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HVAC 101: Furnaces and Heat Pumps

Choosing a heating system can be a confusing process, especially if you aren’t sure which system is right for your home. Furnace? Heat pump? What’s the difference, anyway?

A furnace uses “fuel” to heat your home. The fuel may be natural gas, propane, oil, or electricity, but the premise is the same for each furnace. Air from the home passes by the heat source—flames in the case of natural gas, propane, or oil burning furnaces or a heating element in the case of an electric furnace. The warm air is distributed to each room of the home through the duct system by the furnace blower motor.

Fossil fuel furnaces are rated in efficiencies such as 80% or 95%. An 80% efficient furnace has 20% fuel waste through the exhaust, which goes up the chimney or the venting system. Electric furnaces are essentially 100% efficient, since there is no fuel waste. But don’t think it costs less to heat a home with electricity versus a fossil fuel. To understand annual heating costs, you must be able to compare all “fuels” in a common denominator, which is the BTU (British thermal unit), and know how many BTUs your house needs to use to stay warm during the heating season. Now we’re getting into HVAC 301….

A heat pump, a form of an air conditioner, circulates refrigerant through a loop system to pick up heat from the outdoors (yes, there is heat outdoors, even on a 10-degree day) and deliver it to your home. An indoor coil and refrigerant lines complete the loop system. The indoor coil is tied to the furnace in your home. Warmed refrigerant passes through the indoor coil, air from the home passes across the coil, and warm air is distributed to each room of the home through the duct system by the furnace blower motor.

When the heat produced by the heat pump is not enough to heat your home by itself, you will need a backup heating source in a furnace. In neighborhoods where natural gas lines have not been run, your furnace is typically electric. This is called an “all-electric” system. In homes which utilize a heat pump with a natural gas furnace as the backup heat source, we have what is called a “hybrid system,” just like a hybrid car.

Clear as mud? Schedule a consultation with Appel to have one of our expert technicians assess your home’s situation. We’ll help you figure out what will work for your comfort needs—and your wallet.