Indoor climate is one of those topics you probably don't pay much attention to, until you're uncomfortable. If the heat stops working or the kind of heating unit you use doesn't work very well, then you want to find a good way to keep your living space comfortable. So you need to consider what's the best, a heat pump vs. an electric furnace?
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Heat Pump System
Heat pumps use electricity but not in the traditional form of electrically-heated coils that warm a room. A heat pump system works like a refrigerator, using electricity to move heat from a cool space to a warm space, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer. The heat pump efficiency factor is pretty high, and heat pumps are often less expensive than other types of heat.
There are actually three types of heat pumps: Air-to-air, water source and geothermal. The air-source heat pump is the one you usually see in new construction. These heat pumps transfer heat between indoor and outdoor air, and can reduce electricity use in many instances by about 50 percent compared to furnaces and baseboard electric heaters. Heat pumps also double as air conditioners, and are really good at dehumidifying the air better than standard central air conditioners. Air-source heat pumps have been around for many decades, but until recently, their heating ability in areas with cold winters hasn't been reliable. Technology has changed, and now air-source heat pumps can provide a good form of heat in winter.
A heat pump uses less electricity than a typical electric furnace. If you have a heat pump that uses electric backup heat, it probably uses electric heat strips, which use a lot of electricity. Depending on how cold your winters are, you may not use this often. But if you live in a place where winter temperatures regularly drop into the teens, you will use this often. The advantage to the heat pump is it gives you the air conditioner in the same unit. You will need either the electric heat strips or an auxiliary heating system, if your winter temperatures regularly dip to 10 to 25 degrees, depending on the size of your heat pump.
Your heat pump size is important. Check to make sure you're installing the right size heat pump to fit your living space. If it's too big or too small, it won't work right. Heat pumps are sized to heat an average number of square feet, and you want to make sure your living space fits comfortably within that average. Heat pumps are most efficient when your house is well-insulated and your ductwork is installed properly. Improperly installed ductwork can leak up to 30 percent of the heat.
Mini Split Heat Pump
If your house is older or doesn't have ducts, there's a ductless version of air-source heat pumps called a mini-split. These can be installed into additions. They are visible inside, although they can be installed high on a wall or ceiling. They can be expensive, but tax incentives can bring the cost down. They are quiet sources of heat and air conditioning.
Geothermal Heat Pump
A geothermal heat pump system cost more to install, but these are highly efficient systems that transfer heat between the house and the ground or a nearby water source. These systems can reduce energy use by 30 to 60 percent, control humidity and fit into a variety of houses. These can also be used in more extreme climates than air-source heat pumps.
There's even a heat pump that's not powered by electricity. Absorption heat pumps use heat powered by natural gas, propane, solar-heated water or geothermal-heated water. It uses the ammonia-water absorption cycle to provide heating and cooling. It's not pumped up in a compressor, but rather, absorbed into the water. The heat boils the ammonia out of the water.
Electric heat can be installed either through baseboard heaters or through a central furnace. An electric furnace will be 100 percent efficient but will be more expensive than a heat pump. An electric furnace works like a big hair dryer, producing heat with electric heating elements. The furnaces then use forced air to blow the heated air through the house. The advantage over a heat pump is the air is typically warmer than air blown from a heat pump system.
Room electric heaters are easy to install and the cheapest form of heat to install. Electric baseboard or wall heaters are often used to supplement central heating systems or as the main heat in small houses in cold climates. If you are adding on to your house, an electric baseboard heater is an efficient way to heat your new space. Adding ducts to a heat pump or furnace for a forced hot air heating system can change the airflow through the ducts. Also, closing off vents in a forced hot air system to rooms you don't use can cause some strain on your furnace.
The rate of heat may be more expensive, but that's usually offset by cheaper installation costs. Electric heaters and furnaces also need little maintenance and typically last longer than other types of heaters. Electric heat is 100 percent efficient, which means none of the heat is wasted. Natural gas and oil typically have at least 3 percent heat loss and often lose 10 to 20 percent. Furnaces that run on natural gas and oil may decrease in efficiency as they age. Electric plants are often powered by coal, oil and gas, but that may change as more types of renewable energy enter the marketplace.
In winter, the ideal temperature to heat your house is 68 degrees. Lowering your thermostat by 10 to 15 degrees at night or while you're away will save 5 to 15 percent of your heating bill.
- U.S. Department of Energy: Heat Pump Systems
- Cadet Heat: Three Big Advantages to Choosing Electric Heat
- Consumer Reports: Heat Pump Buying Guide
- Santa Fe Air Conditioning and Heating: Heat Pump Vs. Electric Furnaces: Which is Better for Kansas City Homes?
- HomeTips: How an Electric Furnace Works
- Constellation: Best Thermostat Types and Temperature Setings
- HVAC Direct: How to Size Your Air Conditioner or Heater
Karen Gardner spent many years as a home and garden writer and editor who is now a freelance writer. As the owner of an updated older home, she jumps at the chance to write about the fun and not-so-fun parts of home repair and home upkeep. She also enjoys spending time in her garden, each year resolving not to let the weeds overtake them. She keeps reminding herself that gardening is a process, not an outcome.