Heat Pump Or Gas Furnace? Which One Is Right For You?

Kenneth Wilson

Preserving a comfortable temperature within your living space is one of the most important considerations when it comes to making your house into a home. Whether you are working on a brand-new build or thinking about upgrading your current heating system, there is a lot to take into consideration when it comes to choosing the type of heating system.

Is a more traditional gas furnace the right choice for you? Would your family benefit from a heat pump system? Which is more affordable, more efficient, and quieter? Does it matter which I choose depending on the climate I live in? Let’s take a closer look at both options so you can have a greater understanding of these systems and the pros and cons of each.

How does a Gas Furnace work?

So, while both types of heaters operate by heating air and then distributing that warmer air throughout the house via a duct system, gas furnaces generate that heat, while heat pumps merely redistribute it. Simply put, a gas furnace generates heat by burning fuel. Typically, a furnace will burn either gas or propane and then circulate that warmer air throughout your home via a duct system.

Pros of Gas Furnaces

Here are a few of the major benefits that are typically associated with gas furnaces.

  • Furnaces Cost Less to Run in Colder Climates. Furnaces are often more cost-effective to run. This is because gas and propane are often cheaper than electricity in most places in the US. It can be expensive to run a heat pump in a colder region due to the high amount of electricity that it will burn. Thus, gas furnaces become more affordable and cost-effective.
  • Furnaces Are Quieter. Because gas furnaces are often located away from the common living spaces, for example, in a basement or a utility room, they are much quieter than heat pumps. Most homeowners only hear a soft air noise when their gas furnaces turn on to heat their home. This is perfect when you’re in a colder climate and trying to keep your home as peaceful and quiet as possible.

Cons of Gas Furnaces

Here are a few of the major disadvantages that are typically associated with gas furnaces.

  • Furnaces cost more to install than heat pumps. If you don't already have gas lines built into your home, for example, to your gas stove for cooking, it becomes much more expensive to install a gas furnace. Getting gas lines put in is extremely expensive, and most homeowners find it out of their price range altogether if they don't already have the gas lines ready.
  • Furnaces can leave cold zones in your home. Since gas furnaces pump out heat at higher temperatures, it means your home can reach your ideal temperature almost too quickly. So, while some rooms in your home will be comfortable, many cold spots can still remain, which can be frustrating for homeowners. Additionally, the extremely hot air produced by your furnace can cause dry skin, especially in the winter.
  • Furnaces Produce Dangerous Carbon Monoxide. Because gas furnaces combust fuel, it means they produce Carbon Monoxide. If not installed properly, it can be a threat to your family and your pets. Furnaces require regular monitoring and inspection to ensure they are operating within safe parameters.

How does a Heat Pump work?

Alternatively, a heat pump works in a much different way from a gas furnace. It draws in heat from the outside and disperses that heat throughout your home. So, technically a heat pump doesn't create any heat; instead, it ingests heat through pressurized refrigerant lines and then disperses that heat into your home.

However, there are many options to choose from, and it will depend on your location and your specific needs. First, let's look at the three main types of heat pumps on the market today.

1. Air-to-Air

An Air-to-Air Heat Pump is by far the most common and generally works by transferring the warm outside air to the inside of your home. This means it is typically not the best choice for climates that get below freezing. If you have long, cold winters, it will be difficult for the heat pump to supply warmth to your home because there isn't much warm air outside to draw in. This also means higher electricity costs spent working the heat pump overtime to deliver the heat you need.

2. Ductless Mini-Split

A ductless mini-split heat pump works a lot like an air conditioner. Also known as "zoned HVAC" units or simply "mini-splits," these don't need any ducts to condition the air. Instead, it is typically a smaller unit with an outdoor compressor and an indoor air-handling unit and will work for older homes, add-ons, and renovations that may not already have a duct system.

3. Geothermal

A Geothermal heat pump gathers heat stored in the earth and uses it to heat the air that warms your home. They are going to be more efficient for homeowners living in colder climates. A geothermal heat pump will use the temperature deep in the earth (usually around 50 degrees F) as a heat source in the winter or a cooling source in the summer.

Unfortunately, geothermal units are much more expensive to install because of how deep they need to be installed into the ground and how extensive the coil system needs to be. (Related: Water Heater Replacement Cost And Consumer Guides)

Pros of Heat Pumps

Here are a few of the significant advantages that are typically associated with heat pumps.

  • Heat Pumps are More Efficient in Milder Regions. Heat pumps are often a better choice in certain areas of the country that do not experience frigid temperatures. For example, if you live in an area where temperatures don't get below freezing, a heat pump will usually use less energy, thereby being more efficient and cost-effective than a gas furnace.
  • Heat Pumps Have Cheaper Installation and Inspection Costs. Heat pumps usually have lower upfront costs when it comes to installation vs. a furnace. Additionally, because they do not create Carbon Monoxide as gas furnaces do, they don’t require as much regular monitoring and inspections. A furnace can cost up to $10,000 or even more depending on the model; however, to install an air-to-air model of heat pump only averages around $3,000-$4,000 depending on the size. Furthermore, consider that a heat pump can also be used to cool your home, so you may be able to save the cost of an air conditioner.
  • Heat Pumps Require Less Space. Since furnaces are usually installed indoors, they can often use up a lot of space due to manufacturers and local building codes requiring a lot of clearance space. Alternately, the compressor part of a heat pump is located outside of the house and requires less clearance, and the air handler part of a heat pump, which is inside, does not generate its own heat or combust any fuel. This means it may not need any floor space at all and could be mounted up high.
  • Heat Pumps Can Also Cool Your Home. During the warmer summer months, a heat pump works very similarly as an air conditioner does; it reverses the flow of refrigerant through its coils to cool your home. Many homeowners see this as a huge benefit since it can save them from purchasing a separate air conditioner.

Cons of Heat Pumps

Here are a few of the significant drawbacks that are typically associated with heat pumps.

  • Heat Pumps are Noisier. Although both heat pumps and furnaces can be noisy, when both are operating at peak efficiency, heat pumps are definitely the louder of the two. Heat pumps often knock and click as the compressor powers up or shuts down. This is seen as a definite disadvantage over gas furnaces for the homeowner that wants to keep their home as quiet and peaceful as possible and for homeowners that may have a new baby sleeping.
  • Heat Pumps Are Less Efficient in Cold Climates. Heat pumps use the warm air from outside in order to heat your home. The warmer your climate, the easier it will be for them to generate more heat. Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean you have to be someplace warm and tropical for the heat pump to work; it can even draw warm air out of temperatures that are below freezing; however, they do become less efficient as it gets colder.

What about a Hybrid System?

Yes, you heard that right! Why not look into a heat pump with a gas furnace backup? Because heat pumps are powered by electricity, you can decide between using either gas or electricity to help heat your house. So, for example, if gas is less expensive than electricity at any given time, you’ll be able to use more gas instead of getting gouged on electricity and vice versa.

Additionally, a hybrid system can keep you more comfortable by reducing cold spots or multiple-degree temperature swings that can happen with gas furnaces.

Talk to your local HVAC professional to see if a hybrid system is an option for you, and talk more about if you will benefit from the advantages a hybrid system can provide.

Consult with a Professional

No matter what you decide, before you take the plunge, please call your local HVAC pro. These professional technicians are experts in their field, and they will be able to measure the volume of air in your living space, take your climate zone into consideration, and assess your budget to help you choose the right type and size heating system for your home.

Additionally, this is not the time to go rogue and DIY. Heat pumps and furnaces both require an HVAC professional to connect them into your homes’ electrical panel. And when it comes to furnaces, you’ll find that most local building codes will require a licensed HVAC technician to connect your gas lines.

This is not the time to try and cut corners on your home projects; it could be dangerous and end up costing you more if you decide to try to do it all on your own.

Which Heater is Right for your Home?

At the end of the day, which heater you choose will mostly come down to one thing: where you live. Do you live in the South, where you have milder temperatures throughout the year? If the answer to that is yes, and your winters are only getting down into the 40s, a heat pump will most likely be the right choice for you.

 The other main thing to consider is the cost of electricity vs. gas in your area. Is electricity significantly less? A heat pump will be your better option. And finally, how much space do you have? Heat pumps take up considerably less space inside your home, another great advantage.

On the other hand, if you are living in a colder climate that gets below freezing and has long, cold winters, a gas furnace will most likely be your best option. A gas furnace will be able to produce more heat consistently for your home. Any of the “dangers” of having a gas furnace can be easily mitigated by regular maintenance and inspections. There really is no reason to be worried about carbon monoxide if you stay up to date with your furnace maintenance plan.

Additionally, furnaces are the quieter option, and that cozy swoosh of the air as it switches on is a comforting sound to hear in the middle of winter. The only caveat here is if you do not already have gas lines built out that connect to your home, a gas furnace will be nearly impossible to install.

Kenneth Wilson
August 31, 2021

Kenneth Wilson

Retired contractor. Currently residing in Southwest Florida. Now in semi-retirement, I write and manage this blog focused on helping home owners make savvy decisions when it comes to finding contractors and getting their projects done. I also operate remodeling design service for homeowners.

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