What kind of furnace do you have? And is it the best kind for you?
Most reading this will be able to identify their furnace system as gas or electric, but far fewer will know the full range of costs and benefits behind that fact. Knowing your options, and why each is potentially attractive, can help you make better decisions when it comes time to install a new furnace.
It might also mean it makes sense to switch from electric to gas, or gas to electric. But why and how?
That’s what this article aims to answer. By the end you’ll know:
- The major differences between gas and electric furnaces
- What’s involved in switching from one to the other
- Why you might want to consider one type over the other
History of Gas & Electric Furnaces
During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a widespread gas and oil shortage for new home developments. As a result, the cost of gas homes was enormous, and many weren’t built with gas lines running to them.
These days, the opposite is largely true. Gas furnaces are much more common, and for many (but not all) they represent a huge cost savings over electric systems.
Many modern homes lack gas lines as a result of the historical shortages. Other times, the difference between a gas and electric home is geographic region, which we’ll talk about shortly.
For many, both are an option, even if it means installing a dedicated gas line.
Why Switch to a Gas Furnace?
This can be answered in two words: utility costs.
The cost of gas is near historic lows and has been this way for decades now. If your energy bills run high in the wintertime, there may be multiple reasons (windows, insulation, etc.), but one of the largest is an expensive electric furnace.
Most electric systems feature an electric furnace and a heat pump. A standard heat pump system is able to heat efficiently down to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Below that, the electrical strips in the furnace will kick in, and that’s where the high cost will come from. While some sophisticated heat pumps are starting to heat efficiently below this temperature, the general principle remains true that the coldest weather will produce the greatest discrepancy between gas and electric costs.
In those same colder temperatures, a gas furnace can often warm your home more quickly as well. The reason for this is the furnace’s “delivery temperature,” or the temperature of the air that circulates from the heater into your home. If the air is 85-95 degrees, as it is with many standard heat pumps, it will take longer than with the 120-130 degree heat of a gas furnace. Again, as technology progresses, the most advanced heat pumps and electric furnaces are starting to close this gap, to the point where it isn’t noticeable. However, many systems will still take longer, which decreases your overall comfort.
Where you live matters as well. Where the difference is most pronounced is in colder climates with harsh winters. It’s during these months where the electric costs will be highest, and the benefits of a gas system will be the greatest.
Why Switch to an Electric Furnace?
If climate matters for gas, it does for electric as well. If you live in a moderate climate with mild winters, you may only experience a single month with an average temperature below 40 degrees. In these areas, you’ll see a lot more heat pumps and a lot fewer gas furnace units.
I also mentioned that high-tech heat pumps can heat efficiently below 40 degrees. So depending on what type of equipment you purchase, you can often minimize your usage of the electric heat strips in the furnace.
For top of the line, variable-speed heat pumps, they’re able to heat down to about 17 degrees Fahrenheit. They aren’t 100% efficient at that point, but it still reduces the amount of uptime for your more-expensive electric furnace heating.
The other reason some want to switch is that they don’t have access to natural gas and are using another fuel source like propane or oil that is more variable in cost or is less efficient. These fuel sources can be worse for the environment and, depending on the equipment, can also be costly. This can be a valid reason to switch, since modern systems will often be superior to older equipment regardless of what the energy source is for the heating.
So what are the steps of switching? Most of the process is going to be the same as a regular furnace installation. However, switching to gas or electric does bring a few unique considerations.
Gas Lines & Wiring
The most obvious addition is that if you’re switching from an electric to gas furnace, a gas line will need to be installed. This requires a few steps.
First, a gas line may need to be run from the street to your home. Your neighborhood’s gas company would be the ones to do this.
Second, the gas line would need to be run inside to where it could be hooked up to a furnace unit. Generally, a licensed plumber will be required for this step. If a gas line already exists in the home and is simply not in use for the furnace, your HVAC contractor can sometimes handle it without involving these third parties.
Just as important is the electrical wiring running to the unit. The voltage may need to change depending on whether you’re running an electric or gas furnace.
Similar to the gas line, if a new breaker or markedly different electrical wiring needs to be installed, a licensed electrician will need to be used. If your home’s current wiring is sufficient for the new system, your HVAC installers can handle it on their own.
We’ve talked a little bit about heat pumps in this article, not just about furnaces, and this is why. Ideally, your cooling and heating systems are compatible with one another to maximize efficiency.
Technically, you can have non-traditional system pairings like a heat pump with a gas furnace, or an air conditioner with an electric furnace. These tend to produce inefficiencies in technology and installation, which can have long-term effects on your comfort and utility costs. The most efficient systems are working in tandem either with the same energy source and/or with compatible technology.
This means that as you consider switching from gas to electric or vice versa for your furnace, you may also want to consider a new air conditioner or heat pump.
Equipment matching is important even when you aren’t switching, so it’s always worth having a conversation with a trusted HVAC company to determine your options and select the best one for you.
Working With Plumbers & Electricians
We mentioned plumbers, electricians, and even your local gas company. While you’ll have to coordinate the addition of a new gas line with your gas company (only if one doesn’t already exist), oftentimes, your HVAC partner can recommend or directly contract out the plumbing and electrical work.
At Fire & Ice, for example, we have electricians we’ve worked with on numerous jobs. If a customer has one of their own that they’d like to use, that’s fine, but we’re always happy to take that burden off of the homeowner.
Initial Cost and Installation Considerations
The good news here is that there are generally only marginal differences in initial cost between gas and electric systems. The time needed to install both is similar as well. We can usually install any system in a day, regardless of whether or not we’re switching energy sources.
The only things that will drive up initial costs are the items mentioned above. If you’re switching energy sources, the addition of wiring or a gas line will create an additional upfront cost.
If the benefits of switching are already strong, the cost of hiring an electrician or plumber isn’t going to negate those benefits, so it’s probably not something that will affect your final decision. However, it’s something to keep in mind.
RELATED: Cost of a New Furnace
On the installation side, the switch occasionally necessitates a new plenum to be cut and installed just above the main furnace unit. This isn’t uncommon for furnaces installations in general, though, so it may add a slight cost but won’t change the cost significantly.
Lastly, if you don’t have a gas line installed, it can make a winter installation tricky. The gas line needs to be ready to go, or you’ll be without heat, potentially in the dead of winter. This has obvious risks. So it’s best to be proactive about switching so that you’re handling everything before the coldest months of the year.
Cost Savings of Gas vs. Electric Furnaces
We’re in Central Ohio, which has harsh winters with temperatures well below freezing. This means that, given both options, a gas system is generally going to be much less costly for our customers. While some homes still don’t have access to gas lines, we find ourselves performing a lot more electric-to-gas conversions than the reverse.
We talk to thousands of homeowners every year, and high energy bills as a result of heating costs are a regular problem. Often, it’s due to an older electric system.
The benefits of modern, high-efficiency HVAC equipment can’t be overstated. Energy costs for even mid-sized homes can run as high as $500-$600 per month for as many as 4-6 months of the year.
By contrast, a high-efficiency gas furnace can absolutely cut those costs to as low as $150-$200 for many homes. Regardless of home size and energy costs, we routinely see utility costs cut in half (or more!) for homes that make the switch.
Since Columbus is in a deregulated area of Ohio, you can shop for a supplier to get the best price on natural gas or electricity. Locking in a fixed rate for gas or power can help keep your bills low.
If you’re planning on spending even five more years in your home (or more), that savings will add up and the system can often pay for itself.
If you’re still unsure if switching is the right move for you, that’s ok. Decisions about HVAC equipment should be a process where you educate yourself on all available options.
RELATED: The Complete Guide to Home Furnaces
If you’re ready to have a conversation about those options and to figure out the exact costs and cost savings of each option, we’re ready to help! Click the button below to get started, and we look forward to speaking with you!