Today, all we need to do to heat the home is press a few buttons on our smart home thermostat and — voila! No need to chop wood, heat water or haul coal. The journey to modern day heating has spanned developments across many centuries, from fireplaces to iron stoves to steam heating. Most of us take our HVAC systems for granted, so we decided to share a brief history of what our great-grandparents and their “greats” had to do to stay warm.


Fireplaces today are a sentimental symbol immortalized by many a Christmas carol. But the romanticism of a fireplace is not equally matched by heating efficiency. The majority of heat generated by a fireplace goes up and out of the flue. Only a small fraction of the heat is concentrated directly in front of the firebox. 

Another drawback of wood-burning is their high air pollution. Today, homes that rely on fireplaces as a source of heat have energy-efficient “certified” designs. Some regions even have “high-pollution days” throughout the year, when fireplaces are forbidden entirely. 

For homes with fireplaces today, the net fuel cost is cheaper than heating oil, natural gas or coal. Another advantage of fireplaces is that fuel prices are relatively stable and fuel is widely available, renewable and sustainable. 

In the U.S., fireplaces were common up until the 1800s. Near the end of the century, inventor Count Rumford developed the Rumford fireplace which had a shallow firebox and was designed to reflect as much heat as possible into the room. These types of fireplaces became popular up until iron stoves took over.

Iron Stoves

Iron stoves were not a new invention; they were brought to America by German settlers. To attract early adopters, coal was marketed as “the fuel of the fashionable.” In addition, coal stoves were highly decorative with intricate ironwork and decorative finials. The goal was to make them appear as visually-attractive as they were utilitarian. 

Steam Heating

Iron stoves were eventually replaced by steam heating, which still required coal but had to heat the water that would then turn into steam. Steam heating was first adopted in institutional buildings such as hospitals, followed by residences. 

According to an article by the Chicago Tribune, “The steam is generated in a boiler in the basement. It expands and rises through pipes into radiators throughout the house. Each radiator is equipped with an air valve, mounted on the side, that allows the cool air trapped in the radiator to escape so the steam can enter. The heat from the hot steam closes the valve and traps the steam. As the steam releases its heat, it condenses into water that drains back to the boiler.”

The drawback of steam heating was the possibility of a boiler explosion. It was only in 1855 that steam became the standard home heating system, after the U.S. government contracted Joseph Nason and James Jones Walworth to install a steam-heating system in the White house.

A steam heating system requires regular maintenance to function properly. Maintenance should include a furnace tuneup, an inspection of the oil burners and annual cleaning. A disadvantage of steam heating systems is the buildup of rust and sediment in the pipes and boiler. The drain valve should be cleaned weekly during the winter by draining a bucket of water from the system.

Why We Prefer Modern HVAC Systems

Though fireplaces may be more romantic, most of us prefer low-hassle, low-maintenance modern HVAC systems powered by electricity. This winter, as you turn up the heat, don’t forget how the modern HVAC system came to be.