Heat Pump vs. a Gas Furnace -- Which Should You Choose?

Heat Pump vs. Furnace — Which Should You Choose?

People in the market for an HVAC system upgrade do have choices. For heating in winter, the most common choice is between gas furnaces and heat pumps. Both technologies have much to recommend them, so before the final selection is made there are multiple factors to consider.

What is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump extracts heat from the air outside and transfers it into a home or place of business, in a steady enough supply to raise indoor temperatures to a comfortable level. Even when temperatures approach freezing the outdoor air will still contain a fairly significant amount of heat, and by working continuously a heat pump can remove it in sufficient quantities to heat enclosed spaces.

Despite the name heat pumps can function as indoor heaters and as de facto air conditioners. To produce a cooling effect, it pumps heat out of the air inside and transfers it outdoors for release.

Pros and Cons of Heat Pumps

In comparison to gas furnaces, heat pumps have some advantages and disadvantages …

Pros

  • Energy-efficiency. A heat pump uses electricity to facilitate the transfer of already-existing heat from one area to another, and it works very efficiently because it doesn’t have to generate any additional heat.
  • Lower installation costs. Indoor furnaces are usually teamed with central air conditioning systems, each of which must be purchased and installed separately. But a heat pump only requires one installation.
  • Nearly soundless operation. Heat pumps don’t create anywhere near as much noise as gas furnaces, which use forced-air technology to distribute heat throughout a home.
  • Safety. While such occurrences are rare, and avoidable if proper maintenance procedures are followed, furnaces are capable of producing dangerous gas or carbon monoxide leaks if certain failures occur.

Cons

  • Higher operating costs. Electricity is more expensive than natural gas, and the gap is usually large enough to cancel out the efficiency gains associated with heat pumps.
  • Shorter lifespans. Overall, heat pump systems are more complex than furnaces and subject to wearing out more quickly, and this problem is exacerbated by the fact they run throughout the year instead of just during the winter.
  • Poor efficiency in frigid conditions. While heat pumps can work in cold weather, their efficiency levels drop precipitously once temperatures sink below freezing. There simply isn’t enough heat in the air outside to sustain effective pumping action beyond a certain point, and once temperatures drop into the single digits or below zero it is impossible for a heat pump to keep a home comfortable.

What is a Gas Furnace?

A gas furnace relies on a steady feed of natural gas to fuel a continuous cycle of combustion whenever the furnace is switched on, creating intense heat that is highly effective at warming indoor spaces. This heat is distributed throughout a home through an extensive network of ducts and heat registers, and it can be kept running for as long as it takes for temperatures to rise to the desired level.

Pros and Cons of Gas Furnaces

The advantages and disadvantages of gas furnaces are well-known, since this technology has been in use for decades …

Pros

  • Lower operating costs. While the price of natural gas is flexible, it is still a less expensive fuel to burn than coal, which is the fossil fuel used to generate most of the electricity we use (and which heat pumps rely on).
  • Longer lifespan. While the typical heat pump may last up to 15 years, a 20-30-year lifespan is normal for a well-maintained high-efficiency gas furnace.
  • Decreased costs of purchase and installation (in some cases). The cumulative cost of installing an air conditioner for summer and a heat pump for winter is more prohibitive than the installation costs for a heat pump alone. However, if your air conditioner is fine and you only need a new furnace, your installation and equipment costs will be lower than for a heat pump, by anywhere from $500 to $1,000.
  • Lower maintenance and repair costs. The heating season in most regions of the United States lasts from 3-6 months, but heat pumps may be called on to heat or cool all year long. Consequently, they are more subject to mechanical breakdowns of various types.
  • Greater dependability in all weather conditions. Once temperatures drop below freezing, gas furnaces will begin to outperform heat pumps, and by an ever-widening margin as the mercury begins to plunge. There simply is no way a person living in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado or Wyoming alone can get by with a heat pump—and nothing else—during the winter.

Cons

  • The risk of gas or carbon monoxide leaks. This risk is mostly dependent on the homeowner. Annual inspections by trained HVAC professions can virtually eliminate the chances of this happening, and no one who owns a gas furnace should be lax about arranging such visits.
  • A deleterious impact on indoor air quality. The products of gas combustion can be unhealthy to breathe and can create unpleasant odors, especially when furnaces are not working efficiently. To help prevent such problems, gas furnaces should be cleaned by an HVAC professional on a regular basis, and air filters should be changed whenever they become clogged and are constricting air flow.

Dual System Heating: The Best of Both Worlds?

In Colorado and Wyoming, a heat pump alone is not a practical solution in winter. But it is possible to install a dual heating system that uses a heat pump to fulfill some heating duties, with a gas furnace available as a backup when temperatures plunge to unpleasant depths. With a dual heating system, the heat pump can function as an air conditioner in the summer as well, giving the homeowner a versatile system that eliminates the need for one piece of expensive HVAC equipment.

While a heat pump is generally more expensive to operate than a furnace, even in relatively mild winter temperatures, the heat it produces usually has a higher moisture content than the dry heat produced by a furnace. People who experience itching or burning of the eyes, throat or skin when the air is excessively dry may prefer to use a heat pump in the spring or fall, or in winter when temperatures are relatively mild.

Rheem Pro Partner is Turning Up the Heat

If you are considering changes in your HVAC system, we can help you make the right choice for you and your family. Our product line features an expansive array of outstanding furnaces and heat pumps, and if you contact us today we can introduce you to an impressive variety of superior quality HVAC equipment. In Colorado and Wyoming Rheem Pro Partner is your best bet for great products and even better service, and that is why you should come to us to discuss your home heating and cooling options.