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Heat Pumps vs. Furnaces: Which is Best for Your Home?

How do you stay warm in your home? When it comes to home heating systems, homeowners often have to choose between heat pumps vs. furnaces. The best type of heater for your home is going to depend on the age of your house, where you live, and the climate you experience.

While much of the nation uses natural gas to warm their homes, heat pumps are becoming more popular, since they are cheaper to install and more energy-efficient. However, for those who experience frigid winters, furnaces are more reliable and will not succumb to below-freezing temperatures.

What’s the best option for your home? In this guide, we will compare the pros and cons of heat pumps vs. furnaces.

Table of Contents

Heat Pumps

In general, a heat pump moves heat from one place to another, making your home warmer or cooler depending on your needs. Heat pumps work as reverse air conditioners—they pull the warm air from outside to the inside to heat the home, and they can also cool the home during warmer months. They also use electricity and are more energy-efficient than gas-powered heating systems.

heat pump illustration

There are pros and cons to using a heat pump. It depends on where you live, your climate, and the existing infrastructure of your home. Heat pumps are growing more popular around the United States, although a majority of the country still uses gas-powered heating systems.

Types of Heat Pumps

There are also different types of heat pumps. Each one is best for specific types of homes, depending on their climates and how they are built.

  • Ductless heat pumps, also known as ductless mini-split units, are ideal for older homes or homes that do not have existing ductwork throughout the home, as the pump doesn’t require them to flow heat throughout.
  • Duct heated pumps, on the other hand, do need ducts throughout the home to work.
  • Geothermal heat pumps use the heat from the ground or water near your home to operate. This is optimal for those who live in climates prone to extreme weather.

Pros of Heat Pumps

  1. It uses electricity. This means homeowners do not have to worry about gas leaks or accidents, like explosions.
  2. They are more energy-efficient. Heat pumps actually produce more warm air than the electricity that it requires to do so. According to the Department of Energy, heat pumps use about 50% less energy than furnaces or natural gas systems and can help you cut energy and utility bills. 
  3. They produce warm and cold air. Despite their name, heat pumps are able to draw warm or cool air from outside to either warm or cool your home, depending on the weather and your needs. This also means homeowners only need a single package to both heat and cool their home.
  4. The whole house will be warm. How many times have you heard from a friend about that one room that’s always frigid during the winter? If you install a ductless heat pump in every room, this is no longer an issue. 
  5. They are quieter. Have you tried to go to sleep with a noisy air conditioner or furnace blowing through the house? Since heat pumps run on electricity, they are much quieter than furnaces. You may not even notice they are running!
  6. They are cheaper to install. EnergySage estimates that the cost of a gas electric or oil furnace is about $5,000 to install. However, a ductless heat pump can be anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000. Note that a heat pump that uses the home’s central air is much more expensive than either option, costing up to $20,000.

Cons of Heat Pumps

  1. They use electricity. Yes, we also listed this as a pro. But it can also be a con if you live in a region that is prone to power outages, whether it is from winter storms or hurricanes. You will definitely want to keep a generator on hand as a back-up plan.
  2. They are not carbon neutral. For those looking for completely eco-friendly systems, since they run on electricity, heat pumps do produce carbon emissions. Solar panels combined with the heat pump, though, will eliminate this (you can learn more about solar power here).
  3. It is less effective in places with frigid temperatures. If you live in a climate that regularly drops below freezing or even 0 degrees Fahrenheit, heat pumps will have to go into “emergency mode” to keep working, or homeowners may have to turn to a furnace to take over. This may be why homeowners in the Northeast and Midwest are still very reliant on natural gas heating systems.

Furnaces

A furnace uses the HVAC (heating ventilation and air conditioning) in order to heat or cool the home, based on feedback it receives from the thermostat.

best furnace brands

Types of Furnaces

There are four different types of furnaces: electric, oil, natural gas and propane.

  • Electric furnaces use electrical currents to the air and cycle it through the home. They are smaller, making them cheaper and easier to install. They also last longer. However, they are less energy-efficient and with the cost of electricity, can cause higher monthly bills.
  • Oil furnaces, on the other hand, create a flame to heat the air.
  • Natural gas furnaces are the most popular in the United States. They heat jets of gas through a burner, making hot hair that is circulated with a fan. They are also the least expensive to run and are the most energy-efficient.
  • Finally, propane furnaces, while less popular, are useful in areas where gas and oil are not easily accessible.

Pros of Furnaces

  1. Reliable heating. No matter the weather outside, a furnace will be able to produce heat, even during the most frigid days. Oil, natural gas and propane furnaces will also continue to work during a power outage. Like a heat pump, an electric furnace will have to be hooked up to a generator to continue working.
  2. Less maintenance. Since furnaces are only used to warm the home, they are not used all year round and will experience less wear and tear than a heat pump. For those who live in areas where air conditioning is not needed much or at all, this is certainly sufficient.
  3. They take up less space. Because of the nature of heat pumps, they require indoor and outdoor components to work. Meanwhile, a furnace only has parts to install inside the home. However, there is a 30-inch clearance requirement for furnaces, so inside it will still take up quite a bit of space.
  4. Long lasting. Because they are less prone to damage than a heat pump being used 365 days a year, they will last longer. They also have less parts, making maintenance easier. An electric furnace can last up to 30 years!

Cons of Furnaces

  1. More expensive to install. Unless you are comparing furnaces vs. heat pumps using central air, furnaces will be more expensive to install. Of the furnace options, electric furnaces are the cheapest and oil is the most expensive as natural gas prices are more affordable.
  2. Less energy efficiency. While a heat pump can be up to 600% efficient—it produces more heat than the electricity required to do so—furnaces are anywhere from 50 to 95% efficient, according to the Energy Efficiency Council
  3. Dangers of gas. Like any other gas appliance, there is a risk of carbon monoxide leaks and explosions as well as lower air quality. Always check to make sure your appliances are installed properly and are not leaking. Call a professional for yearly inspections and to ensure your furnace is working properly. 

Getting Advice on a Heat Pump vs. Furnace

Not sure whether a heat pump vs. furnace is right for you, or which type of either system? Contact a contractor to discuss your options and find the right system for you and your home. We recommend comparing three to four contractors before making a decision. Ask each for an installation quote as well as advice on which system works best for you.

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