When a homeowner thinks about house heat, the furnace is the first thing they think of. But energy efficiency aficionados may think differently because heat pumps can heat certain homes for a fraction of the cost. Let’s take a look at some of the differences.

How Heat Pumps and Furnaces Work

Forced air heat pumps don’t produce any heat at all — rather, they pull heat right out of the outside air, even if the air is cold. The heat is then condensed and pumped into the home through a fan system. There’s also another type of heat pump that uses geothermal energy; instead of getting heat from outside air, it gets heat from the relatively stable underground temperatures using a circuit of buried pipes.

Most homes are heated with some type of forced air furnace, usually powered by gas or electricity. Gas furnaces feature sealed combustion chambers to generate heat, and electric resistance furnaces have electric heating elements similar to those in electric space heaters, only more powerful. In both cases, a fan circulates air over the heating elements and through a network of vents to heat a home.

Which One is Right for You?

There are several factors to consider when deciding between a furnace and a heat pump, but the major factor is climate. In temperate climates with mild winters, heat pumps tend to be significantly more energy efficient than furnaces. But in frigid temperatures, heat pumps often struggle to keep up. Many systems have an auxiliary heat source that kicks in under these circumstances, but it’s far less efficient than a traditional forced air furnace.

Geothermal heat pumps are more resilient in colder climates, but they also cost significantly more to install than any other heating option, and there are some locations where an installation is impossible. So the farther north you live, the more likely it is that a good old furnace is the most effective and efficient option.

Review Options With a Pro

If you’re not sure which system is right for you, a licensed HVAC technician can help you work through the decision. It’s best to consult experienced professionals about whether your climate is appropriate for a heat pump, as well as the difference between up-front costs and operating costs. In general, the up-front costs of furnaces are lower than forced air heat pumps and much lower than geothermal heat pumps, unless you also need a full duct network installed.