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If you’re considering a new heating system for your Mid-Atlantic region home, you’ll likely be choosing between two popular options – heat pumps and combustion furnaces. But there’s a third option that combines the benefits of both – a hybrid, or dual-fuel, heat pump. Read on for a discussion on the pros and cons of a furnace, heat pump or hybrid heating system.

heat pump

Combustion Furnace

This is the most common heating choice for Americans these days, and its popularity isn’t expected to diminish any time soon. Natural gas and heating oil prices are going down as a result of ramped-up domestic oil production and other global factors, so heating your home with a gas or oil furnace should remain relatively cheap for the foreseeable future.

A typical natural gas furnace gets its fuel from a network of gas lines that run through most cities and towns in America, as well as many rural areas. If you don’t have a gas line near your home, propane or heating oil are options.

Whichever fuel you’re using flows into the furnace, where it’s sparked into flames by a pilot light or electronic ignition. Burners keep the gas flaming in a combustion chamber, and the resulting heated air is blown through the house via a network of ducts. Eventually, the air is routed back to the furnace, where it’s sucked through an air filter before being heated again. Combustion gases, including carbon monoxide, are safely routed out of the house via a flue pipe and chimney.

A combustion furnace is a relatively simple way to heat a home, and it provides reliable, comfortable heat. However, combustion heating is relatively inefficient, even with technical advances in recent years. It never will exceed 100 percent efficiency, meaning converting all of its fuel into heat. That sounds pretty good, but it doesn’t come close to rivaling the 300 percent energy efficiency of a standard air-source heat pump. Plus, unlike a heat pump, a furnace doesn’t provide cooling. A central A/C must be installed, with the evaporator coil incorporated into the furnace.

Heat Pump

An air-source heat pump uses the unique heat-exchange capabilities of refrigerant to move heat energy from one place to another. For efficient home heating, refrigerant flowing through a heat pump system extracts heat from the cold outside air and transfers it inside, where the resulting heated air is distributed via ducts, just as with a combustion furnace system.

For cooling, a heat pump works very similarly to a central air conditioner, extracting heat energy from the inside air and expelling it outside, again using refrigerant as the medium of heat exchange. A reversing valve controls the direction of refrigerant flow, for either heating or cooling.

While a well-maintained heat pump vastly exceeds the efficiency of a gas furnace, it comes at a price. Most heat pumps begin struggling to extract heat energy from the outside air when the temperature falls below freezing. At this point in most heat pump systems, an auxiliary electric heating strip will kick on for supplemental heating. This can get expensive, however, since the backup electric heating costs about the same to operate as an electric space heater or baseboard.

A Hybrid System

Fortunately, there’s a third option, a hybrid or dual-fuel system. In a hybrid system, the air-source heat pump uses a gas furnace for auxiliary or backup heating rather than the electric heating element. When outside temperatures do plummet, you’re saved by a relatively inexpensive natural gas furnace, which can quickly heat up a home and keep it warm even in the coldest weather.

In most hybrid systems, the homeowner has the ability to manually switch the fuel source from electric heat pump to gas furnace and back again. If you find that heating with natural gas is cheaper than the air-source heat pump, even with the efficiency advantage of the heat pump, you can elect to use the furnace.

While this might be an attractive option considering current market conditions for natural gas vs. electric power, over the long term, electricity is considered the more secure option and isn’t as vulnerable to market fluctuations as is the case with natural gas, propane and heating oil.

Furnace, Heat Pump or Hybrid?

At Griffith Energy Services, Inc., we’ll be happy to help you decide between a furnace, heat pump or hybrid system. We provide outstanding HVAC services to the Baltimore area, as well as the surrounding Mid-Atlantic region. Contact us today!

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