Discussing Hydronic Forced Air Heating

Date Published: May 13, 2024

When it comes to heating homes, there is a multitude of ways to get the job done. Whether you are using a furnace, a boiler, a heat pump or any other mechanism, there will always be pros and cons. But what happens when you combine two different systems and pair their redeeming qualities together? That’s just the case with hydronic forced air heating. This advanced method combines the efficiency of water-based heating with the widespread distribution capabilities of forced air. So how does it work?

What Is Hydronic Forced Air Heating?

Hydronic forced air is a unique system that combines a high efficiency water heater or boiler paired with an air handler. When you turn up the heat on the thermostat, water is heated up inside the water heater or boiler. Next the water is pumped out of the heating source, and through piping that runs into the air handler.

Air is then forced across this now heated tubing, and subsequently pushed to the living space(s) through ducts by a blower fan. The air can now heat your living space to your desired temperature! With the addition of an outdoor condenser, these systems can also come equipped with cooling capabilities. This process may sound familiar as it uses similar technology to heat pumps and AC units.

Where Is Hydronic Forced Air Used?

This type of method can technically be used in any type of home, as long as there is space for the necessary equipment and ductwork. However, we don’t see it too often in smaller single family homes.

It is most commonly found in large commercial or apartment buildings with multiple floors and independent units that require individual climates. At Scott Home Services, we perform standard home and rental inspections on multi-family apartment complexes. So our inspectors come across hydronic forced air systems frequently.

hydronic forced air system

Combined hydronic forced air system (air handler on left, water heater on right). Image sourced from: https://ecoperformancebuilders.com/hydronicheating/

Hydronic Forced Air To The Rescue!

This technique is especially useful in apartments for several reasons. First of all, it eliminates the need of installing individual furnaces or boilers for each unit. You can imagine the amount of time and effort it would take to install individual heating/cooling systems per unit in one of these large, multi-floor Denver apartment buildings. It takes additional venting, and space, and adds a host of new regulations when you add another fuel-burning appliance to a unit.

Instead, many buildings will install large boilers or water heaters in a main utility room. Then they send individual water lines to each apartment unit. Once these lines have entered a dwelling, they are fed through an air handler, which distributes conditioned air to the living space.

This unique hybrid method is also efficient when it comes to optimizing the use of building materials. Because water lines are sent from the heating source (i.e. boiler or water heater) directly to each unit, there is no need for ductwork until after the piping reaches the air handler. As a result, builders are able to cut down drastically on duct construction.

In addition to ducting, if the the domestic hot water and boiler are hosted in a large community utility room, it has the added benefit of not needing to run gas piping to each unit!

Conversely, the system transitions from hydronic to forced air once entering an apartment. That means that piping is not needed for any type of radiant heating within the space. Using a hydronic radiant heating method for every unit would not only be costly but also very time-consuming. So builders are able to save money and installation time with this hybrid technique.

But this doesn’t just benefit the builders. As an owner or a tenant of these units, a hydronic heating system reduces the maintenance and upkeep needed. Since the boiler then serves the whole building, they are generally maintained by the building staff. That means that replacing air filters and ensuring the blower is operational is all you need to do. If the blower is fed with a water heater in the unit, then you would maintain the water heater as you would anywhere else.

How Do We Inspect These Systems?

We proudly serve a wide geographical area, from Wellington all the way to Colorado Springs. That means that we are inspecting a lot of multi-family dwellings. When inspecting any heating configuration in a home, our inspectors employ a two-step process – visual and operational.

First, they will visually inspect all accessible components of the system. Of course, there are many parts hidden behind the drywall. And inspecting a large heating unit that services a whole building is out of the scope of our standard inspection. However, we can usually gain access to the air handler, which can likely be found in the bathroom or hallway ceiling (as shown below), or in a utility closet. The inspector will look for any noticeable defects or damage, and report as necessary.

Secondly, we will turn on the heat and air conditioning (if the season permits it). Our inspectors utilize an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of the air exiting the supply vents. In the case that the air is not reaching the temp selected on the thermostat, we will recommend further evaluation and repair.

Unfortunately, we are at the mercy of the building cycles. Often larger buildings in Colorado will shut down their boilers and turn on their chillers for the summer. This is common practice and in that scenario, we can’t test the heat. However, since the boilers and chillers use the same blower, we can still evaluate what’s present.

Are you in need of a Colorado home or rental inspection? Scott Home Services has got you covered! Visit us online to learn more or contact us to book your inspection services today!

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About the Author: Chris Kimmel

Chris Kimmel worked as an Associate Home Inspector for two years, handling numerous services including sewer scope inspections, pest inspections, mold air sample testing, radon testing, and water quality testing. Chris now works with Scott Home Inspection as a Content Writing Specialist.

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