There are a wide variety of ways to heat your home, each with its advantages and disadvantages. As you consider the different heating methods out there, there’s often one factor that rises above the rest: the cost. Heating is often one of the most expensive recurring costs for both homeowners and renters, so finding ways to cut down that bill is ideal for everyone.
As a general rule, heating your home with a natural gas furnace is the cheapest way to keep warm through the winter months. Electricity is usually significantly more expensive than gas, so even the most efficient heaters will be a bigger drain on your pocketbook than a traditional furnace. However, everybody’s situation is different, and there are scenarios in which using electric heaters will save you money.
Before deciding if you want to use an electric heating system, you should do some research into the different methods available. There are a few common ways you can heat your home with electricity, and each one has a full list of pros and cons. Here’s a little information you might find useful before making your decision.
Electric Space Heaters
The most common way to heat a room using electricity is with small electric space heaters. They’re often used to warm up single-room spaces like dorm rooms and tents while camping. While space heaters are generally used as an auxiliary heating source to support a central air system, they can also be used as a primary source as well, especially in parts of the country that don’t get especially cold.
Most electric space heaters work a little bit like a big toaster. The unit uses electricity to heat thin metal fins or coils inside. As cold air in the room falls into the heater, the coils warm it up and it’s blown back out into the room with a fan. The newly warmed air rises through the room, displacing cold air and creating a convection cycle that quickly warms the room.
You can turn the heater on and off manually, but some space heaters have a built-in thermostat that controls operation for you. When the thermostat detects that the air in the room is below a set temperature, it automatically turns the heater on. As soon as the room is warmed up to meet the temperature you set, the thermostat shuts off the heater, preventing it from making the room too hot. This is pretty much the same way any central air thermostat works, just on a smaller scale.
Electric baseboard heaters are similar to space heaters, but they’re mounted to your wall instead of being portable. Baseboard heaters are often wired into a central thermostat that can control several heaters at once, allowing you to heat multiple rooms instead of just one at a time. This can be more convenient, but it does require more electricity and can drive up your power bill significantly. Generally, we don’t recommend putting electric baseboard heaters in every room of your house.
Pros of an Electric Space Heater
There are several advantages that an electric space heater has over a central air heating system, but they mostly apply in certain situations. First things first – let’s talk about the cost factor. Despite being relatively inefficient, proper use of an electric space heater can be a lot cheaper than running a central air system. This is mostly a question of scale. Each space heater only heats a single room of the house, while a central air system will always be heating the entire house. That means if you use the heaters selectively to only warm one or two rooms at a time while leaving the others alone, it’s more efficient than running the central air and heating the whole house. For this reason, space heaters are ideal for areas that don’t get very cold during the day. Just turning on a space heater to keep your bedroom warm overnight while letting the rest of the house get cold will be a lot cheaper than running the central air overnight and heating the entire house.
Space heaters are also cheap, simple, and often portable. Installing a central air system in your house can cost $5,000 or more while picking up a couple of good space heaters will only run you about a few hundred dollars. You can bring the heater with you if you move around the house as well. Just plug it in and let it heat whichever room you’re in. While we wouldn’t recommend using space heaters as a primary heating source for the whole winter, they make a great quick and dirty solution for the occasional chilly day or when the temperature drops overnight. They’re also ideal for smaller homes like dorm rooms and studio apartments, where you don’t need something powerful enough to heat an entire multi-level house.
Cons of an Electric Space Heater
The biggest downside of using electric space heaters is their relative energy inefficiency. Using electricity to keep the fins or coils heated takes a ton of juice, so using space heaters as your primary source of heat will often lead to astronomical power bills. For example, it’s probably not a good idea to just leave a few space heaters running all day while you do chores around the house. The power cost can add up pretty fast, so you should be thoughtful about when and where you turn them on. As a general rule, you should think of a space heater as a responsive heat source rather than a preventative one. Instead of having it on all day to make sure you don’t get cold, just turn it on when you already feel chilly so it can quickly reheat the room.
There are also a few practical hazards that can come with a space heater. The heated fins or coils inside the unit can be a pretty serious fire hazard if you’re not careful, so make sure not to place the unit underneath curtains or anything else that can dangle into the opening on top. If you have small children, keep an eye on them when they’re in a room with an electric space heater. Kids love to explore things with their hands, but touching the inside of the heater could leave them with a pretty nasty burn. Leaving anything electric plugged into an extension cord or power strip can also be a fire hazard, so it’s best to plug the heater directly into the wall just to be safe.
Electric Heat Pumps
Heat pumps are a little more complicated than space heaters, but they’re also a popular choice for electric-powered heating sources. Heat pumps essentially work the same way as air conditioners, but in reverse. Both air conditioners and heat pumps use chemicals called refrigerants that pass back and forth between two coils, the compressor and the evaporator. Compressor coils condense refrigerants, changing them from gaseous to liquid form. This process creates heat, making the compressor coils warm to the touch. Evaporator coils, on the other hand, reduce the pressure on the refrigerants, allowing them to transition back from liquid form into a gas. This has the opposite effect: it lowers the temperature of the refrigerant, making the evaporator cool to the touch. A blower then pulls air and passes it across either coil, changing the temperature of the air before blowing it into your house. In an air conditioner, the air is passed over the evaporator and cooled before it’s blown into your house, but inside a heat pump, the air is passed across the compressor and heated.
Heat pumps are often used as part of a ducted central air system instead of a furnace. The heat pump warms the air, and the blower passes it through the ducts in your home to distribute it to every room. However, smaller ductless heat pumps can also be used to heat single rooms, just like a window-mounted air conditioner. These can come in mini-split form, in which the evaporator and the condenser are separated into two different units or smaller heat pumps that package both components into a single unit. Though these systems all work in the same way, they each have their advantages, so we recommend doing some research to see which heat pump is best for your situation.
Pros of an Electric Heat Pump
When it comes to cost, electric heat pumps are often more energy-efficient than space heaters. This is especially true for pumps that are installed into a duct system, so you can heat the whole house at once with a single unit. We recommend taking a look at the difference between electricity and natural gas prices in your area before purchasing either a heat pump or a gas furnace. These costs can vary pretty wildly by region, so that’s something to research on your own before you make a decision.
Heat pumps also run a lot quieter than most furnaces or air conditioners. This might not be a huge deal for some homeowners, but it’s a nice little quality of life advantage, especially if you work from home and need to be able to focus without loud noises or interruptions. Ductless mini-splits are especially quiet when compared to the larger ducted pumps. However, they’ll still most likely be louder than a decent space heater.
If you live in a region with enough weather variation that you need to heat your house in the winter and cool your house in the summer, many electric heat pumps can function as air conditioners as well. All they need to do is switch the direction of the refrigerant and the same unit can create cold air instead of hot air. This is a lot less expensive than having to purchase both an air conditioner and a furnace for your ducted central air system.
Finally, the warm air created by an electric heat pump will be a lot less dry than the air from a furnace. This means you won’t have to keep a humidifier running when you have the heat on, which is a nice little bonus.
Cons of an Electric Heat Pump
While the ongoing cost of running an electric heat pump will vary depending on the price of electricity vs natural gas in your area, the initial cost will often be fairly significant. Installing a full ducted heat pump system can run you upwards of $5,000 depending on the season, so it’s a pretty hefty investment. We recommend running all the numbers carefully before pulling the trigger on a heat pump system. A ductless mini-split heat pump that warms a single room will only cost around $1,000 depending on the unit, but if you have to buy several of them the price will eventually add up.
Heat pumps are also only energy-efficient in areas that stay above freezing. If it gets too cold outside, the pump won’t have enough power to heat the air and will have to rely on emergency resistance coils that work similarly to the coils in a space heater or toaster. If you run these coils for too long, it can lead to a pretty high electricity bill.
Ducted heat pumps also require more maintenance than smaller units like space heaters or mini-splits. As a general rule, we recommend that any ducted HVAC system be serviced by a professional at least once a year. That might sound like overkill, but you can save yourself a ton of money later down the road by being proactive about preventative maintenance.
Finally, much like any electric heating system, a heat pump will only operate if you have electricity running in your home. This means that a power outage can leave you without any heat sources at all, which can be dangerous in the winter. We recommend investing in a generator if you have space for one, or some other backup source of heat in case the power goes out.
Hybrid Heating Systems
If you do live in an area that gets very cold in the winter, you might want to look into a hybrid heating system, also known as a dual fuel system. A hybrid heating system is a little bit like a hybrid car in that it features both an electric heating unit as well as a traditional gas-powered furnace. For the majority of the winter, the electric heat pump will provide heat for your home the same way any other electric pump would. This allows you to run your heating system efficiently like you would with a standard heat pump.
However, as we previously mentioned, electric heat pumps tend to struggle when the air outside gets too cold. When they have to turn on the resistance heating coils to create extra heat, the energy efficiency of the system plummets and you could be in for quite a shock when you open your next bill from the power company. That’s where the “hybrid” part of a hybrid system kicks in. Once temperatures get too low, instead of turning on the resistance heating coils in the heat pump, the system will just transfer over to the gas-powered furnace.
Furnaces powered by natural gas create their own heat, so it doesn’t matter what the temperatures outside are. That means once the system switches over, it can continue to heat your home without any breaks, and without draining electricity. Once the temperature has raised enough for the heat pump to run efficiently, the system will switch back over automatically. The switch point is controlled by a thermostat wired into the system, and you can set it based on your preferences as well as the efficiency of your particular system and the climate in your area.
Pros of a Hybrid Heating System
As you might imagine, the main benefit of using a hybrid system instead of either a heat pump or a furnace by itself is efficiency. The system will automatically switch to whichever heating unit will provide the most energy-efficient heat at that temperature, which means you don’t have to control anything yourself. This makes it a pretty ideal system for anyone who needs to keep an entire home warm all winter but doesn’t want to break the bank with either a furnace or a heat pump by itself.
Hybrid heating systems are also a little safer if you’re worried about losing heat at any point during the winter. Each system acts as a backup to the other, so if one breaks down or stops functioning, you can just stick to the other one until you’re able to get it fixed. This is especially relevant for anyone who lives far out in the woods or in an area with heavy winds or weather. If you lose electricity for an extended period, you can just use the furnace to keep your house warm until the power comes back on, whenever that might be.
For environmentally-conscious homeowners, hybrid systems present a good compromise between keeping your house warm all winter and reducing your carbon footprint. By switching back and forth to maintain maximum energy efficiency, a hybrid system can reduce the amount of electricity your home uses. Because many power plants are still run on coal or other fossil fuels, finding ways to minimize our electricity requirements is a great way to ease the strain on our environment. The presence of the heat pump in the hybrid system also means you can have the safety net of a traditional furnace while also reducing reliance on natural gas, another fossil fuel that can damage the environment.
Cons of a Hybrid Heating System
The biggest downside of a hybrid system is the initial installation cost. Since you’re installing two systems at the same time, you can expect to pay pretty heavily for the initial purchase and installation of this system. Installing both a heat pump and a furnace can cost up to $10,000, although you can expect to save a few hundred dollars a year after it’s been set up. A hybrid system will generally pay for itself eventually, but you have to eat the high price of the initial setup first.
For similar reasons, hybrid systems also require more maintenance than either a furnace or a heat pump by themselves. You’re essentially maintaining two different heating systems at once, so it’s double the work for the technician you hire to take care of it for you. However, despite the higher price tag, you should still get your hybrid system checked out about once a year or so to avoid much pricier repair costs down the road. You should also get your ducts cleaned about once every five years or so to make sure the system is running as efficiently as possible.
Overall, a hybrid heating system is best if you have a whole house you need to heat and you live in an area where the weather gets below freezing in the winter. In more mild temperatures, you might as well stick with a heat pump or even a few space heaters if the weather is especially warm. When it comes to HVAC systems, there’s no sense in spending extra on something that you’re not going to need, especially considering the high price tags that some of these systems carry.
Call a Professional Today
If you’re interested in installing a new electric heating system in your home, or you’re just curious and have more questions, you should get in touch with a local HVAC installation and repair company today. At Valley Comfort Heating and Air, we’ve been serving Napa, Sonoma, and Marin Counties for years, and we’re confident that we can help you with anything you need. You can get in touch with us through our website or by giving us a call today at (707) 329-4120. We’re open Monday through Friday from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, so feel free to contact us with any questions you might have.