So, you’re thinking about getting a new heating system. Maybe your system has completely stopped working, or the repairs are starting to add up and it’s just time for something new. Initially, you may have been planning to buy a high-quality furnace to replace the one you had before. But now that you’re looking, you’re seeing a lot of references to heat pumps and other non-traditional heating options, and wondering about the differences between heat pumps and furnaces.
Furnaces have historically been the most popular heating choice throughout the U.S. However, homeowners who wish to lower their monthly energy bills or reduce their carbon footprint are increasingly turning to heat pumps, which provide electric heating and cooling. Here’s everything you need to know to choose the best heating option for you.
What is a Heat Pump?
A heat pump is a heating and cooling system that transfers heat between the home and the outdoors. In cool months, it acts as a heater by extracting heat from the outdoors and moving it into your home. In the summer, it acts as an air conditioner by expelling heat from your home. You can think of a heat pump as a heat transporter.
Traditional heat pumps are connected to a furnace. However, the furnace will not generate heat except as a backup on the coldest days. Instead, the furnace blower will be used to distribute heat from the more efficient heat pump throughout the home.
Heat pumps are extremely energy efficient because they move heat rather than generating it. In many cases, heat pumps “produce” or move more energy than they consume, leading to an effective efficiency of well over 100%.
What is a Furnace?
Furnaces are the most popular heating choice in homes throughout the U.S. These heating systems burn a fuel source in a combustion chamber and then force hot air throughout the ductwork and home with a fan.
All furnaces have four main components: a combustion chamber (or “burner”) that burns fuel, a heat exchanger, a fan or “blower”, and a flue for gas exhaust. Since furnaces use combustion to create heat, the air they blow feels much warmer than heat from a heat pump.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to choose from gas, oil, electric, or hybrid furnaces that can run on both gas and oil.
Which Heating System is More Energy Efficient?
In mild climates, heat pumps are much more energy-efficient than furnaces. Transferring heat requires less energy than creating new heat, unless you are transferring heat from a very cold location to a significantly warmer home.
Some heat pumps can transfer as much as 300% more energy than they consume under ideal conditions. The highest efficiency furnaces can only approach 100% efficiency since the energy they consume is used to produce new heat. In addition, some heat is inevitably lost through exhaust.
However, furnaces can be more cost-effective in the coldest months, especially if your home has access to natural gas. Heat pumps become less and less efficient at heating once outdoor temperatures drop below freezing.
Which Heating System Will Make My Home More Comfortable?
The heat produced by a furnace feels different from heat pump heat. Since furnace heat comes from a flame, it will feel hot and dry coming out of the vent. Many people enjoy feeling the intense heat coming out of a furnace vent.
Heat pumps generally “blow cooler,” even if they are warming your home to the same temperature. The air they circulate is naturally humid since it comes from the natural environment. While the heat coming in will not feel quite as toasty as heat from a furnace vent, it won’t dry out your skin as much.
Heat pumps have the added benefit of being able to cool your home as well. While they lack the power of central air conditioning, in milder climates a heat pump can keep your home comfortable all year around.
Which Heating System Works Best in Cold Weather?
Both heat pumps and furnaces can work well in moderately cold weather. In mild climates, heat pumps are quite efficient because they transfer more heat than they consume.
However, heat pumps may have a hard time generating enough heat to keep your home warm if the temperature regularly falls well below freezing. It will require much larger heat transfers to keep your home at a comfortable temperature, and you may need the furnace to kick in as a backup heat source.
Homeowners in the south and southwest will generally be better off with a traditional heat pump or ductless system. In climates where the temperature rarely reaches freezing, a heat pump will virtually always be the most efficient option. However, a furnace is generally the better option in the northeast, midwest, and inland west where snow is common.
West coast residents, including people in the Puget Sound region, can also benefit from heat pumps. However, you will still need to keep your furnace in most cases. Traditional heat pumps use your furnace fan and ducts to distribute warm air throughout your home, and you may need your furnace to generate additional heat on the coldest days.
Are Heat Pumps Better for Air Quality?
In general, heat pumps have a lower impact on the environment and produce fewer harmful emissions. Most furnaces produce harmful greenhouse gases during the combustion process, although it depends on the energy source.
However, recent technology advancements have allowed some furnace models to produce lower emissions. In addition, electric furnaces do not produce toxic gas emissions.
Are Heat Pumps or Furnaces More Reliable?
Furnaces typically have a somewhat longer lifespan than heat pumps. The average gas-powered furnace can last for 20 years or more, assuming proper maintenance.
Heat pumps generally last about 15 years, although that’s partly because owners tend to use them for air conditioning as well as heating. If you buy a heat pump, you are likely to use it in the summer as well as the winter.
Gas-powered furnaces may be less likely to break down than electric furnaces and heat pumps. They have fewer mechanical parts, which means there are fewer parts that can malfunction. However, you can also reduce the risk of breakdowns by choosing a good quality heating system and staying on top of maintenance.
Which Heating System is Better for the Environment?
Heat pumps are almost always better for the environment. These heating systems do not burn fossil fuels and use considerably less energy than even the most efficient electric heaters.
However, heat pumps still have some impact on the environment. They use refrigerants to transfer heat, which harm the environment if there is a leak. The manufacturing process also creates some harmful emissions.
Nevertheless, switching to a heat pump is one of the best ways to reduce the carbon footprint in your home without giving up temperature control.
How Much Do Heat Pumps and Furnaces Cost?
If your main concern is saving on installation costs, your best bet is to buy a furnace alone. Heat pumps are more expensive than furnaces, and you cannot use a traditional ducted system heat pump without a furnace.
Keep in mind that the cost of a heat pump or furnace is more than just the initial installation cost. Over time, you will see energy savings if you use a more efficient heating system. If you live in a mild climate, a heat pump will be far more efficient than a furnace most days.
Ask a local HVAC technician to give you a breakdown of how much each heating system costs and what the energy savings look like in your area.
Heat Pumps and Furnaces in the Pacific Northwest
The best heating system ultimately depends on your preference as a homeowner. If you prioritize energy efficiency, air conditioning, or lowering your carbon footprint, you are likely to appreciate a heat pump. A furnace alone may be a better choice for homeowners who need to save on installation costs.
In areas like Everett, Lynnwood, and Marysville, the mild climate is a great fit for a heat pump. Paragon Heating and Home Comfort Solutions can help you install or maintain your heating system of choice. Our expert technicians service heat pumps, furnaces, air conditioners, and ductless mini-splits.
We are one of the only heating and air conditioning contractors in Snohomish and East King Counties that is open on Saturday. Contact us today to learn more about your heating options.