Whenever I happen to meet someone who’s never lived in California, I’m always shocked to hear them start talking about our weather like it’s an absolute paradise all the time, as though the entire state were bathed in sunshine all year long. Yes, I know there are all kinds of songs and movies about California sun and surfing and all of that—and I know that daily sun is the norm in places like San Diego. The reality for us in Northern California, though, is a little different. Our climate is much more complicated than that.
In Northern California, we have what’s known as a Mediterranean climate. I’ve talked about this quite a bit in the past (hey, it’s hard to talk about heating and cooling services without mentioning the weather), but the gist is that the Sacramento region tends to get hot and dry summers, sometimes going weeks with highs in the 90s or above and not a single cloud in the sky. On the flip side, though, we also have cool, wet winters, with rain and temperatures down around 40. I bring this up because I’ve been getting a lot of questions about whether our region is right for heat pumps. It’s a good question. To answer it, you have to first understand the pros and cons of a heat pump vs a gas furnace for California homes—Northern California, to be exact.
As with a good deal of HVAC related topics, the heat pump vs gas furnace debate is one that tends to vary depending on the details of an individual’s home. If you get it right, however, you could soon be enjoying a whole slew of benefits, from lower energy bills to faster and more even heating and cooling for your home. Doesn’t that sound nice? As nice as the outsiders think our January weather is…
Heat Pumps vs Gas Furnaces for California Homes: The Basics
I’ve talked about how to troubleshoot heat pump problems in the past, as well as plenty of other topics about them. And, I’ve talked a great deal about furnaces as well, i.e. the backbone of most HVAC systems. I haven’t ever shared a side-by-side comparison of the two, though. So, I think it’s time to take a look at what exactly sets heat pumps and furnaces apart from each other, which is something that all homeowners should know, especially those who live in parts of California where we don’t get the stereotypical year-round sunshine our state is famous for.
- Heat pumps: A heat pump is a machine that pulls in the heat from the air outside (even when it’s cold) and transfers it to the air inside your house. Think of a heat pump as a guide for the warmth that is naturally present in the air around us. I’ve also talked in the past about the viability of a hybrid heat pump and propane system, which taps a propane heater to help with additional warming whenever the temperature outside dips below 40. One of the biggest benefits of a heat pump is that it does all this without using gas or electricity to generate heat. In fact, the biggest use of electricity when it comes to heat pumps is to run the fans that move air.
- Furnaces: I’m sure you’re all much more familiar with furnaces, but since we are looking at them compared to heat pumps, we should probably note that furnaces use gas or other fuel to cause a combustion reaction that heats air. That heated air is then circulated through your home by an electric fan. So, while a heat pump transfers heat that’s already in the air outside, a furnace generates its own heat through fuel and a chemical reaction.
The Pros and Cons of a Heat Pump vs a Gas Furnace in California
Now that we know the major differences between how a heat pump and a furnace works, it’s time to take a look at which one is more energy efficient. Energy efficiency is important for a few reasons: the first is that it’s good for the environment; the second is that the more energy efficient your HVAC system is, the less electricity and gas it uses, meaning you’ll end up paying lower monthly utility bills.
So, now that we know what’s at stake here, let’s take a look at the pros and cons for each piece of equipment:
- Heat pumps, the pros: The biggest pro for a heat pump is its energy efficiency. Since a heat pump doesn’t technically generate its own heat, it doesn’t have to use things like fossil fuels to do its job. It just uses electricity to move the heat, keeping your home comfortable through our cold and rainy Northern California winters.
- Heat pumps, the cons: Not using fossil fuel doesn’t always translate into lower bills. In fact, during particularly cold winters, heat pumps might have to use so much electricity that your actual utility bill would be higher than if you were using a gas furnace. The exception, however, is in regions where the temperature never dips below freezing, and there are entire winters where the coldest weather in our area is only down around 50 degrees. This might sound familiar if you live somewhere like Stockton or Sacramento, but if you live further east toward the Sierra Nevada mountains, where you’re liable to have freezes and occasionally get snow, then you’ll want to think twice about going with a heat pump.
- Furnaces, the pros: One pro of a furnace is that it doesn’t have to depend on heat from the air outside. If the temperature does drop down below freezing (as unlikely as that is in most of the Sacramento, CA area) it can still do its job relatively easily. The initial investment price for installing a new furnace is also somewhat lower (think between $500 and $1000 for most homes) than it would be with a heat pump.
- Furnaces, the cons: Fuel costs can fluctuate, and sometimes poor availability can lead to sudden surges in pricing. Furnaces also have a larger range of efficiency than heat pumps, meaning that furnaces fluctuate depending on factors like home size and the type of furnace. They can also be a poor choice if you live in a remote region (and in Northern California, let’s be honest, we have our share of those) without ready access to a natural gas supply.
So, which then is right for your home? Well, as we just discussed, there are pros and cons to each. The winner of the heat pump vs. gas furnace for your California home debate really isn’t all that clear-cut. My expert advice is to have a trained, experienced HVAC technician advise you on which would make the best option for your unique home.
Now it’s confession time: I actually prefer the weather we have in Northern California to the sunnier stuff they have down in Los Angeles and San Diego. In those places, you don’t have any variety. Every day you wake up, and it’s sunny. Here, when you get tired of the sun or the heat, all you have to do is wait a few weeks or months and you have a new season. Just make sure you’ve made the right heating and cooling choice that can handle the diversity in the weather so that your home stays cozy while you enjoy the cool or rain.
Wondering whether your California home is better suited for a heat pump or a gas furnace? Contact the HVAC professionals at Bell Brothers to schedule your evaluation today. And, while we’re visiting your home, let us give you a whole house assessment for energy efficiency and offer recommendations and upgrades that are sure to increase your year-round comfort—and decrease your power bills.
Wondering how to finance a new HVAC system? HERO is a unique financing option that helps California homeowners afford energy efficient upgrades to their home. Contact Bell Brothers, a HERO-approved contractor, to learn more. Our local HVAC, plumbing, and window specialists will walk you through the entire process, from applications to installation.
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