May 08, 2018

Heat Pump, Heat Strips or Furnace: Which One Is Right For You?

So you’re on the lookout for a new heating system. These days, you have three legitimate options when it comes to home heating systems. Heat Pumps, Heat Strips, or furnaces. So what will it be for you? 

As with most everything, heat pumps, heat strips, and furnaces have their own set of pros and cons. Today we take a closer look at what these types of heating systems have to offer to help you decide which one is right for you.

Heating method

A furnace burns LP or natural gas, then sends the heat it generates into the home. The BTU efficiency of a furnace is an important consideration. A furnace that is rated at 80% efficiency means that 80 cents of each dollar heats the home and 20% is lost. A heat pump, on the other hand, does not burn anything but uses refrigerant to move heat from one place to another.  

A heat pump is usually more cost efficient, and can be supplemented with a heat strip kit in below freezing weather markets for an all electric home.  Heat strip kits are generally the least efficient heating option, but the only other option for homes that do not have access to a gas fuel source. 

Power source
A heat pump is usually powered by electricity, although there are heat pumps that run on natural gas, propane, or even solar or geothermal heated water but those are not found in residential use. Furnaces are powered by electricity, but they still use use natural gas a fuel source.

Function
Furnaces are exclusively for heating. Heat pumps, meanwhile, can be used as an AC unit during the hotter months. Heat pumps are also referred to as “reverse air conditioners.”

Lifespan
Heat pumps last 10 to 15 years on average, while furnaces last longer at 20-30 years. The reason for this is simple: Furnaces are used only during the colder seasons, while heat pumps pull double duty as a heater during the winter and as an air conditioner during the summer. 

Efficiency
Heat pumps are generally more energy-efficient than a gas furnace. The price of electricity, however, tends to be higher than that of propane or natural gas. In the end, the Heat Pump still gains more BTU per hour than a gas furnace and is still more cost efficient in the long run. 

Safety
The fact that furnaces burn fossil fuels means there is a danger of carbon monoxide poisoning or a fire every time you operate it. Heat pumps, meanwhile, doesn’t burn gas, so they are relatively safer. 

Installation cost
A furnace is cheaper than a heat pump, but it is a solo component of the system responsible for heating, where a Heat Pump is useable year round for both heating and cooling. Furnaces, however, can require a rather extensive ventilation system, the installation of which could add to its total cost. 

Effectiveness
Furnaces have it over heat pumps when it comes to effectiveness in extremely cold weather. The temperature could drop to several degrees below freezing, and a furnace will keep you warm no matter what. Since a heat pump does not generate heat but just transfers it from one place to another, it is better suited for regions with milder winters.

While both heating systems have their pros and cons, the single most important factor in choosing between a heat pump and a furnace is the climate in the region where you live. If temperatures in your area drop to below zero on a regular basis, your only viable option is a furnace. However, if the winters where you live aren’t that cold, a heat pump might be the better choice, although a furnace would be good, too.

The Many Different Types of Heat Pumps

If you have decided to go for a heat pump as your primary home heating system, you need to know that heat pumps come in many different types. Each type boasts of different features as well as advantages, and you need to choose one that would be perfect for your specific requirements and applications.

The main types of heat pumps
There are three types of heat pumps: Air Source, Water Source, and Ground Source or Geothermal. Let’s look at each type individually to see what would serve your needs best.

Air-Source Heat Pumps
The air-source or air-to-air heat pump is the most popular type of heat pump today. Typically fitted to the side of a building, air-source heat pumps draw in heat from the outside air and feed it into your home using fans. They are inexpensive to install and have become so much more efficient today that you can expect significantly lower utility bills. 

Air-source heat pumps work well in moderate climates, but they aren’t that widely-used in colder regions. That, however, is starting to change with advancing air-source heat pump technology that makes them viable even in areas that experience freezing temperatures.

Water Source Heat Pumps
While water source heat pumps work the same way as air source pumps, they’re different in that they extract and dissipate heat not from the air, but from a body of water like a lake, pond, river, spring, or well. Each water source heat pump has a system of pipes laid out at the bottom of a given body of water. The heat pump cycles the water through these pipes, gathering heat along the way before carrying it back to your home.

Considering that it requires living near a body of water, the water source heat pump is not as common as the air source heat pump. Water source heat pumps, however, are better-suited for colder climates than air-source heat pumps.

Ground Source Heat Pumps
As the name implies, ground source or geothermal heat pumps extract heat from the ground and transfer it the way air source heat pumps do. They are seen as more efficient because the temperature of the ground is generally more constant. Installing one, however, is a costlier and more complicated process because it requires a certain amount of excavation and the installation of pipes underground.

Heat Pump Sub-Types
Apart from the three main heat pump types mentioned above, there are several sub-types with specific features and applications.

Hybrid Heat Pumps
Hybrid heat pumps are defined by their ability to use more than just one energy source. This sub-type of heat pump is perfect for regions where it’s quite warm in the summer but freezing in the winter. 

There are two common hybrid configurations. One is a combination of ground and air source heat pumps. In this setup, the air source system is used when the air outside is warm enough, with the ground source system taking over when it becomes unbearably cold. The other is a heat pump and gas/oil boiler combo, which, of course, can be done in homes with boiler systems in place. 

Solar Heat Pumps
Solar heat pumps integrate solar panels as a power supply and are typically used in conjunction with air and ground source heat pumps. 

Absorption Heat Pumps
Absorption heat pumps are unique in the sense that instead of being powered by electricity, they run on heat sources like propane, natural gas, geothermal-heated water, or solar-heated water. This type of heat pump is also commonly referred to as a gas heat pump since natural gas is its most common heat source.

Ducted heat pumps
A ducted heat pump has an outdoor unit that is connected to an indoor unit. The exterior unit extracts heat from the air. The heat is then processed into the interior unit, then distributed through ducts or vents throughout the home.  Ducted heat pumps are perfect for homes with already existing forced-air systems as well as newly-constructed homes.

Ductless heat pumps
A ductless heat pump, also known as a mini-split system, is a very popular type of heat pump. Ductless heating systems typically have one external unit, but they can be set up to have one or more units indoors. Since they don’t use ducts to distribute heat, they keep energy losses to a minimum compared to what usually happens with the ductwork of central forced air systems. You can install them in any part of the house to go with your interior design preferences.

How Much Do Heat Pumps Cost?

Many factors affect the total cost of installing a heat pump system. Heat pump prices can vary, and the factors that affect it include the type of pump, brand, and capacity. Even the Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF), seasonal energy-efficiency rating (SEER), and sound rating all impact the total cost of this type of electric unit heater.

The installation cost covers labor, planning, equipment used, prepping the installation area, materials and supplies, and in some cases, specialty equipment fees.

A mid-range heat pump system can cost you between $700 and $2,800. Once you factor in the brand, model, capacity, and installation aspects like materials, drilling or excavation, you are looking at a total heat pump cost of $9,000.

The Different Types of Furnaces

For those who live in regions where sub-zero temperatures are the norm come winter time, a furnace is the best heating option. If you’re buying one, there are several types available. The most common, however, are gas, oil, and electric.

Gas Furnaces
The most common type of home furnace is one that runs on gas. The primary fuel for gas furnaces is natural gas, which you can get from a network of pipelines that are usually in place in urban areas. You can also use propane or butane, especially if you live in an area with no natural gas pipeline. 

A gas furnace produces warm air by getting cool air from a specific part of the house and forcing it through the heat exchanger. Once the air is heated, that warm air is then pushed through air ducts and into the different rooms of your home. The burner then switches off once it reaches the desired temperature.

Oil furnaces
An oil furnace works by converting oil into a mist, spraying it into a combustion chamber at high pressure, and igniting it with a spark. The result is an efficient, powerful, blowtorch-like flame that heats a heat exchanger. Oil furnaces are usually constructed from much heavier and thicker steel designed to handle this type of flame. 

Electric furnaces
An electric furnace works just like a forced-air gas furnace, but instead of a gas burner, it makes use of electric heating elements to produce heat. A blower draws air into the furnace cabinet, then pushes it through the heat exchanger and into the living areas that need heating.

How Much Do Furnaces Cost?

As with heat pumps, various factors affect the final cost of getting a furnace as a home heating system. Just like anything else, brands of furnaces come with different prices and varying levels of quality. The size of the furnace also matters. The larger the furnace, the more expensive it tends to be, which is why it’s absolutely important to purchase the right size furnace at all times. 

The features that a particular furnace brand or model offers also affect the total cost. Basic models tend to be cheaper, while furnaces that are loaded with more advanced features and higher efficiency typically cost more. Speaking of furnace efficiency—which is measured by Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency (AFUE) for those that burn fossil fuels and seasonal energy-efficiency rating (SEER) for electric furnaces—units that have a higher rating have a higher price tag as well. The higher efficiency, however, means lower energy costs down the line.

The final major factor in the overall cost of a furnace is its installation. Labor, equipment used, materials and supplies, the location where the furnace is going to be installed, and the degree of difficulty of installing it all affect the cost of installation.

If you’re getting a furnace with a reasonable price tag, you are likely to spend approximately $2,500. More expensive brands, however, can push your furnace installation cost to about $5,000. 

Heat Pump vs Furnace