The Difference Between Furnaces + Heat Pumps
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Furnace vs Heat Pump: What’s the Difference?

Perhaps you’ve just bought a new home, or maybe your old heating system has finally given up its last breath of life, and it’s time to consider your options. To help you decide between a furnace or a geothermal heat pump for heating your home, here’s how each system works and what it has to offer.

What Is a Heat Pump?

By circulating refrigerant through a cycle of evaporation and condensation, heat pumps can effectively extract heat from one place and transfer it to another. They are essentially using the same technology found in air conditioners and refrigerators, which have existed for decades.

Both air conditioners and refrigerators are good examples of heat pumps; only instead of heating, they provide cooling. A refrigerator is nothing more than an insulated box connected to a heat pump system. The evaporator coil is found in the freezer section, where it absorbs heat and sends it outside to wherever the condenser coil is located – usually either underneath or behind the unit. In the same fashion, air conditioners transfer heat from inside a house to the outside.

How Does a Heat Pump Work?

Heat pumps work by pumping refrigerant between two heat exchanger coils using a compressor where it is then evaporated at a low pressure in one of the coils, and heat is then absorbed from its surroundings. As the refrigerant travels to the other coil, it is condensed at a high pressure and the heat absorbed is released.

Heat pumps feature a fully reversible cycle which allows them to dehumidify/cool in the summer, and heat in the winter, providing your home with a year-round climate control solution. There will always be some degree of heat in the outside air and found underground, so a heat pump will be able to fully heat your home even on the coldest of winter days. Around 85% of the heat felt at 70℉ is still retained in temperatures as low as 0℉, believe it or not.

What Is An Air Source Heat Pump?

The most common type of heat pump used in buildings all across the United States are air-source systems. Air source heat pumps work by absorbing heat from the outdoor air during the winter in order to warm indoor spaces. During the warmer spring and summer seasons, they keep homes cool by absorbing excess indoor heat and transferring it outdoors. Ground source heat pumps are also available, however. Also known as geothermal, earth energy, and geo-exchange heat pumps – these systems draw heat from groundwater or the ground itself instead of the outdoor air.

What Is a Geothermal Heat Pump?

A geothermal heat pump (GEHPs or GSHPs) or earth-source heat pumps are energy-efficient, free-standing units that use the earth’s natural temperature to transfer heat indoors. This type of heating and cooling system utilizes a combination of geothermal heat pump technology (the transfer of heat from the earth’s surface) coupled with on-site, sealed air conditioning equipment to provide efficient home cooling and heating.

Due to their exceptional energy efficiency, many environmentally tech-savvy homeowners and green-minded businesses have chosen to install geothermal heat pumps, but the trend has been growing significantly in recent years. Since this type of heating and cooling system operates as your furnace and air conditioner, it can be installed nearly anywhere, including basements, attics, crawlspaces, porches, and garages. With careful installation and ongoing maintenance, your geothermal heating system can produce up to 45% more energy-efficiency than a standard HVAC system.

How is a Geothermal Heat Pump Installed

The geothermal heat pump installation process begins by determining the ideal location for placement in your home. Next, the geothermal heat pump is installed into a space designed to retain the optimum temperature. For the heat pump installation to be successful, it must be placed within at least two feet of existing plumbing and drainage pipes. After the heat pump is installed, a series of electrical connections and wiring are connected between the geothermal heating system and your home’s power supply.

Then a system of durable high-density polyethylene pipes is installed under your yard called geothermal loops. A mixture of environmentally friendly antifreeze and water is then added to these underground pipes to give them their heat exchanging ability.

Finally, a few indoor lighting controls are installed to the indoor system to ensure it is well lit even during low light times of day. Once these components are installed, any residual heating ductwork should be extended to accommodate the system and then properly connected to the home’s existing HVAC ductwork.

What Are the Benefits of a Heat Pump?

There are many great benefits to enjoy with a heat pump, besides their ability to keep you warm, including:

  • Efficiency: Compared to gas-operated furnaces, electric heat pumps are much more energy efficient.
  • Safety: An electric heat pump will never run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • Quiet Operation: Heat pumps run much more quietly than a gas furnace would.
  • Cost-Effective: In most areas across the country, electricity rates are a lot lower than natural gas rates, making heat pumps more cost-effective to operate.
  • Lower Installation Cost: Furnaces require an extensive ventilation system, which can come at a high cost if your home isn’t already equipped for a gas furnace. Due to this, heat pumps will usually cost a lot less to install.

What Is a Furnace?

Furnaces have existed for what seems like forever and use fuels such as gas, wood, coal, and electricity. The most commonly found type of furnaces are gas-powered central air systems, also known as forced warm air distribution or ducted warm air systems. They heat air in one location before distributing it around the house through a series of air ducts and vents.

In order of function, the furnace’s primary parts are the control system (including the electrical controls and thermostat), gas valve, burners, heat exchanger, blower, ventilation, and duct system. Combustion gases are vented via a flue pipe out of the home when the furnace is creating heat.

How Does a Furnace Work?

Initially, you’ll have to set a temperature for the thermostat. When the thermostat detects the temperature dropping below this point, it sends a signal that tells the furnace to turn itself on. At this point, the furnace’s gas valve opens, and the burner located beneath the combustion chamber is ignited. The thermostat and the gas valve will work together to regulate the amount of gas flow traveling to the furnace.

A metal heat exchanger is heated by the flames coming from the burner, and the heat circulates through the heat exchanger’s looped tubing, which transfers the heat into the air. While the heat is traveling through the heat exchanger, the heat is moved through the plenum by a blower motor and fan before it then continues through to the air ducts and vents of your home, where it is then able to heat your house. The thermostat will detect when enough heat has been generated and shut the heater off when appropriate.

What Are the Benefits of a Furnace?

While a somewhat older solution than a heat pump, there are still several benefits that a furnace has over a heat pump:

  • Long Lifespan: More often than not, a furnace will have a much longer lifespan than a heat pump.
  • Less Maintenance: Due to only being in use for a few months out of each year, furnaces tend to require little maintenance, especially compared to a heat pump that’s running all year round. Furnaces also have fewer moving parts, so there’s less opportunity for something to go wrong.

Furnace vs. Heat Pump: How Do They Compare?

There are several factors you’ll want to take into consideration when trying to decide between a furnace and a heat pump for your home. These considerations include the type of climate you live in, energy-efficiency, and your preference for gas or electric heating.

One of the most important things to consider is, of course, the temperature. More specifically, however, how often will the temperature drop below freezing? Due to their stability in extreme low temperatures, furnaces are most commonly found in colder northern climates, as they work more efficiently in freezing temperatures than other heating options.

However, if you’re living in a warmer climate, heat pumps may be a more sound option. One of the best qualities of heat pumps is they can heat and cool, providing you with excellent climate control all year round. While they are more energy-efficient in warmer climates than a furnace, they can struggle from time to time to keep up in more extreme low temperatures.

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