Selecting the most efficient heating and cooling system for your home can be challenging. There are many compelling options on the market, and you often have to weigh what is most efficient in regard to the environment with what is most efficient in regard to your budget. If you are building a new home, then your options are only limited to what is germane to your region. On the other hand, if you are choosing a new system for an existing home, then you strongly have to consider how the residence is currently fitted. Making fundamental changes could increase your costs considerably.
Heat Pump vs. Furnace and Air Conditioner
A central forced-air HVAC system is generally a given when it comes to choosing the most efficient approach to heating and cooling for the usual home. One of the fundamental decisions that you will have to make is whether you want a heat pump—which can both heat and cool your home—or whether you want to combine a furnace with an air conditioner. A heat pump is rather efficient if it is an option for you, but traditional air-source heat pumps are typically only practical in moderate climates. Ground-source heat pumps are an option as well and viable for cold climates, but the additional costs associated with the initial installation can prove cost-prohibitive for the average homeowner.
The combination of a furnace and an air conditioner is by far the most common setup in California and throughout the United States as a whole. This combination tends to be more efficient in climates you would describe as either hot or cold. This is because a furnace is able to provide more heat more easily and an air conditioner is able to provide more cooling more easily than a heat pump. But note that feel is not really an issue at this point. That is more about which fuel source you choose.
Middle Ground: Hybrid HVAC System
Before we move on from the fundamental equipment types, it is worthwhile to point out the alternative that is the hybrid heating and cooling system. It combines an air-source heat pump with a furnace, which makes it suitable for cold climates up north. The heat pump is used to heat and cool the home most of the time, but when those freezing temperatures occur at night, the furnace kicks on. It is also worth noting that this approach is usually much more affordable than a geothermal heat pump.
The Potential Benefits of a Zoned System
When considering a new system, you may also want to consider an upgrade to zoning. Zoning often makes sense in dual-story houses and even larger structures because it allows you to set temperatures for the various zones independently. This becomes particularly powerful when you combine it with a smart thermostat that can adjust the temperature based on time of day and other factors. The upfront expense can be high but also worthwhile if you tend to live in the home for an extended period.
Selecting Your Fuel Source
The most common options for the modern HVAC system are electric and natural gas. There are other fuel-based options, such as heating oil and kerosene, but those are becoming less common with time. If you live in an existing home, the most cost-efficient option will generally be to stick with what you have. There may, however, be financial incentives available to switch that alter the equation.
What if you have either option due to new construction or because the decision is a zero-cost choice? Energy is the cleaner energy choice. It is cleaner in terms of the environment, and it is cleaner in terms of indoor air quality. Natural gas is what is called a bridge fuel in that it is helping our society making the transition to renewable energy. It is not as clean as electricity, but it is clean relative to other fuels.
Gas furnaces are a bit more expensive upfront concerning the equipment. But gas furnaces are cheaper to install, and they are cheaper to run, which is the factor that really grabs attention. In fact, the average electric furnace will be 2.5 times more expensive to run over its lifespan than the average gas furnace! Gas also has the advantage that the heat it creates feels warmer to most people.
Most modern furnaces have an annual fuel utilization efficiency rating of at least 80. An 80 AFUE means that 80% percent of the electricity or natural gas consumed is converted into heat. In other words, there is a 20% loss. The minimum AFUE required to earn the ENERGY STAR label is 85. Furnaces that have a rating of 90 or above are referred to as high-efficiency furnaces. A furnace with a 95 AFUE is clearly more efficient than a furnace with an 85 AFUE, but it is not necessarily more efficient for your home if you live in a moderate to warm environment.
Comparing Air Conditioners
Air conditioners are compared using the seasonal energy efficiency ratio. SEER indicates how efficient a cooling unit is over the usual cooling season in your region. The current minimum SEER rating is 13. The ENERGY STAR label requires 14.5 SEER. SEER ratings now climb into the 20s, but even in the warmer climates, purchasing a unit with a SEER rating above 15 is usually not necessary.
Comparing Heat Pumps
A SEER rating is available for heat pumps as well, and you can use that rating to compare heat pumps among themselves and with air conditioners in terms of how efficiently they cool. The minimum SEER rating for a heat pump to have the ENERGY STAR rating is 14.
AFUE does not apply to heat pumps, however. This is because heat pumps transfer heat rather than create it. The heating seasonal performance factor is used instead, and HSPF is like SEER in that it indicates how efficient the unit heats over a usual heating season. Air-source heat pumps generally have an HSPF rating between 8 and 10. The ENERGY STAR label requires an HSPF of at least 8.2.
Explore Financial Incentives
When determining which system will be more cost-efficient for you both in the short term and over the long term, we would be remiss not to mention the financial incentives that may be available via the federal government, California, local government and private entities. If you need help exploring these options, your local HVAC company should be able to help.
Your Local HVAC Pros in Sacramento
Gallagher's Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning is a heating, air conditioning and plumbing company that has served California for more than 30 years. We have main offices in Los Molinos, Olivehurst and Sacramento, and we provide our services throughout the North Valley and the Greater Sacramento area. Our company installs all manner of heating and cooling equipment and can help you choose the best system for your home. Our team also maintains and repairs heating and cooling equipment. We specialize in indoor air quality, including duct cleaning, and our plumbers are experts in water heaters and water purification. Contact us online or call us today with any questions or to schedule an appointment or consultation.