Heat Pump vs Furnace: Pros and Cons

Published by 
AllThingsHVAC
Last updated: 
September 6, 2016

The heat pump vs furnace question is not as subjective as others; Sure, preference has a say in every decision we make for our homes, but when talking about HVAC systems there are other things to keep in mind. Climate area, fuel availability, and costs determine the feasibility of a furnace vs heat pump system. Here are the most important facts everyone needs to know before deciding which acclimatization system is the right one for them:

heat pump vs furnace climate areas

Heat Pump vs Furnace: Some Basics

Here is some ground info to get you started into the whole heat pump / furnace discussion:

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are reversible acclimatization systems that can cool and warm an inside space efficiently. During the summer months, a heat pump will extract the heat from your house and eliminate it outside. There are two types of heat pumps based on their fueling system: Electric and gas. There are three types of heat pumps based on where they collect the heat from in the winter months:

  • Air heat pumps are the most common. They take heat from the outside air and transfer most of it indoors.
  • Water heat pumps need a constant water source like a river, lake, water tables, or man-made reservoirs. They use the water heated by solar radiation to provide warmth but are not as dependable as other systems.
  • Geothermal heat pumps use the ground to provide constant temperatures all year around. The piping is installed at certain depths where heat is stored naturally, hence they are considered a modern technology that uses renewable resources. They are considered more efficient than solar panels.
heat pump vs furnace for cooling and heating

How a geothermal heat pump works.
Note: All heat pumps work by the same principle and have the same main components. Air and water heat pumps have different heat exchangers, but they function the same way.

Pros of Heat Pumps:

  • Work well all year around since they can cool and heat the air.
  • Efficient, they generate up to 3 times more energy than they consume.
  • Very environmentally-friendly.

Cons of Heat Pumps:

  • Heat pumps usually cost more than furnaces, no matter the latter’s type (but it pays off in the not-so-long run).
  • If temperatures regularly drop below 45 degrees Fahrenheit or so, an additional heating system might be needed – like a furnace.
  • Heat pumps generally have shorter lifespans because they are used all year around & higher maintenance costs. To protect their components from wear, you need to get professional help with selecting the appropriate size of heat pump.

Furnaces

Furnaces are only able to provide warmth, but they have no restrictions when it comes to outside temperatures. They use a variety of fuels like methane (natural gas), propane, etc. There are 4 types of residential furnaces, based on the principle behind them and their efficiency:

  • Natural draft furnaces: This type of atmospheric burner furnaces use warm air’s tendency to rise up to effectively heat a home. They are the least efficient and the simplest HVAC devices that exist since the early 20th They use wood, coal, natural gas, or oil to produce heat, which is then distributed through large ducts all over the house.
  • Forced air furnaces: Also a type of atmospheric burner furnaces, these are an upgrade to the previous systems. They cannot surpass 65% fuel efficiency.
  • Forced draft furnaces: These mid-efficiency furnaces use a steel heat exchanger and a multi-speed blower to compliment an air conditioning system.
  • Condensing furnaces: These high-efficiency furnaces register at least 89% fuel efficiency and can go as high as 98%. They are the most common modern furnaces and require at least 26% less fuel than other furnace types.

Modern residential furnaces can also be classified into one of the following 3 categories:

  • Single-stage furnaces, also known as standard furnaces, only have on/off settings; The fuel flow cannot be controlled further. They are about 80% efficient.
  • Two-stage furnaces have an additional transition option which only uses about half of their capacity. They use a thermostat to conserve energy by regulating their activity between off, mid, and high. Most two-stage furnaces have an efficiency rate of about 90%.
  • Modulating furnaces are the most efficient heating systems at the moment. They work by permanently adjusting their activity and output with as little as 1% increases or decreases.

heat pump vs furnace environmental effects

Although furnaces can use a multitude of fuels and resources to heat up your home, the gas furnace vs heat pump debate mainly refers to gas furnaces. They can either have a large tank that is to be refilled yearly or whenever needed, or be connected to the residential gas distribution system and be billed monthly.

Pros of Furnaces:

  • Generally, a furnace will be less expensive than a heat pump.
  • Gas furnaces are the most efficient: They convert up to 98% of the gas into heat.
  • A furnace will efficiently heat a home during the coldest winter months and can also act as a backup to a heat pump when temperatures drop below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • About 15-years lifespan, a bit longer than a heat pump.

Cons of Furnaces:

  • A furnace will only heat the air; To get a comfort and efficiency that is similar to a heat pump’s, an upgraded air conditioner is needed.
  • Gas leaks and fumes can endanger your life. In addition, there’s always a risk of fire if the controlled gas combustion goes wrong. Always use a professional installation service and never cut corners on maintenance.

Now that we know how the two systems work and which are their most important characteristics, let’s see how these pros and cons influence some important criteria everyone needs to keep in mind.

Heat Pump vs Furnace: A Point-by-Point Breakdown

Here is a breakdown of the info we discussed in this article, which will hopefully make it easier to find the best acclimatization system(s) for your home:

Heat Pump vs Furnace: Health & Safety Concerns

The electric heat pump definitely wins this round, given that no combustion takes place inside your home. other than the refrigerant, no fumes can escape from a heat pump. They are also environmentally-friendly.

Heat Pump vs Furnace: Costs

Operating costs generally tip the balance in favor of heat pumps for warmer areas. Installation costs are similar, but we need to take into account the fact that heat pumps can also cool off a house. If you choose to go with the furnace, you might also need an air conditioner for those hot summer months.

Heat Pump vs Furnace: Efficiency

New gas furnaces can be up to 98% efficient – which is an impressive rate. However, a heat pump can be as much as 300% efficient if outside temperatures don’t drop too low. This is possible because heat pumps do not use fuel to heat up or cool off your home, but amplify the heat that is already present in the outside air, water, or ground.

In the heat pump vs furnace debate on efficiency, heat pumps win if talking about hotter climates or mild ones with few extremely cold days. Otherwise, a furnace will be the right choice. It is important to note that heat pumps register their highest efficiency rates when warming up the house.

Heat Pump vs Furnace: Reliability & Comfort

Furnaces are more reliable for heating since they work well at any outside temperature. However, some heat pumps also incorporate an electric backup system for when temperatures drop below 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat pumps offer comfort all year around in areas with mild winters.

heat pump vs furnace in winter

Frozen heat pump

Heat Pump vs Furnace: Lifespan

Gas furnaces have an average lifespan of about 15 years. Heat pumps generally have shorter lifespans since they are used twice as much as furnaces. This can also increase yearly maintenance costs to considerable amounts. However, if the capacity of the heat pump accurately matches the space it needs to acclimatize, these costs are drastically reduced.

Heat Pump vs Furnace: Ease of Use

Both systems can be easily operated and have multiple safety mechanisms; Nevertheless, furnaces should never, ever be operated by children.

What Else to Look Into

  • Resources & local infrastructure: Fuel availability and cost are important variables that need to be taken into account. Natural gas,
  • Global location and climate;
  • Volume of the space you want to heat up and cool off;
  • Feasibility of different systems for your area.

Heat Pump vs Furnace Recap

The heat pump vs gas furnace debate is only controversial for areas where temperatures rarely drop below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. In the heat pump vs electric furnace debate, the heat pump will always prevail as the most efficient. If you live in the Southern part of the U.S. or on one of the coasts, a heat pump might be the best investment if you did not just replace your air conditioner.

Having a heat pump and an air conditioner is redundant and will drastically increase the energy costs, since air conditioners and heat pumps (when cooling the air) are big consumers. unlike ACs, however, heat pumps make up for these losses during the winter months.

All in all, a furnace is a good choice for those who do not need to cool off their homes or already have an air conditioner installed. They are highly functioning no matter the outside temperature and provide warmth and comfort throughout cold months. Heat pumps are great for areas with gentler winters and extreme summer temperatures.

Image sources: 1, 2, 3.

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