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Originally published in Haverhill Life, January 2019

Winter is here, and so it’s time to turn on those heating systems. Usually it’s as simple as turning up the thermostat, but sometimes the heating unit just doesn’t want to play nice.

If you have trouble getting your system to start, the first thing you should do is make sure the heating system’s red shutoff switch is in the “on” position. This switch is normally found on the upper wall of the basement, near the cellar door. If you have oil heat, make sure the tank isn’t empty. If there’s still no heat, check the electrical breaker to see if it has tripped to the “off” position. Even if the breaker appears to be on, it may actually be tripped. Flipping the breaker off and then on will surely reset the breaker. If the heat is still not responding, put on a wool sweater and call a heating company.

There are many different ways to heat a house. In the old houses, we often see steam heat with radiators. In most cases, radiators are heated by a boiler in the basement. Some houses in the Boston area purchase the steam from companies that send steam through pipes under the streets and into the house radiators.

Newer houses typically have forced hot-air furnace heat or forced-hot-water boiler heat. Furnaces heat air, and boilers heat water. The most common heating units installed today are furnaces with central heating ductwork throughout the house, rather than boilers with heating baseboards along the lower walls throughout the house. The problem some people have with furnaces is that they make the house air dry, resulting in the need to install humidifiers. Also, duct work should be cleaned periodically, which can be expensive. Furnaces have filters that need to be replaced annually, and more often if you have animals in the house. The filter is usually located behind the bottom door on the furnace. The benefit of a furnace is the duct work, which allows the furnace to double as a heating appliance as well as a central air conditioner. To add air conditioning to a furnace, an HVAC company can install a compressor and an evaporator coil to the furnace.

Boilers heat water that flows through baseboards or radiators. This type of heat does not cause the dry, uncomfortable air and, in my opinion, is a more comfortable type of heat. However, you cannot add central air conditioning directly to boilers. Also, the baseboards can be blocked by furniture and curtains, reducing the heat output into the room. Try to keep things away from baseboards so that they function properly. Whether you have an oil or gas furnace or boiler, you should have it serviced annually.

There are other types of heating systems that we will talk about in future articles. For instance, there are hydro air heating systems that use both a boiler and furnace. Other types of heating systems include radiant heat, geo thermal, high-efficient wall-mounted units, and solar units.

One last concern is electric baseboard heaters. If you have electric baseboards, use caution and never allow curtains or toys or anything flammable to be in contact with them. Electric baseboards have been known to cause fires if something flammable gets caught in them.