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Is a Heat Pump Better Than a Furnace?


You can heat your home in one of many ways: with a furnace (either powered by fuel oil, wood, electricity, or fossil gas), a boiler, or even a heat pump. Heat pumps and furnaces are both popular choices for residences, and they make a lot of sense to heat your home - but is a heat pump better than a furnace, or vice versa? In this article from Moore and Russell, we examine the key differences between the two options and ultimately which is the better choice for you and your household’s pristine comfort.

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What is a Heat Pump & How Does it Work?

A heat pump, unlike a furnace, can both heat and cool your home. It’s capable of both - so in the cooler months, it pulls heat out of the cold indoor air in order to warm your home, and vice versa in the hotter months. Heat pumps are powered primarily by electricity and transfer heat using refrigerant to offer comfort all through the year. Since they handle both cooling and heating, homeowners are seldom required to install separate systems (like an air conditioner unit) to cool their homes. Heat pumps do not depend on the burning of fossil fuels, and therefore are considered to be the more “environmentally-friendly” option.

What is the major disadvantage of a heat pump system?

One major disadvantage of a heat pump system is its reduced efficiency in extremely cold temperatures. Heat pumps operate by extracting heat from the outdoor air and transferring it indoors for heating. However, as outdoor temperatures drop significantly, the available heat energy in the air diminishes, making it more challenging for the heat pump to efficiently generate the desired indoor warmth.

In regions with consistently frigid climates, where temperatures frequently fall well below freezing, the heat pump's efficiency decreases. At these lower temperatures, the heat pump may struggle to provide sufficient heat output, leading to longer heating cycles, reduced indoor comfort, and potentially higher energy consumption.

Homeowners in colder climates who have heat pumps may need to supplement their heating options with a backup gas or electric furnace, or even consider swapping out the systems altogether.

What is a Furnace & How Does it Work?

A furnace, like a heat pump, is a mechanism installed in a home or building that generates heat to make the temperature rise to a comfortable level. The name furnace actually originates from the Greek term “fornax,” which means oven. Furnaces actually come in multiple forms, from electrical furnaces, gas furnaces, and oil furnaces. The common point is that all of these furnaces rely on some form of chemical reaction, whether that’s combustion or the reaction of electricity and metal combined to create heat. Furnaces channel the heat they create into a ventilation system that flows through to all of the connected rooms, thereby heating the home.

Which is cheaper to run - a heat pump or a furnace?

It really depends. Heat pumps tend to be more energy-efficient, therefore requiring less ongoing energy consumption and reduced energy bills. They can offer both cooling and heating, which allows for savings on what you would otherwise spend on the additional cooling unit. Heat pumps may also be the most cost-effective in regions with lower electricity costs when compared with gas or oil prices. However, they do have a higher upfront cost.

The cost effectiveness - or the cost to run a furnace is greatly dependent on the cost of the fuel (gas or oil) where you live. Also, efficiency can vary. Older models tend to be less efficient, but newer models often use less energy to produce heat. Gas and oil furnaces are also more effective in climates where temperatures plunge below freezing, and heat pumps tend to lose their effectiveness once the temperature is below a certain point - thereby requiring the addition of a backup unit, which can hike the price up tremendously.

Where you live may be a determining factor in which is cheaper to run, so consult with an HVAC professional to do a total cost analysis and breakdown for you. They will be happy to examine your existing setup’s specs and give you a rundown.

Is it worth replacing a gas furnace with a heat pump?

The two systems technically do very different things. Where a furnace uses the heat of a chemical reaction known as combustion via burning fuel, a heat pump utilizes electricity to power mechanical equipment which then pushes heat from one place in your home to another.

The net efficiency of a heat pump sits around 90-100%, because when you use electricity in a heat pump, you’ll get around three times as much heat as electrical energy used. That sounds great, but a modern, high-efficiency furnace is about the same (give or take a few numbers, depending on models, age, condition, etc.) The difference between the two is that a heat pump technically has reduced operational costs, but a higher upfront cost, and is considered the more eco-friendly of the two.

However, it’s worth noting that heat pumps don’t have the same efficiency in lower temperatures. When it gets below freezing, usually -5°C or further into the negatives, heat pumps aren’t as efficient. Furnaces can be efficient down to -40°C. If you live in a place where the winters are so frigid you could store your popsicles on your lawn, then investing in a furnace - or a combination HVAC system - might be more worth your while.

If you have questions about which HVAC system would be best for your needs, book a consultation today!

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