The furnace transfers heat to the living space of the building through an intermediary distribution system. If the distribution is through hot water (or other fluid) or through steam, then the furnace is more commonly termed a boiler. One advantage of a boiler is that the furnace can provide hot water for bathing and washing dishes, rather than requiring a separate water heater. One disadvantage to this type of application is when the boiler breaks down, both heating and domestic hot water is not available.
Air convection heating systems have been in use for over a century, but the older systems relied on a passive air circulation system where the greater density of cooler air caused it to sink into the furnace, and the lesser density of the warmed air caused it to rise in the ductwork, the two forces acting together to drive air circulation in a system termed “gravity-feed; the layout of the ducts and furnace was optimized for short, large ducts and caused the furnace to be referred to as an “octopus” furnace.
By comparison, most modern “warm air” furnaces typically use a fan to circulate air to the rooms of house and pull cooler air back to the furnace for reheating; this is called forced-air heat. Because the fan easily overcomes the resistance of the ductwork, the arrangement of ducts can be far more flexible than the octopus of old. In American practice, separate ducts collect cool air to be returned to the furnace. At the furnace, cool air passes into the furnace, usually through an air filter, through the blower, then through the heat exchanger of the furnace, whence it is blown throughout the building. One major advantage of this type of system is that it also enables easy installation of central air conditioning by simply adding a cooling coil at the exhaust of the furnace.
Air is circulated through ductwork, which may be made of sheet metal or plastic “flex” duct and insulated or uninsulated. Unless the ducts and plenum have been sealed using mastic or foil duct tape, the ductwork is likely to have a high leakage of conditioned air, possibly into unconditioned spaces. Another cause of wasted energy is the installation of ductwork in unheated areas, such as attics and crawl spaces; or ductwork of air conditioning systems in attics in warm climates.
The following rare but difficult-to-diagnose failure can occur. If the temperature inside the furnace exceeds a maximum threshold, a safety mechanism with a thermostat will shut the furnace down. A symptom of this failure is that the furnace repeatedly shuts down before the house reaches the desired temperature; this is commonly referred to as the furnace “riding the high limit switch”. This condition commonly occurs if the temperature setting of the high limit thermostat is set too close to the normal operating temperature of the furnace. Another situation may occur if a humidifier is incorrectly installed on the furnace and the duct which directs a portion of the humidified air back into the furnace is too large. The solution is to reduce the diameter of the cross-feed tube, or install a baffle that reduces the volume of re-fed air.