Heat Pump vs. Furnace: Which Should I Install?

The heat pump vs. furnace debate has undoubtedly entered the conversation if you are contemplating replacing your furnace. These two types of home heating systems are very different. A heat pump system does not generate heat; it gathers heat energy from the outside air and distributes warmth.

On the other hand, a furnace is a heat source using a combustion process to produce heat.

How Do Heat Pumps Work?

A heat pump is a unique, dual-purpose system that serves as an air conditioner in the summer and a heater in the wintertime. While some function using the air already present, others—known as geothermal systems—capture and transport heat from the soil.

Air Source Heat Pumps

All air source heat pumps work using:

• An outdoor unit
• An indoor unit
• A refrigerant line that connects the two units
• A reverse valve that allows the system to change modes (from cool to heat)

During Ontario's hottest months, an air-source heat pump functions in air conditioner mode. It switches to the opposite function and draws heat from the outside air when it gets colder. (Yes, even Ontario's frigid air!) The secret is the pressurized refrigerant. Utilizing a cycle of evaporation and condensation (happening inside coils housed within both units), a heat pump works to absorb and efficiently transfer heat from one location to another. 

How Do Furnaces Work?

As mentioned, a furnace generates its own heat. How? The majority of the time, it produces hot air using fuel, like natural gas or oil.

Gas Furnaces

A gas furnace operates utilizing:

• A burner
• Heat exchangers
• A blower fan
• A flue (to vent hot gas exhaust)

A gas furnace receives the signal when the temperature on a thermostat rises and then distributes fuel to burners inside a combustion chamber. A pilot light ignites the burners that, in turn, heat the heat exchanger. The blower fan moves air around the heat exchanger and sends hot air throughout your home. (Note: Electric furnaces have an electrical ignition that begins a similar heating process.)

Which System Works Better?

Everybody wants a heating system that is economical, efficient, reliable, and long-lasting. Gas furnaces and heat pumps tick all the boxes to varying degrees.  

Home Comfort

The heat produced by a gas furnace is typically hotter and drier. And regardless of the outdoor temperature, a gas furnace produces more heat. Heat pump systems, in contrast, move naturally humid air that might not feel as warm. And, they have some limitations; if temperatures dip below minus 28-30 degrees Celsius, you may temporarily need a backup heating source. However, heat pumps are versatile and may also serve as your home's air conditioner in the summer. Additionally, a ductless mini-split system is an ideal answer if your house is older and lacks ductwork.

Air Quality

Regarding air quality, the standout is a heat pump vs. a furnace. Your home's indoor air quality may be maintained with regular air filter changes and proper furnace maintenance. Heat pumps, however, don't produce carbon monoxide (CO), so you never have to worry about a dangerous CO leak. Dry skin is another effect of furnace heat. The humidity is naturally higher since heat pumps use moisture to heat the air.

Energy Efficiency

Homeowners want to know which heating system is the most efficient because climate change and excessive energy bills are now significant concerns. Although electric, heat pumps use less energy and heat efficiently, surprisingly more so than a furnace. Under ideal circumstances, a heat pump can transfer up to 300% more energy than it uses. Only about 95% of high-efficiency gas furnaces are effective. Due to its efficiency, numerous air-source heat pumps have been awarded the ENERGY STAR label (Note: Any HVAC system's efficiency will be lowered by leaks or obstructions like dust and dirt in the air ducts. Make sure to clean your duct system frequently.)

Installation Costs

Installation of a heat pump could be more expensive than replacing a furnace, but this depends on various factors. Access to natural gas, the equipment and wiring currently in your home, the desired configuration of the new system, the condition of existing ductwork, and more influence the installation price. Naturally, a heat pump is less expensive to run than a furnace, so any additional upfront expenditures are quickly recovered.

Life Expectancy

How long do heat pumps last in comparison? A heat pump has a shorter lifespan since they are operated all year round. In Ontario, a heat pump will last 10-15 years. A well-maintained gas furnace should last more than 15 or even 20 years. Furnaces are only used during the year's colder months and contain fewer motorized components.

Save Money With Canadian Rebates

Investing in a home heating system that uses less energy is ideal right now because the government of Canada is offering significant incentives to Ontario area homeowners who lower greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Canada Greener Homes Grant, Ontario residents can receive rebates for:

• Smart Thermostats: $50 maximum rebate
• Efficient Heating (such as heat pumps): $5,000 maximum rebate
• Required home evaluations: $600 maximum rebate (To be eligible for this program, pre- and post-retrofit assessments must be conducted.)

To qualify, you need to abide by all the government program guidelines.

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