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 called 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, neither heating nor domestic hot water are available.
"Octopus" furnace with oil burner.
Air convection heating systems have been in use for over a century. Older systems rely on a passive air circulation system where the greater density of cooler air causes it to sink into the furnace area below, through air return registers in the floor, and the lesser density of warmed air causes it to rise in the ductwork; the two forces acting together to drive air circulation in a system termed 'gravity-fed'. The layout of these 'octopus’ furnaces and their duct systems is optimized with various diameters of large dampered ducts.
Forced-air gas furnace, design circa 1991.
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, simply by adding a cooling coil at the outlet of the furnace.
Air is circulated through ductwork, which may be made of sheet metal or plastic "flex" duct, and is 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.