Heat pump vs. furnace—Which is better for heating your house?

Dig into the pros and cons of cold climate heat pumps vs. traditional furnaces in this easy-to-understand guide.

Dig into the pros and cons of cold climate heat pumps vs. traditional furnaces in this easy-to-understand guide.

If you’ve been researching HVAC heating options for any length of time, you know there’s a dizzying array to choose from. 

So congratulations are in order for narrowing your choices to two:

  1. The conventional home heating furnace vs.
  2. The more modern (and more efficient!) cold climate heat pump.

Which to choose?

Well, there’s lots to like about both options, but it’s tough to make a choice without an expert voice to cut through the avalanche of opinions on the internet.

That’s where this guide comes in. Here, we’ll talk you through all the facts and research about both options, so you’ll be in a great position to make the best decision for you.

(And, depending on where you live, you get a heat pump system expertly installed for $0 upfront—with an energy-savings guarantee. Tap here to find out how.)

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Ready to cut through the confusion about heat pumps and furnaces? Time to dig in.

Heat pump vs furnace—What’s the difference, anyway?

Before we dive into the pros and cons of each option, it’s important to understand a little about how heat pump and furnace technology works—because they’re very different.

First, the heating furnace. It’s technology you’re likely already familiar with because—let’s face it—furnaces are the most common heating choice in the U.S. (1). In fact, there are over 76 million furnaces in households across the country (2).

Furnaces can run on electricity, natural gas, propane, or oil, and there are a variety of different types of furnaces available on the market. (Learn more about furnaces and home heating types here.)

A furnace can do one thing, while a heat pump is can do four functions in one: heat, cool, filter, and dehumidify.

The short version of how they work is this: A furnace uses a power source to ignite burners inside the furnace cabinet. Those burners, once lit, heat up a heat exchanger, which warms up the air that’s distributed through your home. 

It’s a simple and time-tested process, and it works okay for what it does—heat your home. That’s a furnace’s only job, and when it’s well-maintained and paired with well-designed ductwork, it can do it pretty well.

A heat pump, meanwhile, runs on very different technology—and because of that, it can do a bunch of jobs (and do an excellent job at all of them). 

In fact, a heat pump isn’t only a heater. It’s also an air conditioner, dehumidifier, and air filter—all in one.

Basically, a heat pump can replace all the other HVAC equipment in your home.

Watch this video below for a quick heat-pump explainer if needed.

The reason a heat pump can perform multiple functions so well (and so efficiently) is because a heat pump doesn’t produce heat at all.

Instead, it transports heat. 

In the winter, the heat pump takes heat from the outdoors and transports it inside your home.

In the summer, it reverses the process: It removes heat from your indoor air and transfers that outside your home (where it belongs!). (3)

If that sounds like wild and wonderful technology, well… you’re right! It is.

But what it isn’t is new. Heat pumps have been around for decades and use the same basic technology that’s in your fridge and air conditioner—dependable tech that’s been around for a while. 

The modern-day cold climate heat pump’s major innovation is the ability to transport heat in and out of your home very efficiently, even when it’s literally freezing cold outside.

illustration of person looking outside of home exterior and heat pump outdoor unit

(Another innovation brought to you by the heat pump? Unlike furnaces, heat pump systems don’t require ductwork—a major win when you’re trying to heat older homes.)

Heat pumps come in a few different varieties—air source, water source, and ground source (aka geothermal)—and each has their own advantages and disadvantages.

We’ll be covering air-source heat pumps here, since they’re by far the most common for household use, but you can learn about all the different kinds of heat pumps here.

(By the way, don’t let the fact that heat pumps use electricity scare you! While it’s true that electric furnaces are horribly inefficient at heating a home, electric heat pumps are—by far—the most efficient HVAC system on the market today.)

Okay! That’s how heat pumps vs furnaces work. Now, it’s time to see how they stack up against each other.

Let’s talk about the pros and cons.

The pros and cons of installing a furnace

Shall we start with the familiar option? Furnaces are a popular choice—and for some valid reasons.

Here are some of the biggest reasons people choose furnaces:

Advantages of furnaces

  • The initial cost to install a furnace is lower than the cost of installing a heat pump.
  • Furnaces use standard technology that most people are familiar with.
  • Some people love the way furnace heat feels—cozy, dry, and close-feeling. 
  • Fast heating—a well-maintained furnace can heat up a home pretty much immediately.
  • Furnaces are available for multiple forms of energy—gas, oil, propane, and electric.

However, furnaces also come with some significant drawbacks. Here are a few to consider.

Disadvantages of furnaces

  • Furnaces use much more energy than a heat pump—up to three times as much (4).
  • They require ductwork, which can be expensive to install or retrofit (not to mention maintain!).
  • Furnaces can be loud, and they may cause your home to smell like burning dust when they first turn on in the winter.
  • Furnaces are bad at keeping homes at comfortable temperature throughout the day—they turn off and on all the time.
  • They can require more maintenance than heat pumps—they’ll need to be cleaned and serviced every year to prevent fires and other safety hazards.
  • Depending on the brand you choose, your furnace may not last as long as a heat pump. (Read more about how long HVAC systems last—and when to upgrade.)
  • Furnaces can only provide heat—if your local climate gets hot in the summer, you’ll need to install and maintain an air conditioner separately.
  • And finally, depending on the fuel used, furnaces can contribute to air impurities, which can be a big problem, especially for people who already struggle with health issues. (Here’s how to know if your home’s air is healthy and clean.)

Basically, furnaces are common, dependable technology—but they’re inefficient with your energy dollars, do a poor job of keeping you comfortable, and only do one job. Not the best option if you’re looking to simplify your home HVAC maintenance!

The pros and cons of installing a cold climate heat pump

Okay, let’s dive into heat pumps. What do they do best?

cold climate heat pump outdoor compressor unit on the side of a home

Advantages of heat pumps

  • Heat pumps are an all-in one system—a cold climate heat pump can completely replace all your existing HVAC technology.
  • Heat pumps are simple to maintain and only require service once a year (5).
  • Cold climate heat pump systems are three times as efficient as furnaces and—over their lifespan—are the least expensive HVAC option to run (6).
  • Heat pumps are eligible for state and federal home improvement rebates and, sometimes, even your utility company will offer incentives for a heat pump upgrade. (If you’re in New York State, check out our energy rebate calculator.)
  • Heat pumps run on electricity, which is cleaner energy. They don’t burn fossil fuels in your house in order to operate and there’s no carbon monoxide risks, like with oil or natural gas furnaces.
  • Many people find heat pump technology to be more comfortable than furnace heat, since the air is constantly circulated and doesn’t dry out the air in the winter.
  • Heat pumps don’t require any ductwork, which can save you a lot of money on installation (or retrofitting). They come in multiple forms to fit any home—from whole-home systems that can use existing ductwork to mini-splits that heat (or cool) a single room.
  • Heat pumps are extremely quiet and easy to live with.
  • Mini-split heat pumps can provide room-by-room temperature control. (In other words? No more arguing with other residents about the temperature in your home.)

So, lots of advantages! But heat pumps do have two major drawbacks. 

Disadvantages of heat pumps

  • If you live in a super-cold climate, there’s a chance you may need to back up your heat pump with another form of heating for those rare, outrageously cold weather events (hello, polar vortex)… just to be safe. But most homes don’t require this, and heat pumps are used (and loved) in Minnesota, Switzerland, Maine, and Finland. Some models are rated to perform down to -22 degrees. Find out what temperature a heat pump stops working here. 
  • And while a heat pump can be significantly more efficient than traditional heating equipment, the upfront installation is more expensive than a furnace.

There’s good news on that final point, though: If your house qualifies, you may be able to get a heat pump installed—by professionals—for no upfront cost.

(Learn more about how to qualify to get a heat pump installed in your home.)

The final verdict on heat pumps vs furnaces

We’re big believers in customization here—every home energy makeover we do is completely custom—so we think the right choice for you depends completely on you: Your house, your local climate, your personal preferences.

So, with that in mind, here are a few general guidelines that might prove helpful:

A furnace might be right for you if one or more apply:

  • You want the lowest possible upfront installation cost
  • You just want a heating system, and you don’t need air filtering or room-by-room temperature control—no frills please!
  • You already have ductwork installed in your house and it’s in excellent shape with no (or very few) duct leaks.
  • You don’t mind having a less-efficient HVAC system
  • You’re good to take care of a bit more maintenance
  • Indoor air quality isn’t a big concern
  • You don’t need air conditioning at all or you don’t mind maintaining a completely separate AC solution with separate costs
  • Your house doesn’t qualify to get a heat pump installed for no upfront cost

A cold climate heat pump might be right for you if one or more apply:

  • You want the best HVAC on the market, and you’re willing to pay more upfront to make that happen (or your house qualifies to get a heat pump for no upfront cost!)
  • You prefer to think as little as possible about your HVAC and would like all your climate control to be taken care of by one system
  • You prefer stability in your energy pricing—read Why is natural gas so expensive? to learn more.
  • You don’t have ductwork in your house (or you have older, inefficient ductwork that’s in need of serious repairs)
  • You want the most energy-efficient HVAC system possible (i.e. a heat pump!)
  • You have an older, more complicated house that’s tricky to heat evenly
  • You have air quality concerns 
  • You want room-by-room temperature control
  • You want a system that needs as little maintenance as possible

And, hey, since we’re at the end, here’s where we’ll be really honest: After years of research and working with homeowners, we’ve come to believe that most people (not all!) will be happier with a heat pump in the long run. 

Not only because of the heat pump’s incredible efficiency and warm, comfortable, flowing heat, but because heat pumps aren’t just an HVAC upgrade, they’re a life upgrade. 

81% say their home comfort has improved by replacing their fossil fuel heaters with heat pumps.

Cool Products 2022 consumer analysis

Put simply: After you’ve gotten used to the super simple, low maintenance, super-quiet, all-in-one climate control that heat pumps provide, you’ll never want to go back to a furnace. They’re pretty great.

illustrated gif of heat pump vs furnace

But whatever heating system you install, here’s a pro tip to help it be as efficient as possible: Make sure to upgrade your insulation and get professional air sealing.

Both of these home improvements can extend the lifespan of HVAC and help your system waste less energy year-round.

51% of your home’s energy consumption is for heating and cooling alone. And 25–40% of that energy is wasted via insufficient insulation and air leaks.

U.S. Energy Information Administration,

Get a heat pump installed this year. No upfront $$$ required.

You can tell we’re really into heat pumps and for good reason: They’re an incredible technology—the Tesla of HVAC—and the best choice for a lot of folks. 

Heat pumps are increasingly popular around the world, but the biggest delay to their mass adoption in the U.S. has been the initial cost of installation.

And that’s completely understandable. Heat pumps are more expensive to put in your home.

The good news is that, if your house qualifies for a Sealed home energy makeover, you don’t need to bear the brunt of that financial hit.

With Sealed, you can get a heat pump installed—by experts—for no upfront cost. And we’ll even help you understand any energy rebates you may be eligible for that apply to your upgrade.

You’ll pay for the work in a way that’s best for your budget with flexible payment options. And if you don’t save energy, we take the hit—not you.

(We stay accountable to the work being done right.)

Your monthly costs won’t change much… but your monthly comfort? That’ll change a lot, and for the better.

If I don’t have to spend any extra money to get a huge improvement to my home, it’s just a no brainer at that point.

Scott. R, Sealed customer

Common questions about heat pumps compared to furnaces

We get a lot of questions about home energy upgrades, and we love to talk HVAC systems with people.

Scan the list below to find what you need today.

Not seeing your question here? Get in touch with Sealed and ask away.

We can help you determine if a heat pump is the best fit for your home and local climate.

Heat pump vs gas furnace — Which is better?

The best heating system for your home depends on a variety of factors. But if you’re like most homeowners, you’re likely to prefer a heat pump to a gas furnace due to overall energy efficiency and indoor air quality improvements (especially if your home qualifies to get one at no upfront cost).

Gas furnaces and heat pumps are two of the most common types of home heating systems, and both have their pros and cons.

Gas furnaces are pretty simple and straightforward to install and use. They’re also an older HVAC technology that’s relatively affordable to purchase.

All that said, gas furnaces are not nearly as energy-efficient as heat pumps, so they’ll be more expensive to run and maintain over their lifespan. (Did you know that in 2022, natural gas prices were the highest since 2008?) And because of the fuel gas furnaces use, you may run into air quality issues over the long-term. 

Meanwhile, heat pumps are up to 3x more efficient than gas furnaces. And they have the huge advantage of being an all-in-one system—they heat, air condition, filter, and dehumidify the air in your home.

Electric furnace vs heat pump—Which is better?

Like gas furnaces (see above!), electric furnaces are simple to install and use. They’re also relatively affordable upfront.

But they have big efficiency issues and can give electric home heating a bad rap. In fact, electric furnaces have a pretty high operating cost (which is why many homeowners assume they shouldn’t use electricity to heat their homes).

But electricity is actually a great source of heating energy, as long as you have a heat pump!

Heat pumps are ridiculously efficient with the electricity they use—so they can cut your winter energy waste pretty significantly and be a more affordable way to heat a home.

All things considered? The heat pump is the better option for most homeowners, mostly because it’s extremely efficient and can replace all your other HVAC equipment, too.

Are electric furnaces good? 

Sure! Electric furnaces are a popular choice for home heating, and they might be the right choice for you. 

Advantages of electric furnaces include their low upfront cost and the fact that they are relatively easy to install. However, electric furnaces are the least efficient kind of furnace, which means they can be very expensive to operate in the long run.

Cold climate heat pumps, meanwhile, have completely surpassed electric furnaces in terms of efficiency and overall performance.

They are up to 3x more efficient than electric furnaces, and they provide all-in-one heating, cooling, purifying, and dehumidifying for your home. Plus, if your home qualifies, you can get a heat pump installed at no upfront cost.

Do you need supplemental heating with a heat pump?

Often, you don’t! Modern-day cold climate heat pumps are pretty darn good at keeping houses warm—even on the coldest of days. Heat pumps can work well beyond temperatures of -13 degrees Fahrenheit! For most people, a heat pump is sufficient to keep your home comfortable all winter long. (Find out what temperature a heat pump stops working.)

That said, some homeowners choose to supplement or “back up” their heat pumps with another form of heating. If you go with Sealed, we’ll call in the experts to help you make this decision.

Do heat pumps use gas? 

Nope! Heat pumps don’t directly use any fossil fuels like gas, propane, or oil. Instead, they rely on electricity to power the compressor and other moving parts.

This means that heat pumps are a great option for homeowners who want to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and improve their indoor air quality—all without the seasonal scares of carbon monoxide.

What is cheaper to run—heat pump or gas furnace? 

Heat pumps are often cheaper to run than gas furnaces, but this often depends on energy costs in your state. Overall, heat pumps are up to 3x more efficient than traditional heating, like gas furnaces, so they do use less energy to produce the same amount of heat (7). This can cut down on your home’s energy waste—big time.

But we’re not the only ones who know that using an electric heat pump vs. gas furnace is often more cost-effective for homeowners. For a good look at the differences in household winter heating costs based on heating type (including heat pumps!), check out this chart from Rewiring America.

Do you need a furnace with a heat pump? 

No, most houses don’t need a furnace with a heat pump. A heat pump can provide all the heating and cooling for your home by itself. (If you live in a very, very cold climate, we might recommend supplementing your heat pump with another form of heating.)

Are heat pumps noisy?  

No! Quite the opposite. Heat pumps are very quiet—you probably won’t even notice them running.

Can a heat pump replace a furnace?

Yes, heat pumps can replace furnaces (and air conditioners)! In fact, they’re often used as an all-in-one HVAC solution because they provide heating, cooling, air filtering, and dehumidification for your home.

Ready to upgrade? (And for no, or very little, upfront cost?) Take our quick questionnaire to see if you qualify.

September 9, 2022