In the HVAC world, a boiler is a combustion appliance designed to heat water. While some boilers produce steam for heating or other purposes, those used in home heating systems today are likely to be the hot water type.
Most residential boilers are designed to burn oil, propane or natural gas. Wood-fired boilers and multi-fuel boilers that burn wood, oil or natural gas are available, but these units are only used by a relatively small number of households.
Like furnaces, heat pumps and other HVAC components, boilers are described according to size, efficiency and the type of combustion or venting that is utilized.
Here's a brief summary of these descriptive terms:
Regardless of the fuel used, a boiler can supply hot water for heating alone or for heating and washing. A boiler that does both jobs is often referred to as a "combi-boiler." With a combi system, no separate hot water heater is necessary. In fact, when the boiler is running to provide water for whole-house heating, hot water for washing is heated for free.
"Hydronic" is a term used to describe any HVAC system that uses water or fluid. There are several different types of hydronic heating systems that utilize boilers. Hot water can be pumped to baseboard and other types of radiators located throughout the living space. It can also be circulated through plastic tubing that has been installed beneath finished floor surfaces. In this type of "hydronic radiant floor" heating system, the flooring becomes a giant radiator to provide home heat.
A third type of hydronic heating system, called "hydro-air," circulates hot water in a heating coil that warms the air in a forced-air heating system.
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