Heat Pumps and Furnaces: What’s the Difference?

Published on: January 4, 2019
girl in gray sweater with question marks | Heat Pumps and Furnaces - What's the Difference | AC Southeast®

It’s a common question from consumers – what IS the difference between heat pumps and furnaces? Which one do I have and does it matter? Let’s consider the basics of this frequently asked question including how best to care for your heating equipment, regardless of which one you use.

How Heat Pumps and Furnaces Heat

Heat Pumps

Many people have heat pumps and don’t realize it. A heat pump is essentially one piece of equipment which heats and cools a home or business. It performs both functions. A heat pump uses refrigerant and electricity to transfer heat from one place to another.


In colder months, heat pumps pull in heat from the air outside to warm the indoors. In hotter months, it works in reverse. It extracts heat from the indoor air and pumps it outdoors.


Therefore, heat pumps do not create heat, they simply move it from place to place. Heat pumps use a component called an air handler to ensure the conditioned air reaches all areas of your home.


Heat pumps have electric strips to create additional heat when needed, although they’re expensive to use. They can act as a backup mechanism for air source heat pumps during significantly colder weather.


Geothermal heat pumps, also called “ground source” heat pumps, extract heat from the ground instead of air. The earth never gets as cold as the air, so geothermal heat pumps have fewer limitations.



In contrast, a furnace generates heat in a combustion process. Most use a gas furnace, although electric furnaces are available. If you have access to natural gas, it’s often less expensive to use a gas furnace than an electric one.


The gas combusts or burns, creates energy in the heat exchanger and the blower passes air across the heat exchanger to warm it. The warmed air moves on through the ventilation system to heat all the areas of your home.

How to Rate Efficiency of Furnaces and Heat Pumps


When it comes to furnaces, the acronym to know is “AFUE.” Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency, or AFUE, measures how efficient the furnace is at using the energy it produces.


AFUE is measured in percents of 100, as in a standard furnace has 80 percent AFUE. This means 80 percent of the fuel used translates into heat for your home. Twenty percent is lost to the exhaust vent. High-efficiency furnaces use up to 98.5 percent of the fuel it’s fed.


Heat Pumps

Because they heat and cool, heat pumps have two acronyms to know: EER and HSPF. Its cooling function uses the EER, or Energy Efficiency Ratio.


For heating, it’s Heating Seasonal Performance Factor, or HSPF. Currently, the minimum HSPF you can buy is 7.7. It’s best to have a heat pump with an HSPF between 8 and 10.

How to Get the Best Performance from Heat Pumps and Furnaces

Regardless of your choice of heating systems, preventative maintenance is the number one way to get the most from your HVAC equipment. Schedule tune-ups with a qualified HVAC professional twice a year.


If you have a heat pump, it needs two tune-ups because it functions as both a furnace and an air conditioner. Likewise, a furnace should be tuned up once a year and an air conditioner once a year. Ideally, these tune-ups occur prior to the heating season and prior to the cooling season.


Tune-ups provide deep inspections to reveal any potential issues. This identifies small things before they require big and costly repairs or worst case, replacements. The technician cleans, lubricates and tests all relevant components.


In between tune-ups, we advise you check your air filter on a monthly basis and change it as needed. Dirty air filters prevent your heating system from performing at its best.


If you have a heat pump, be sure to check the outdoor unit for debris. After windy days or storms, leaves, twigs and other yard waste accumulates around your exterior unit. If it blocks airflow or gets sucked into the fan, it obstructs performance or may damage the blades.

Experts in Heat Pumps and Furnaces are Easy to Find with AC Southeast®

AC Southeast® matches you with local professionals so you stay comfortable all year long.


We only work with trained and certified professionals who provide outstanding customer service. When you choose AC Southeast®, you are guaranteed certified professionals work on your heat pump or furnace.