At first glance, heating systems look pretty complicated. All those tubes, pipes, tanks, and ducts look confusing when you see them for the first time. But heating systems are really not that hard to understand. Let’s take a look at some of the basics you need to know if you are a real estate investor.

Heating systems are really two separate systems that work together:

The heat-generating component makes heat from some source – most often, natural gas, oil or electricity. These energy sources work in different ways. Oil and gas are burned, while electricity is used to heat an electrical coil. Oil must be stored in a tank before it can be burned; this tank can be located within a building, outside a building, or underground. Natural gas requires no tank; it flows directly into a building through a pipe. In electrical systems, electricity flows directly to the heat-producing unit through wires. And of course, you get these sources of heat from different sources – from an oil company or utilities that sell you electricity or natural gas. There are some other differences too. Both oil and natural gas heating systems must be connected to chimneys or vents that allow fumes and smoke to escape from the building. Electrical systems do not require venting, because nothing is burned.

The Heat-Distributing Component takes the heat from wherever it is generated and transfers it to living areas throughout the building. In general, heat can be transferred in one of these four ways:

  1. By blowing hot air through ducts to vents that are installed in floors, walls, or ceilings. The ducts do double duty in buildings with central air conditioning, since they then distribute cooled air through the building too.
  2. By creating steam in a boiler that is part of the furnace, then sending that steam through iron pipes to radiators.
  3. By pumping hot water through pipes to baseboard heaters or other devices that transfer heat from the water to the surrounding air.
  4. By radiant heating, in which electrical coils or hot-water pipes run beneath floors and transfer heating through the floors into rooms. Radiant heating has become more popular in recent years, and you will probably only find it in newer buildings.

How to Detect Problems with Heating Systems

  • Check hot air distribution systems for signs that they may need cleaning. Simply remove one of the grates that covers a duct in a room and look for dust. Then reach in with a rag, wipe the inside wall of a duct, pull out the rag and inspect it for dirt and mildew. If the system fails these tests, the ducts have not been regularly maintained, so ask the seller to have the system professionally cleaned as a condition of sale.
  • Check hot water heating systems by scanning all visible pipes, baseboard heating units and other components for leakage. While the system is running, look at the water pumps that move the heated water away from the boiler/furnace into the house. These pumps – which are electric motors installed near the main furnace or boiler – should run quietly and without much vibration. A banging pump or motor will need replacing soon. Note that this is not a major repair, since new motor/pump units often cost less than $500.
  • Check steam systems by inspecting all radiators and supply pipes for signs of drips, which often leave white chalky deposits after they have dried. Also inspect pipes that run into the boiler, looking for any evidence of drips. Turn the system on high, wait while steam is distributed, and inspect the boiler, connecting pipes, and radiators for leaks. Hairline cracks in boilers can sometimes – not always – be detected in this way.

And here’s another piece of advice. In all cases, turn the heating system on, turn the thermostat up and watch and listen for problems. Many issues cannot be detected unless the heating system is operating.

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