Heat Pump vs. Furnace: Which Heating System Is Right For You?
When it comes to heating your home — you’ve got options. And unless you’re a seasoned pro, understanding how to choose the right heating system can feel overwhelming. Not to worry, here’s what you need to know to make the right choice when it comes down to the heat pump vs. furnace debate.
Two of the most popular heating options are heat pumps and furnaces. While each heating source has pros and cons, it can be tough to decide which is a better option for your home. Your best bet is to consult an expert HVAC technician, but understanding the differences between heat pumps vs. furnaces can help to demystify your HVAC system. In turn, you can take a more proactive approach to heating your home.
What is a heat pump?
As part of a central heating and cooling system, a heat pump uses the outside air to heat a home in winter and cool it in summer. Basically, that means your heat pump will act as an air conditioner when it’s hot and a heater when it’s cold outside — making heat pumps a versatile product.
In addition to the versatility of heat pumps, they are also energy-efficient. Think of a heat pump as a heat transporter constantly moving warm air from one place to another, to where it’s needed or not needed, depending on the season. In the winter, the pump extracts heat from the outdoor air or ground and distributes it to your home. In the summer, hot air from inside your home is removed — creating a cooler indoor environment.
What is a furnace?
As part of a central heating and cooling system, a furnace converts fuel into cozy heat delivered throughout your home. All furnaces consist of four main components: 1) burners that deliver and burn fuel, 2) heat exchangers, 3) a blower, and 4) a flue that acts as an exhaust for gaseous by-products. You can choose from gas or oil furnaces depending on your situation, region, and needs.
What is a dual fuel system?
Dual fuel systems blend the best features of a gas furnace together with a heat pump. A dual fuel system includes both a heat pump and a gas furnace and will operate the heat pump during milder temperatures when the heat pump is more efficient. The system automatically switches to the gas furnace as the outdoor temperature gets colder. Not only does this give the homeowner the best comfort in their house, but it switches back and forth between the heat pump and gas furnace depending on the most efficient option, saving homeowners the most money.
Heat pump vs. furnace: costs
The overall installation cost of your furnace, heat pump, or dual fuel system depends heavily on your home’s compatibility and current system setup. For instance, some homes may not have access to natural gas, making an air conditioner and furnace installation a more expensive alternative to a heat pump system. Alternatively, homes not wired for the supplemental heating associated with a heat pump system may incur additional costs.
Regarding utility bill costs associated with a heat pump vs. furnace, this largely depends on the climate and level of usage. Your dealer is an excellent resource for determining which system(s) are best for your home and can help further explain these installation costs and any potential challenges.
Under ideal conditions, a heat pump can transfer more energy than it consumes. Heat pumps are powered by electricity so that you can save substantially on fuel consumption. Likewise, they are over 100 percent efficient in various temperate climates and can serve as a heater and air conditioner, while a furnace can only provide heat.
Indoor air quality (IAQ)
Indoor air quality (IAQ) is an important consideration, especially in homes with high or low humidity levels, allergies, or pet dander. Fortunately, IAQ solutions, like whole-home air cleaners, fresh air ventilators, or dehumidifiers, are compatible with heat pumps and modern furnaces. This means you don’t have to sacrifice your indoor air quality regardless of which heating solution you side with in the heat pump vs. furnace debate.
Cold weather effectiveness
A gas or oil furnace burns fuel to generate heat on the coldest days. If the outside air temperature routinely falls below freezing, a heat pump may have difficulty generating enough heat to keep your home warm. Supplemental systems are available to work in tandem with your heat pump and kick in on the coldest days. Unfortunately, these systems use a lot of energy, canceling the energy-efficient benefits if used too often. A dual fuel system can handle mild and below-freezing temperatures, switching between heat sources depending on the outdoor temperature and home heating needs.
Generally, the air from a heat pump isn’t as hot as that from a gas furnace. It’s still warming your home, but it “blows cooler.” Some people don’t like that. In contrast to a furnace's hot and dry air, heat pumps circulate naturally humid air — so they won’t dry out your skin as much as the heat of a furnace.
Lifespan and maintenance of heat pump vs. furnace
A gas-fired furnace generally has a longer lifespan than a heat pump. Furnaces with proper maintenance can last 20 years or more. A heat pump, like an air conditioner, more commonly has a lifespan of 15 years. Since the heating elements of a gas-operated furnace are only used for a few months out of each year, the maintenance requirements are less than those for a heat pump. A gas-fired furnace also has fewer mechanical parts than a heat pump, meaning fewer things that can break down or malfunction.
Heat pump vs. furnace: location matters
Understanding that every home and homeowner's needs differ, some general recommendations can help you decide what heating source is right when it comes to a heat pump vs. furnace. One of the most important factors is location because certain climates are better suited for heat pumps than others.
A heat pump may be right for you if you live in a mild climate.
Heat pumps are great for mild climates where winter temperatures average around 30-40 degrees F. States like Florida, for instance, typically have milder winters which makes homeowners in this location great candidates for a heat pump vs. furnace. The same is true for locations where electric rates are low.
A furnace may be right for you if you live in a cold climate.
If your winters are bitterly cold and have temperatures consistently below freezing, a furnace may be the best choice for you. Furnaces fare better in cold-weather climates because they don’t depend on outdoor temperatures to convert to heat.
Dual fuel combines the best of both systems.
Dual fuel is a great choice in areas with mild or extreme winters. Dual fuel systems select the best heating option, either a heat pump or furnace, based on your heating need, making them a great fit no matter the weather. Watch this video to learn about hybrid heat systems and how they work.
Have heat pump vs. furnace questions? Consult a Pro
If you’re still unsure whether to invest in a heat pump vs. furnace for your home, you aren’t alone! There are a lot of considerations, and each home and family is unique. This is why it is essential to get recommendations and advice from an expert in the HVAC field. Your local Trane comfort specialist is familiar with the climate and can thoroughly inspect your home's size, layout, and insulation. This process plays a large role in customizing the heating system in your home based on your preferences and specific needs. Schedule an appointment with your local Trane dealer today to get started.