Boiler vs. furnace: which is better?

Boiler vs. furnace: which is better?

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boiler vs. furnace

When it comes to whole-home heating, boiler vs. furnace is one of your options. Both distribute warmth to keep your home comfortable. 

Boilers and furnaces use different methods to heat your home. In this piece, you’ll learn how they work and the pros and cons of each. 

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What is the difference between boiler and furnace?

Boilers are a type of radiant heater. They use either gas, oil, or coal to warm water in a vessel. The water or steam (depending on your model) is then distributed to radiators throughout the home for heating. 

There are several radiator styles:

  • Baseboard radiators
  • Large steam radiators
  • Radiant floor systems
types of radiant heating

Alternatively, furnaces warm air and circulate it through ductwork in a home. Furnaces burn fuel to create heat. They use an air handler to push warm air into the home. 

Warm air disperses through the home’s air ducts. It blows out through vents in each room, warming the space.  

elements of central heating

Furnaces can use different types of fuel, like boilers, including electricity, gas, and oil.

Boiler vs. furnace cost

According to the 2023 National Plumbing and HVAC Estimator, the cost of residential boilers ranges $4,378-17,240. HomeAdvisor says the average new boiler costs $5,810.  

The National Plumbing and HVAC Estimator states new residential furnaces range $1,010-5,764. HomeAdvisor says the average new furnace costs $4,690. 

The average lifespan of a boiler is 20 years. The average lifespan of a furnace is 15-30 years. How long each lasts depends on how you use the appliance and how well it’s maintained.

In addition to budgeting for the appliance itself, you’ll need to pay for installation. It’s easier for HVAC technicians to install a furnace than a boiler.

A furnace takes a few hours, but boiler installation can take multiple days. Therefore, boiler installation is significantly more expensive.

Boilers require less maintenance. A furnace should have an annual tuneup to keep it running effectively. This involves a small expense. 

Talk to an expert about furnace and boiler installation.

Boiler vs. furnace fuel type

In most cases, electric appliances are the least expensive. Oil appliances cost the most upfront, with gas appliances in the middle.

The cost of running a heating appliance depends on the fuel it burns, as well. Generally, gas is the least expensive heating fuel, followed by electricity and oil.

In 2022-2023, all heating fuel prices are up. Gas prices, especially, are spiking, up more than 34 percent this winter. 

Boiler vs. furnace efficiency

Boilers are usually more fuel-efficient than furnaces. In turn, your monthly power bill will probably be less with a boiler.

Boilers and furnaces are both rated for Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE). AFUE measures the fuel efficiency of your heating appliance.

A heating appliance with an AFUE of 90% wastes 10% of its fuel and uses 90% to heat your home.

The higher the AFUE rating, the more efficient your boiler or furnace. When shopping for a boiler or furnace, you can directly compare their efficiency by looking for the AFUE rating.

According to Energy.gov, a high-efficiency heating system has an AFUE of 90-98.5 percent. 

afue rating chart

Which is better? Boiler vs. furnace

In the United States, boilers aren’t currently popular for home heating. Most homes with boilers are older and exist in the northeastern region.

Adapting your home for a boiler can be costly and inefficient unless you have an existing radiant heating system.

However, boilers can be beneficial in certain situations.

Boiler pros and cons

✅ Pros ❌ Cons
Heats more evenly and gradually Noisy when water is heating up
Lasts longer than a furnace Costs more than a furnace
Doesn’t blow dust Complicated installation
Low-maintenance Requires existing radiant heating elements
Runs more efficiently than a furnace Pipes may freeze in extreme weather

Furnace pros and cons

Most homes today are built with ductwork; so a furnace is a logical choice for heating them. But if you’re starting from scratch, consider these potential benefits and drawbacks.

✅ Pros ❌ Cons
Less expensive than a boiler Blows dust, impacting air quality
Easier to install than a boiler Requires regular maintenance
Space-saving compared to a boiler Less efficient than a boiler
No water pipes or leaks to worry about Shorter lifespan than a boiler

The bottom line: furnace vs. boiler

Though boilers have some compelling benefits, we don’t recommend installing one unless your home already has a radiant heating system. We find radiant heating installations expensive and cumbersome, even if you’re building a new home.

Heating via ductwork with a furnace is preferable in most scenarios. We recommend an electric furnace if your home has appropriate hookups. As the utility grid becomes more sustainable and we move towards decarbonization, electric appliances will be the most efficient option. 

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