A forced air furnace is the most prevalent way to heat a home in the U.S. According to federal government data, more than 60% of American homes have a furnace. About 16% of homes have a heat pump instead, and that number continues to go up. In fact, heat pumps accounted for 55% of all heating system sales in 2023. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each and why this countrywide transition is occurring.

Forced Air Furnaces

Forced air furnaces, also known as central furnaces, are a type of heating system. The term forced air has a couple of implications. It indicates that the appliance is an air furnace as opposed to steam or hot water. It also indicates that the system forces warmed air into a duct network. That air then seeps out through vents in the ceilings, walls or floors and into the rooms. Furnaces are a form of direct heating. In other words, they generate heat to warm the air directly.

Fuel vs. Electricity

The vast majority of furnaces in the U.S. are fuel powered. Natural gas is the most popular option, but it does require that your home have access to a natural gas line. Not every home in the U.S. does. The second most popular fuel is heating oil. Homeowners with an oil-powered furnace store the oil in a tank on their property. Propane is an option as well and also stored in a tank.

Electric furnaces are an option, but they’re not nearly as popular. There are a couple of reasons for this. Due to the price of electricity, fuel-powered furnaces are almost always more cost-effective. Even if you have no choice other than electricity, a heat pump will generally be the superior option.

Heat Pumps

Unlike furnaces, heat pumps don’t generate heat. What they do instead is transfer heat energy from one medium to another. The most common type of heat pump in the U.S. is an air-source heat pump. This means it transfers heat energy to and from the ambient air. This is how an air conditioner works as well. The main difference is that a heat pump has a reversing valve that lets it run that cycle in the other direction. Heat pumps are much more efficient than furnaces, and even though they use electricity exclusively, they’re cheaper to run.

The other advantage is that a heat pump provides both cooling and heating in a single package. With a furnace, you have to pair it with a central AC or mini-split if you want cooling too. There is a potential downside to an air-source heat pump. It relies on heat energy in the ambient air. In winter, there isn’t a lot of it, and so, a heat pump can become less efficient as the temperature drops. It’s important to note that the HVAC industry has made great strides on that front. Heat pumps now being practical in more states is a main reason sales are increasing so sharply.

Auxiliary Heating

Decreased efficiency in very cold temperatures is why many Americans have a dual-source heat pump. A dual-source heat pump is an air source heat pump paired with a forced air furnace for auxiliary heat. When the temperature drops to around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the furnace takes over. Such setups are common even in a state like Florida where the winters are relatively mild. The initial cost is higher, but the furnace can last many decades, and the long-term savings are excellent.

Geothermal Systems

A ground-source heat pump is an alternative to an air-source heat pump. Rather than transfer heat energy to or from the air, it does it via the ground. It does this through a ground loop. Geothermal systems don’t require auxiliary heating. The drawback is that they can be expensive. While it’s generally worth it long term, many homeowners can’t afford the initial investment. As the technology continues to get cheaper, ground source heat pumps should become more prevalent.

The Feel and Smell of Your Heat

It’s normal for a fuel-fired furnace to give off a bit of a gas smell. Some people may find it unpleasant, but it’s generally fleeting. If it hangs around long enough to give you a headache, for instance, there’s an issue with the furnace. Fuel-powered furnaces also pose the risk of carbon monoxide. These systems must have proper venting, and you should have CO detectors. Heat pumps and electric furnaces are much safer in that regard.

Some people prefer how heat from a furnace feels. It feels warmer because the heat coming out of your ducts is typically between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. With a heat pump, the air is between 85 and 90 degrees. That’s plenty high enough to heat your home but feels less warm to the touch.


Annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) is a measure of heating efficiency. The rating for modern fuel-powered furnaces ranges from about 80% to 98%. A furnace rated for 85% AFUE only wastes 15% of the fuel it burns. Electric furnaces have a 100% AFUE, but that’s misleading. The electric furnace will be much more expensive to run despite being more efficient.


Seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER) measures the cooling efficiency of heat pumps and ACs. Energy efficiency ratio (EER) measures efficiency during peak performance. SEER, on the other hand, measures it over an entire summer. This is more useful for the consumer. The higher the SEER, the cheaper the heat pump will be to run in summer.

Heating seasonal performance factor (HSPF) is exclusive to heat pump technologies. It’s similar to SEER but measures heating efficiency. The higher the HSPF, the cheaper the heat pump will be to run in winter.

Energy Incentives

ENERGY STAR is a joint program of the Department of Energy (DOE) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through it, the EPA certifies HVAC equipment and other appliances that meet certain energy efficiency criteria. Purchasing ENERGY STAR HVAC equipment may make you eligible for federal tax credits and rebates. It may also make you eligible for rebates at the state and private levels.

There are credits and rebates for heat pumps and fuel-powered furnaces but not electric furnaces generally. The Energy Efficient Home Improvement Credit is the same whether you opt for a heat pump or furnace. That said, in 2023, the federal government introduced a heat pump program for low- to moderate-income families. It can make a heat pump the significantly cheaper option for many households.

Smart Thermostats

The DOE recommends smart thermostats because they can save you about 10% on heating and cooling a year. Nearly any smart thermostat will work with your furnace. This is not the case with heat pumps. A standard smart thermostat can actually cause you to spend more money with a heat pump in winter. You need to choose a thermostat that specifically supports heat pumps.

Local Furnace and Heat Pump Experts in Central Florida

If you’d like professional assistance in choosing between a furnace and heat pump, American Air, Plumbing, and Electrical is here for you. Our company serves Sanford and the neighboring communities of Central Florida. Our HVAC team specializes in fuel-powered and electric furnaces, heat pumps, air conditioners and ductless mini-splits. We also clean ducts and install, maintain and repair ductwork, air purifiers and dehumidifiers. Contact us today with any questions about these services or products or to schedule an appointment.

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