Furnaces can be classified into four general categories, based on efficiency and design.
The first category of furnaces are natural draft, atmospheric burner furnaces. These furnaces consisted of cast-iron or riveted-steel heat exchangers built within an outer shell of brick, masonry, or steel. The heat exchangers were vented through brick or masonry chimneys. Air circulation depended on large, upwardly pitched pipes constructed of wood or metal. The pipes would channel the warm air into floor or wall vents inside the home. This method of heating worked because warm air rises.
The system was simple, had few controls, a single automatic gas valve, and no blower. These furnaces could be made to work with any fuel simply by adapting the burner area. They have been operated with wood, coke, coal, trash, paper, natural gas, and fuel oil. Furnaces that used solid fuels required daily maintenance to remove ash and "clinkers" that accumulated in the bottom of the burner area. In later years, these furnaces were adapted with electric blowers to aid air distribution and speed moving heat into the home. Gas and oil-fired systems were usually controlled by a thermostat inside the home, while most wood and coal-fired furnaces had no electrical connection and were controlled by the amount of fuel in the burner and position of the fresh-air damper on the burner access door.