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Which one is better for a home heating system: electric or natural gas?

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

If you define better as being the least expensive, then natural gas is best in many areas of the country. But variables like the price of electricity, availability of natural gas in your neighborhood, personal preference, and cost of the equipment can affect which choice comes out on top. The electric heat pump runs a close second place because it is extremely energy efficient compared to gas when operating while outdoor temperatures are above freezing. The typical gas furnace is 80% to 95% efficient, meaning that while most of the heat generated is actually transferred into the home, about 5% to 20% is lost up the flue and into the sky.

    But a heat pump can operate at up to 250% efficiency or more. It may seem irrational that a system can put out two-and-a-half times the energy used, but that’s because a heat pump doesn’t actually produce heat. It concentrates and moves outdoor heat into the home; and moving existing heat is more efficient that creating new heat by combustion—which is what gas does.

    That amazing efficiency disappears as the outdoor temperature drops below freezing though, and there is less and less heat available for the system to grab and pull indoors. At that point, an the system has to switch to an electric resistance heat coil, which is essentially a larger version of the heating element in a toaster oven. Electric resistance heat is technically 100% efficient, but it is much more expensive to operate than a heat pump or natural gas. So, in areas of the country that have colder and longer winters than here in Gainesville, Florida, natural gas has an advantage.

    But there are still other pros and cons to both types of heating. Here’s a few:

  •  A heat pump outputs air at about 95º F, while a gas furnace produces approximately a 120º air output. The air coming out of the ducts of a gas furnace system “feels” warmer.
  •  Natural gas is a fuel. Electricity is not really a fuel. It’s a means of transmission of energy that can be produced by fossil fuels, solar, hydroelectric, or wind power; so it is a more versatile system that can accommodate multiple different fuels in changing times.
  •  A combination of gas furnace and electric air conditioner in a central ducted system costs more for the equipment than an electric heat pump, but typically lasts a few years longer. 
  •  Natural gas combustion can produce carbon monoxide which, if it leaks into the home, can be fatal.
  •  According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as heat pump system become more and more efficient, fewer homeowners are choosing natural gas as a heating fuel, except in the Northeast.
  •  Switching heating equipment from gas to electric, or vice versa, is expensive and may offset any operating savings. 

    While both electric and natural gas have their virtues and drawbacks, the one thing for certain is that a system that combines only an electric resistance heat strip with a cooling air conditioner is definitely inefficient and expensive for heating. These systems are popular in South Florida and the Florida Keys because they are less expensive than heat pumps, and heat is used so rarely down there that the efficiency of a heat pump doesn’t justify the extra equipment expense for some homeowners.

    Just be aware that anyone who tells you that absolutely, positively one or the other system is the best, and you should switch right now, is probably trying to sell you a new heating system.

    Also, see our blog posts How much will I save on my utility bill if I get a new higher SEER air conditioner? and How much cheaper is it to heat a house with a heat pump versus an electric furnace or baseboard heater?

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  To learn more about heating and air conditioning systems, see these other blog posts:

How can I find out the SEER of my air conditioner? 

My air conditioner won't turn on. What's wrong? 

How can I find out the size of my air conditioner? 

How can I tell whether the condenser (outdoor unit) is an air conditioner or heat pump? 

Where is the air filter for my central air conditioner and furnace? I can’t find it? 

Does an old air conditioner use more electricity as it ages? 

How did homes stay cool in Florida before air conditioning? 

What is wrong with an air conditioner when the air flow out of the vents is low?

Why has the thermostat screen gone blank? 

Why does it take so long to cool a house when an air conditioner has been off for a while? 

Why is my air conditioner not cooling enough? 

What are the most common problems with wall/window air conditioners?  

Will closing doors reduce my heating and cooling costs? 

   Visit our HEATING AND AIR CONDITIONING page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

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