One form of heat (and its distribution system) is not necessarily any better or more efficient than another. Overall system performance depends on factors ranging from the price of fuel to the efficiency of the heating system to how it’s installed.
Heat can be generated by a variety of fuels and is usually distributed to individual rooms by either forced-air ductwork or hydronic (water-filled) pipes. However, some well insulated houses may not need any heat distribution system at all, relying instead on a centrally located woodstove or on individual space heaters.
European Standard for Low-Energy-Use Buildings
Most European homes built to the German Passivhaus standard distribute heat through ventilation ducts rather than hydronic pipes or conventional ductwork. Such homes include a heat-recovery ventilator with ventilation ducts measuring 4 inches or less in diameter.
The homes are built to a high standard of air tightness and include thick layers of insulation and triple-glazed windows; as a result, very little space heating is required. Space heat needs are supplied through the HRV’s ductwork by an electric resistance heater, an air-source heat pump that scavenges heat from the ventilation system’s exhaust air stream, or a hydronic coil connected to a water heater.
For more information on the Passivhaus standard, see “Passivhaus for Beginners.”