Heat Pumps vs Gas Furnaces for California Homes: The BasicsI’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 CaliforniaNow 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.