What Is the Difference Between a Furnace and a Heat Pump?

As a heating services company, we hear a lot of things from customers. However, one of the things we hear the most frequently is people mistakenly interchanging the terms “furnace” and “heat pump.” We get it: the two are really easy to mix up. The fact that both keep your home warm and use a blower fan to do so often makes a furnace and a heat pump seem pretty similar to those who don’t really know the difference.

However, aside from the fact that both are a type of central heating system (which means they push heat throughout your home using your duct system), these two technologies almost couldn’t be more different. This difference is important: knowing which type of system you have ensures you’ll receive the right repairs, and likewise can help you determine what type of system may be right for your home.

Furnaces

Let’s start with furnaces. Since more or less the dawn of time, man has used fire to keep himself warm. Eventually, we started becoming more and more creative with how we used fire to stay warm, and today’s furnaces are the result of those years of creativity and technological advancement. At their core, a furnace uses the same principle to generate heat: set a source of fuel on fire and use the heat from that fire to keep you warm. However, unlike our ancestors who used wood or coal, today’s modern furnaces use natural gas or (in some rare cases) oil as fuel. Both are far more efficient, produce far more energy for less fuel, and are way better for the environment.

Furnaces are pretty simple at their core. The fuel burns at a burner in order to generate the heat, which is then passed into a component known as a heat exchanger. Your blower fan then passes air through that heat exchanger, where it picks up the produced heat and carries it throughout your home through your duct network.

What advantages do furnaces have? The biggest one is that the technology is the oldest and the most proven. Because they have so few moving parts, furnaces are generally extremely reliable, meaning they’re not prone to breakdowns or serious issues all that often. Because furnaces use natural gas or oil these days, they’re also tremendously inexpensive to operate and generally efficient with the fuel they use. This makes them also one of the most economical heating options you’ll find.

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps utilize an entirely different principle to heat your home. In fact, they don’t actually generate heat at all—they harvest it from outside, amplify it, and then carry it inside where you need it. If this sounds a little bit like your air conditioner, you’d be correct: it’s essentially the same process as refrigeration, which makes your air conditioner work, only in reverse.

Your heat pump uses a compressor to collect heat from the atmosphere outside, which is then stored in your refrigerant that’s pumped inside to your indoor unit. This refrigerant is then pumped through your coils, which become blistering hot and heat the air which is then forced through your home using your blower fan. The cooled refrigerant then returns outside where it collects more heat and the process starts over.

Heat pumps also have a number of advantages. In terms of heat “produced” (again, they don’t actually produce heat) per amount of energy used, heat pumps are significantly more efficient than furnaces. They’re also the safer and more eco-friendly choice, as they don’t create any carbon monoxide-infused exhaust that needs to be vented into the atmosphere.

However, they have their fair share of downsides as well. For starters, they have far more moving parts than furnaces do, and that makes them considerably less reliable. They also struggle in particularly cold weather, and start losing efficiency the colder it gets. While most don’t become inoperative until temperatures that aren’t often seen in California (down into the negatives in Fahrenheit), there’s no question they do lose some of their effectiveness as it gets colder. Likewise, heat pumps also need to undergo regular “defrosting” cycles, or cycles where they stop producing heat in order to allow their outdoor equipment to warm back up (they get extraordinarily cold from the heat collection process).

Dual Fuel Systems

Today, a popular choice for heating is the ”dual fuel” heating solution. Dual fuel systems combine the efficiency and power of a heat pump with the dependability of a gas furnace. In “warmer” temperatures, these systems use a heat pump for heating purposes. However, when the heat pump needs to switch to a defrosting cycle, or the weather gets too cold for a heat pump to be the most efficient, they switch over to a gas-burning furnace so you never experience an interruption in your heating.

If you need assistance with your heat pump or furnace, trust the experts at John Owens Services, Inc.! Give us a call at (415) 942-6565 to request an appointment today.