Should You Get a Furnace or a Heat Pump?

a middle aged black man wearing jeans and a plan shirt trying to decide to get a furnace or a heat pump

Here at Coldstream Mechanical, Vernon BC homeowners often ask us what's better— a furnace or a heat pump—when it comes to home heating.

Understanding the differences, along with their respective advantages and disadvantages, can really help homeowners in the North Okanagan to make an informed decision about which type of heating system to use.

Heating systems are crucial for comfort in many homes, especially in regions like the North Okanagan where we experience such cold winters. So the choice between a furnace or a heat pump is often based on various factors including the local climate, energy efficiency, installation costs, and maintenance requirements.

Before we get into choosing a furnace or a heat pump, let's go over how each works and the overall advantages and disadvantages of each.

What is a furnace and how does it work?

A furnace is a heating system that burns fuel (like natural gas, oil, or propane) or uses electricity to produce heat. This heat is then distributed throughout the home via a system of ducts.

a diagram explaining how a gas furnace operates from air intake to heat creation

What are the advantages of a furnace?

  • Efficiency: Modern furnaces, especially those that are energy-rated, can be very efficient.
  • Heating Capability: Furnaces can provide higher temperatures compared to heat pumps, making them ideal for colder climates.
  • Longevity: Furnaces often have a longer lifespan than heat pumps.

What are the disadvantages of a furnace?

  • Cost of Fuel: Depending on the type of fuel used, operating costs can be high.
  • Installation: Gas furnaces require venting and thus may be more complex to install.
  • Carbon Footprint: Combustion-based furnaces produce carbon emissions.

What is a heat pump?

A heat pump is a device that transfers heat from one place to another using electricity. In the winter, it extracts heat from outside air and transfers it inside; in the summer, it works in reverse, acting like an air conditioner.

What are the advantages of a heat pump?

  • Energy Efficiency: Heat pumps are generally more energy-efficient than furnaces because they move heat rather than generate it.
  • Environmental Impact: Heat pumps have a lower carbon footprint since they rely on electricity.
  • Dual Function: They can heat and cool a home, eliminating the need for a separate air conditioning unit.

The Disadvantages of a Heat Pump:

  • Performance in Extreme Cold: Heat pumps can lose efficiency in very cold climates since they rely on outside air.
  • Initial Cost: The upfront cost of a heat pump can be higher than that of a furnace.
  • Maintenance: They may require more maintenance, especially in regions with extreme weather conditions.

Should you choose a furnace or a heat pump?

a side by side comparison of the pros and cons of a furnace vs heat pump

When it comes to furnaces vs heat pumps, there are a few deciding factors you have to take into consideration. Below, we're going to go into more detail about the advantages and disadvantages, to give you a much better idea of how to decide which is best for you.

Does climate matter when choosing between installing a heat pump or installing a furnace?

YES! The choice between a furnace or a heat pump is definitely climate-dependent.

Using a furnace in colder climates is often more effective than a heat pump due to the fundamental differences in how these systems operate and their efficiency under extreme temperatures.

Operating Principles:

  • Since furnaces generate heat by burning fuel (or using electricity), they effectively and consistently maintain warm temperatures inside a home, regardless of how cold it gets outside.
  • Heat pumps, on the other hand, transfer heat from the outside air into the home. As temperatures drop, there's less heat available outside to be transferred inside, which significantly reduces the efficiency of a heat pump in extreme cold.
a diagram of how a heat pump operates

Efficiency at Low Temperatures:

  • Furnaces are not affected by outside temperatures in the same way as heat pumps. They can produce a consistent heat output regardless of how cold it is outside, which is crucial in very cold climates.
  • Heat pumps start to lose efficiency when the outside temperature drops below freezing. In extremely cold climates, they may need to rely on supplemental heating sources, which can increase energy costs and reduce overall efficiency.

Energy Usage and Costs:

  • In colder climates, the energy required to run a heat pump efficiently can be higher than the energy used by a furnace. This is because as the temperature drops, the heat pump must work harder (and use more energy) to extract heat from the cold air.
  • Furnaces can more effectively convert fuel to heat, maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature without the need for excessive energy use in cold weather.

Long-Term Durability and Maintenance:

  • Furnaces are generally more durable and require less maintenance in cold climates compared to heat pumps. The strain of operating in extremely cold weather can lead to more frequent repairs and maintenance issues for heat pumps.

Comfort Level:

  • Furnaces can produce higher temperature heat, providing a warmer and more comfortable environment in homes during harsh winters.

In summary, while heat pumps are efficient in moderate climates and can provide both heating and cooling, their efficiency drops significantly in very cold weather. Furnaces, with their ability to generate heat independently of outside temperatures, are typically more reliable and effective for maintaining warmth in colder climates.

What are common costs associated with heat pumps and furnaces?

When considering a furnace or a heat pump, it's essential to look at both the initial installation cost and the long-term operating costs.

Costs based on climate:

  • Heat Pumps: In mild to moderate climates, heat pumps are often more cost-effective. They are highly efficient in these conditions because they transfer heat rather than generate it, leading to lower energy consumption and costs.
  • Furnaces: In colder climates, furnaces might be more cost-effective, especially high-efficiency models. As mentioned, heat pumps lose efficiency in extremely cold weather, potentially leading to higher operational costs due to the need for auxiliary heating systems.

Energy Prices:

  • The cost of electricity versus gas (or other fuels) in your area significantly impacts cost-effectiveness. If electricity rates are low, a heat pump might be more economical. Conversely, if natural gas is cheaper, a gas furnace might be the better choice.

Initial Installation Costs:

  • Heat Pumps: Generally have higher initial installation costs, especially if the home doesn't already have ductwork. However, they serve as both heaters and air conditioners, potentially offsetting the initial higher cost in the long run.
  • Furnaces: Might have lower initial installation costs, but if you also need an air conditioning unit, the combined cost can be significant.

Efficiency Levels:

  • Newer models of both furnaces and heat pumps are becoming increasingly energy-efficient. High-efficiency models can offer more cost savings over the long term.

Maintenance and Longevity:

  • Regular maintenance costs and the expected lifespan of the system also affect overall cost-effectiveness. Furnaces typically have a longer lifespan than heat pumps but may require more maintenance if they use combustion fuels.

Incentives and Rebates:

  • Sometimes, there are government incentives or rebates for installing energy-efficient systems, like heat pumps. These can offset higher initial costs and make a heat pump more cost-effective in the long run. In Vernon BC, both heat pumps and furnaces are offered rebates by BC Hydro and Fortis BC.

When it comes to the more cost-effective option between a furnace or a heat pump, it largely depends on your local climate and energy prices, the efficiency of the system you choose, and whether you also need cooling capabilities. It's advisable to calculate both the upfront and long-term operational costs for your specific situation and add it to your pros and cons list of both.

What is the environmental impact from heat pumps and furnaces?

Heat Pump

  • Energy Efficiency: Heat pumps are generally more energy-efficient than furnaces. They transfer heat instead of generating it, which often leads to a higher efficiency rating.
  • Electricity-Based: Most heat pumps are powered by electricity. The environmental impact depends on the source of the electricity (renewable vs. fossil fuels).
  • Reduced Carbon Emissions: When powered by renewable energy, heat pumps have significantly lower carbon emissions compared to gas or oil furnaces.
  • Refrigerants: Some older heat pump models use refrigerants that can be harmful to the ozone layer if not properly handled. Newer models use more environmentally friendly refrigerants.
  • Low Operational Noise: Contributes to less noise pollution.

Furnace

  • Fuel-Based Operation: Furnaces often run on natural gas, oil, or propane, which involve burning fossil fuels and thus higher carbon emissions.
  • Carbon Footprint: Higher carbon emissions due to combustion of fossil fuels. This contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
  • Energy Efficiency: Modern furnaces can be highly efficient, but they typically fall short compared to heat pumps in terms of overall energy efficiency.
  • Air Quality Impact: Burning fossil fuels can negatively impact indoor and outdoor air quality by releasing pollutants.
  • Dependence on Fuel Prices: Environmental impact can indirectly increase if higher fuel prices lead to the use of less efficient, more polluting heating methods.

So, as you can see, heat pumps are more energy-efficient and have lower carbon emissions when using renewable energy, but the environmental impact of electricity sources and refrigerants must be considered. On the other hand, furnaces have higher carbon emissions due to burning fossil fuels and potential impact on air quality, but newer models can be very efficient.

Both systems have their unique impacts on the environment, and the choice between them will depend on your personal preferences about environmental sustainability.

What is the difference between the requirements for maintenance of heat pumps and furnaces and their expected longevity?

The longevity of a furnace or a heat pump varies based on the quality of the system and maintenance practices.

a 30 something chinese woman hvac technician installs a heat pump in a vernon bc in summer

Heat Pump Maintenance & Longevity

  • Maintenance Frequency: Generally requires bi-annual maintenance checks – in the spring for cooling and in the fall for heating.
  • Lifespan: Typically lasts about 10-15 years, depending on the model and maintenance.
  • Component Wear: Because they run year-round for both heating and cooling, heat pumps may experience more wear and tear.
  • Outdoor Exposure: The outdoor unit is exposed to weather elements, which can affect its lifespan and require more frequent check-ups.
  • Repair Complexity: Repairs can be more complex due to the dual-function nature (heating and cooling), potentially leading to higher repair costs.
  • Efficiency Over Time: Efficiency may decrease over time if not well-maintained.
a 30 something white man hvac technician installs a furnace in a vernon bc basement in winter

Furnace Maintenance & Longevity

  • Maintenance Frequency: Annual maintenance is usually sufficient, focusing mainly on heating components.
  • Lifespan: Can last between 15-20 years or more, often outlasting heat pumps.
  • Component Wear: Generally experiences wear only during colder months, which may result in longer overall lifespan.
  • Indoor Installation: Being indoors, furnaces are less exposed to weather, which can reduce the need for maintenance related to external factors.
  • Repair Simplicity: Furnace repairs are often more straightforward since they only serve a single function, which can mean lower repair costs.
  • Steady Efficiency: If properly maintained, furnaces can maintain their efficiency level for most of their lifespan.

Heat Pumps require more frequent maintenance due to year-round use, have a shorter lifespan and more complex repairs, and efficiency that can decline without proper upkeep. Furnaces generally have longer lifespans, require less frequent maintenance, have simpler repairs, and maintain efficiency well if maintained properly.

Again, the choice between a heat pump or furnace based on maintenance requirements and lifespan of the product also comes down to what fits best for your needs.

Making the Right Choice Between a Furnace or a Heat Pump

Choosing between a furnace or a heat pump, of course, depends on your individual needs, the climate you live in, your budget, and your priorities in terms of energy efficiency and environmental impact.

It's also advisable to consult with an HVAC professional in your area, like our guys here at Coldstream Mechanical, to help you assess the specific needs of your home and what will work best there. But, full disclosure, we tend to lean toward furnaces due to our cold winter climate AND the amazing rebates offered by Fortis BC.

Contact Coldstream Mechanical today to get us in to help you with all your heating needs!