When it comes to choosing a new home furnace, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the many options that are now available. But in all honesty, the marketplace for new furnaces really isn’t as complicated as it might seem once you know a few things about the types of furnaces commonly available for purchase, and how to choose the right one for your home.
While there are many different ways to heat an indoor space—boilers, radiators, pellet stoves, etc.—when it comes to homes and apartments, the vast majority of people choose either a traditional furnace or a heat pump.
How Electric Furnaces and Gas Furnaces Work
Furnaces can vary widely in design and scale—anything from the old wall-mounted units you often see in older homes, to the furnace in your garage or basement that is the heart of your central heating system. No matter what, furnaces all work based on the same key concept: create heat, suck air out of your home, heat it up, and pump the air back into your home.
Furnaces can be powered by either electricity or natural gas. An electric furnace relies on electricity to heat up electric coils, while a fan pushes air past or through the coils, heating the air, which is then blown into your home.
Natural gas furnaces work a little differently. In these, gas is burned in a combustion chamber, creating heat. A heat exchanger then absorbs this heat and transmits it to air which is blown through it and into your home.
While the details of gas and electric furnaces differ, they all rely on that simple concept we mentioned above: use energy to create heat, and heat up air with it.
How Heat Pumps Work
On the other hand, heat pumps rely on an entirely different principle. Heat pumps are rather complex, but they essentially work the same as an air conditioner, absorbing heat energy from one area and releasing it elsewhere.
The trick is, a heat pump is a two-way air conditioner. In the summer when a heat-pump is run in air conditioning mode, it absorbs heat from inside the home and expels it outside. But it’s when it gets cold outside that a heat pump shows how impressive it can be. Despite the fact that wintertime air is cold, a heat pump can still extract what little heat energy there is in the air and transfer it to the air being circulated inside your home. Essentially, it makes the cold air outside even colder in order to make the inside air warmer.
In short, a traditional furnace uses energy to create heat, while a heat pump moves heat from one place to another.
Choosing Between a Furnace and a Heat Pump
There are a number of factors to consider when choosing between a heat pump and a furnace to heat your home. For starters, how much does electricity cost in your area, versus natural gas? If natural gas is cheap, a natural gas-powered furnace may be your best choice. However, the process of generating heat requires a lot of energy, and if you’re going to rely on electrical power, then a heat pump might be your best bet. This is because moving heat requires much less energy than generating heat.
Then again, another critical factor to consider is your local weather. Heat pumps work best when the outside temperature is above 50 degrees or so. Once it gets down to about 37 to 40 degrees, a heat pump will have to work almost constantly to keep your home warm, and will use a lot of electricity. There are heat pump models that feature supplemental heat coils that activate in low temperatures. But these use a lot of energy, mitigating the cost benefits of a heat pump. If temperatures below 40 degrees are very common in your area, then a gas or electricity powered furnace is likely the right choice for you.
Pros and cons to consider when choosing your furnace or heat pump
- Furnace Installation cost: Cost to replace furnace is typically more expensive as they require ventilation systems that heat pumps do not.
- Maintenance and dependability: Furnaces (especially gas furnaces) generally have fewer parts than heat pumps, and thus require less maintenance and usually have longer lifespans.
- Safety: Gas furnaces pose the risk of gas and carbon monoxide leaks.
- Size and convenience: A furnace relies on a single central unit to generate heat, while heat pumps require both indoor and outdoor units.
Choosing the right heating solution for your home can be challenging, but don’t let it overwhelm you. With a little research and by consulting with experienced furnace installers—you’ll be able to find the furnace or heat pump that’s right for your home.