Turn Out the Heat

Gas furnaces, electric air conditioning, heat pumps and more--how do homeowners and contractors decide which is best for a particular building?

March 06, 2000

Gas furnaces, electric air conditioning, heat pumps and more--how do homeowners and contractors decide which is best for a particular building? Dependent on climate, insulation and other factors, each type of HVAC product has its own advantages and disadvantages for each individual project, and each can bring significant savings on energy costs to the end user.

Gas-burning furnaces are seeing increased sales right now in new homes. "Our industry goes in cycles," says Kathy Barcomb, product marketing specialist for Lennox. "Right now, we have a big residential new construction boom, but we'll have a retrofit boom in the future."

Newer gas furnaces feature variable-speed capability--allowing furnaces to operate on more than one level of output. This ability results in furnaces that operate for longer periods of time, but using much less power, creating a more consistent indoor temperature for residents. Of course, if a home isn't already equipped with a natural gas line, installation costs can outweigh the benefits of gas products.

Air conditioners are also seeing increased use in residential homes. According to the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute, nearly 50 percent of all U.S. homes have air conditioning and in 1996, 81 percent of all new homes constructed were equipped with central air conditioning. Newer air conditioners can use a coolant that will not release ozone-depleting CFCs, but, on average cost $200 more than conventional conditioners, and that cost gap is increasing as demand for units increases.

One option often overlooked by contractors and homeowners is the heat pump. Powered by electricity, heat pumps collect hot air from within a home and expel it outdoors during hot seasons and collect warm air from outdoors during cold weather and bring it indoors. Heat pumps can effectively heat a home during cold weather, and can also operate in conjunction with a gas-burning system, although they operate best in low-humidity climates without severe winter weather.

HVAC products are one category of products in which higher-priced, better-quality units dramatically save users money over time. More efficient units, installed in their ideal setting save homeowners money on monthly gas and electric bills. Initial investments are earned back within a few years, and longevity of these products also increase. According to the Kiplinger Letter, the average for most HVAC product savings is as follows:

Component Cost Installed Life Span Cost/Year
Central air conditioning (high efficiency) $3,875 13 years $298
Central air conditioning (economy) $3,475 8 years $434
Electric furnace (high efficiency) $1,925 20 years $96
Electric furnace (economy) $1,625 13 years $125
Gas furnace (high efficiency) $1,850 16 years $116
Gas furnace (economy) $1,350 10 years $135
Source: The Kiplinger Letter and The Kiplinger Washington Editors Inc.

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