Ah, the age-old question: to get a gas or electric furnace...
Ok, so maybe it’s not an age-old question. But it’s one we get from customers fairly regularly.
It’s also a question with a lot of good answers. That’s what this article is for. We’re going to unpack every question you might have about gas and electric furnaces: which is better for you? Why is that? What considerations are there as you make your decision?
I’ll probably drone on a bit too long at some point about mechanical operations (feel free to skip ahead if I do), but even that can help, because understanding how a system works can help explain why certain maintenance, installation, or utility costs will be higher or lower.
Lastly, there will be some guidance on making a decision for your next furnace system. For many, it’s an obvious choice. But for some, this information will lead to a more confident decision.
Gas vs. Electric Furnaces - Mechanical and Operational Differences
One uses gas and the other uses electricity. Ok, well I guess that’s that. On to the next section!
Kidding, sort of. There are actually quite a few operational differences between these equipment types, but they really do boil down to how the different energy sources are converted into heat for your home.
A gas furnace is a combustion appliance. You have a gas line (with a gas valve), an igniter, and different systems for capturing, separating and spreading heat through your home.
Of particular interest is the heat exchanger in a gas furnace. This is one of the core components that allows the unit to extract heat for safe use in your home. Some high-efficiency gas furnaces even have two heat exchangers, which allows them to extract more heat with less byproduct.
Regardless of how many heat exchangers you have, the byproducts of combustion (see also: carbon monoxide) have to be carefully managed. In a traditional furnace, this will be vented out of a chimney flue. In a high-efficiency gas furnace, the exhaust will need to travel out of plastic PVC pipe.
An electric furnace actually consists of an air handler that has heating coils added to it (sometimes called a heat package). Often, an electric furnace will act only as auxiliary heat, with additional heating power coming from the electric heat pump. We’ll talk more about the relationship between furnaces and heat pumps shortly.
In a few ways, electric furnaces work a bit like a toaster. The heated coils act in much the same way, even glowing a dull red when they’re very hot. If there was an airstream flowing through your toaster, pushing the warm air into your home, you’d have a miniature electric furnace.
The differences end there, though, because there are still numerous moving parts and safety switches installed that monitor and control the unit’s operation.
Both electric and gas units have pressure gauges, airflow gauges (to prevent overheating if the blower fan stops working), and safety valves that will switch the unit off if it’s not functioning properly. Because of the extra steps required to convert gas to heat, there are more steps in the gas process, but in practice, both will provide heat for your home.
Geographic Considerations for Furnace Type
I dislike saying “it depends” when homeowners ask me a question, even if it’s the right answer. But I don’t mind saying it when I have the time to explain why it depends.
There’s probably a “right” answer of which furnace type is better for you. But the right answer depends on a few things. One of them is where you live.
Fire & Ice operates in Columbus, OH, and the surrounding areas (for our national readers, we talk about other areas below). We have harsh winters, and the “heating season” can often be around six months of the year. Electric furnaces provide high-efficiency heating, but the cost of electricity is a lot higher than natural gas right now and has been for well over a decade. Unless a home lacks access to a natural gas line, an air conditioner and gas furnace is generally the cheapest long-term solution.
If you live in the southern United States, this story might be entirely different. Let’s say you have very mild winters and only need your furnace for 2-3 months of the year. Now let’s assume you have a heat pump that handles your heating for half of that time. You may only be using a furnace for one month every year. Properly installed heat pumps are very efficient these days. If a heat pump is providing the majority of your heat, you can usually keep your utility bills manageable.
So in warmer climates, you’re probably better off with an all-electric system. Or at least it’s going to be a lot more cost-effective compared to an electric system in a colder climate.
Where you live may also mean you don’t have access to a gas line. In these cases, it may seem like electric is your only option, but there are also hybrid systems, or dual-fuel systems that occasionally match a home’s needs. These use a combination of electric equipment with units that use other fuel sources. Oil and propane furnaces, for instance, bring risks in the form of fluctuating costs for fuel, but these can often be more cost-effective than electric systems in cold climates.
Some homes, usually in rural areas, even supplement with wood or corn furnaces. We don’t install those here at Fire & Ice, but we’ve encountered them in our visits.
Maintenance of Gas and Electric HVAC Systems
The universal advice with HVAC equipment is that you should be having it serviced yearly regardless of what equipment type you have. Gas, electric, corn, doesn’t matter. A licensed professional technician should be looking at it and tuning it up once a year (which usually means two yearly visits; one for heating, one for cooling). No exceptions.
However, with different parts comes different maintenance. What are some of these differences?
- The operation of the igniter, pilot light, flame sensor, and burners will each be particular to a gas furnace.
- The heat exchanger needs to be serviced and checked for leaks. A leak in a heat exchanger is a potentially serious problem, since this means that harmful gasses could be leaking into your home.
- If you’re using a heat pump, it may need to be checked during both heating and cooling seasons. Leaking refrigerant or a dirty condenser coil can kill a heat pump’s efficiency in a hurry.
That list isn’t exhaustive, but should give you a sense of how the maintenance side will be slightly different depending on equipment type.
And are there more safety risks with one or the other? Not particularly. In an absolute sense, a gas furnace has more dangerous elements. But it’s rare for even a minor CO leak to pose a true danger, so long as you aren’t ignoring the problem for months or years. If you keep the system well-maintained, the dangers of overheating or having a leak in either type are minimal, and can be addressed before they really do become a large problem.
The key is simply to stay on top of things, with service from a trusted HVAC contractor.
Cost of Gas vs. Electric Heating
To be blunt, the cost between the two equipment types is usually going to be negligible compared to what you’ll save or lose in utilities. If price is your top concern, you can often find a range that meets your budget, then make your decision based on what will reduce your monthly energy bills the most. If you’re paying a little bit more or less upfront, that difference will usually pale in comparison to year-to-year utilities.
If you want to dig a little bit deeper, the high-efficiency (90% or more efficient) gas furnaces are generally our most expensive furnaces, but they also represent the best cost savings and comfort for our customers.
Also in general, gas furnaces as a whole usually come with a slightly higher upfront cost, though if you compare the prices of standard (80% efficient) furnaces to electric furnaces, the difference is usually relatively small.
Things like the number of stages, the size and power of a unit, and its efficiency level have a much bigger impact on initial cost. If you want to dig into cost factors for furnaces more, I’ve included a link below that goes into all the details you’ll need:
- How Much Does a New Furnace Replacement Cost
- How Much Does a Heat Pump Cost to Replace?
- Cost of an Air Conditioner Replacement
I also included the articles on A/C and heat pumps, because you might have to consider both at the same time as a furnace. Matching your heating and cooling equipment to provide the greatest benefit is often just as important as which furnace you have.
Pros, Cons, and Choosing a Gas or Electric Furnace
We’ve sort of been talking about pros and cons throughout this article, but let’s list them out:
Electric Furnaces, Pros & Cons
PRO: Electric systems can be amazingly cost-effective in warmer climates. Some areas of the country with ample sunlight will even feature homes with solar panels that can run electric systems at little-to-no cost.
PRO: The environmental impact is lower than some gas furnaces.
PRO: High-efficiency heat pumps can provide reliable heat even in freezing temperature, minimizing
CON: Entry-level or even mid-grade heat pumps will often struggle in cold climates, necessitating expensive supplemental heat from an electric furnace.
CON: The cost of electricity is much higher than the cost of natural gas for most.
Gas Furnaces, Pros & Cons
PRO: Natural gas is cheap, and is usually the easiest way to minimize utility bills.
PRO: High-efficiency furnaces rival the efficiency of electric furnaces, and thus have a much lower environmental impact.
CON: With more parts and processes, it requires a knowledgeable technician who will thoroughly maintain the equipment for optimal performance.
Choosing Your Ideal HVAC System
By now, the information in this article should give you a good sense of what your options are, and what’s probably best for you.
For example, if you’re in a colder climate but don’t have access to natural gas, looking into high-end heat pumps to pair with an electric furnace, or alternative fuel-source furnaces, may be worth investigating. If you’re in a warmer climate, you can probably go with either without fear.
For our customers here in Columbus, OH, I’ll be honest, natural gas furnaces paired with air conditioners are going to be the “right” choice the vast majority of the time. But we also don’t go into a home with that assumption, because there are always exceptions to the rule.
The important part is choosing a system that you’re happy with, which meets all of your needs. And a good HVAC contractor can help with that. If you’re ready to make your decision, click below or give us a call. We’re looking forward to speaking with you!