood Empire communities had wood burning fireplaces. 

Today, wood-burning devices are allowed within new building construction, additions, and remodels but can only be pellet-fueled wood heaters or EPA certified wood heaters. And in Napa County, air quality regulations not only make it illegal to burn wood on days with predicted high ambient fine particulate matter concentrations, or PM2.5, but bans the installation of wood burning devices in new construction.

In this article, we will be investigating the great radiator heat vs forced air debate and take a close look at an alternative system that is gaining popularity.


HVAC 101 Everything you need to know


Radiators Provide Traditional Heating

While not very common in Sonoma or Napa County homes, a radiator heating system heats water in a central boiler using either gas or electricity. Depending on the system, this heated water is then distributed through pipes to the radiators throughout the house. The air in the room is then heated through a combination of convection and radiation. In a system that uses hot water, the water is usually returned to the boiler for reheating, but it can also be used for showers and baths.

The first observation most people make when experiencing radiator heat is that the air is comfortably humid, which is due to the use of water as the source to warm the room, whereas a standard forced-air system tends to dry out the air. The water flow to individual radiators can easily be adjusted or completely turned off, making it possible for each room to be at different temperatures.

The downside of radiator heating is that the system responds slowly to temperature adjustments, but this is also great as the cooling of the room is gradual when the radiator is shut off. Some people may also find the actual radiator in the room rather inconvenient and an ugly piece of furniture. Covers are available, but these mostly lower the efficiency of the radiator.

The Versatility of a Forced Air System

A forced-air system works on the principle of air being heated in a central furnace unit and then distributed throughout the home through air ducts.

This is the most common type of heating system used in North Area homes. The furnace is most often located in the garage or attic, and it heats air which is then blown through the home utilizing ducts that are located in walls, ceilings, crawlspace, and attic.

Most furnaces found in homes are one of two types:

Natural gas furnace: Gas furnaces are considered one of the most inexpensive home heating systems available. Although not as energy efficient as some other home heating system options, the cost of natural gas – which is often lower than electricity – means that they can be less expensive to run.

Electric furnace: While usually much more energy efficient than the natural gas versions, electric furnaces can be less cost-effective since electricity typically costs more, they can still be more expensive to use. 

The distribution of heated air can happen due to convection, which is the effect of warm air rising, or with fans. And both of these methods have their pros and cons. On the downside, for example, relying on convection alone for the distribution of warm air can result in considerable heat loss due to “parasitic loss” of heat as the warmed air slowly move through the ducts.

However, fans generate noise, and they can also have a cooling effect on the warm air. Also, there is no gradual cooling from a forced air unit, so a noticeable drop in temperature will be noticed almost immediately by the occupants in the room.

Most people complain that a forced-air system can dry out the air inside a home along with everything in it. Fortunately, external humidifiers are available for the furnace systems, and higher-end HVAC units have integrated humidifiers to keep the humidity at a comfortable level.

On the other hand, a significant benefit of a forced-air system is that an AC system can also use the ducts to cool the home in the summer months. In addition, an option to using a combination of a furnace and an AC unit, many modern HVAC units have a heat pump that provides both heating and cooling from the same system with the flick of a switch.

Another benefit of a forced-air system is that it responds faster to thermostat adjustments from an occupant than a traditional radiator system and will heat a room much more rapidly.

Answers Regarding Costs, Maintenance, and an Alternative System

A question that is often asked is, “How much will it cost me to run my heating system in Sonoma County?”  

The simple answer for residents in both Sonoma County and Napa Valley, is that an up-to-date and well-maintained radiator heating system and a forced air system have very much the same operating cost per month. The difference is the regular maintenance cost of each system.

On the upside, a radiator system doesn’t typically require much maintenance, but when it does, the process can be difficult (and costly) with all the pipes and radiators that need flushing.

In comparison, a forced-air system requires regular cleaning to prevent the buildup of dust and the replacement of air filters. Fortunately, this is usually quick work for an experienced HVAC technician.


Ask Us About Your Installation


Beyond Vents: Radiant Floor Heating

We mentioned an alternative system to both the old radiator and the forced air systems and it is called radiant heat flooring.

With forced-air, duct-based heating systems, there is a significant amount of heat loss, as we’ve noted already. However, with radiant heating, the floors are heated directly, resulting in less lost energy. In fact, radiant floor heating systems are so energy efficient that they can save an average of 15 percent on heating bills.

Radiant floor heating is similar to a radiator heating system in that it uses pipes and hot water, but it can also be designed with electrically heated elements. These elements or pipes are installed under the floor, usually using tiles, as they have good heat conductive and retention properties. The thermal radiation – or heat – is then transferred from the floor to the whole room. 

In places like Napa, Santa Rosa, and elsewhere, it is a popular system for new houses and when retrofitting existing bathrooms with tile floors.

The answer to the radiator heat vs forced air debate is largely one of preference for a particular system, because although each have their pros and cons, the operating cost is broadly the same for both systems. The big selling point of a forced-air system is that it is often already incorporated in the HVAC system installed that provides cooling during the summer.

So, if you live in Napa or Sonoma Counties and are looking for home heating solutions, please contact us for an informed opinion regarding which system will be the best for your home. Our recommendations are based on all the factors that should influence your decision, including installation and maintenance cost.