Modern furnaces are built to maximize comfort and energy savings over an extended service life. However, all heating appliances eventually need to be replaced due to age or obsolescence. Significant gains in efficiency and improvements in safety features offer consumers compelling reasons to replace old furnace models.

In many cases, furnace selection is largely dependent on fuel availability. Natural gas is the most popular fuel, but the required piping infrastructure is not available in all areas of the country. In these instances, homeowners are limited to propane, fuel oil or electric furnaces. Both oil and propane require fuel storage tanks that are expensive to install and maintain. For those looking to minimize upfront costs, an electric furnace may be an attractive alternative.

Electric Furnace Pros and Cons

The primary benefit of an electric furnace is its low purchase price. Electric heating technology is relatively simple and includes tightly wound coils that are positioned directly inside the air handler cabinet. The coils operate in a manner that is similar to the kind used in toasters and hair dryers. Electric resistance current generates heat that is forced through the ductwork by a blower fan. The coils are relatively inexpensive compared to the burners, ignition system and heat exchanger components in a gas furnace. Consumers should expect to spend 25-50 percent less on an electric furnace than a comparable gas model.

The installation process for an electric unit is far less complicated since gas lines and vent pipe are not required. This helps reduce the disruption that is often caused during a retrofit application.

Electric furnaces operate very quietly and have a longer service life than gas units. Once again, this is primarily due to the relative simplicity of the design. In general, an electric furnace should last between 20-30 years while the average gas furnace has a design life of 15-20 years.

Maintenance on an electric heating system is minimal and straightforward. Electric heaters also are safer to operate than their gas counterparts since there is no fuel involved in the burn process. This eliminates the chance of accidental exposure to carbon monoxide and other waste gas byproducts.

With so many advantages, many people wonder why gas furnaces are more popular than electric appliances. The main issue with owning an electric furnace is cost of operation, which is a significant shortcoming.

Gas Furnace Pros and Cons

In contrast to an electric furnace, gas models cost less to run. Natural gas is a much cheaper source of energy than electricity, and the cost per therm for natural gas has actually declined over the past few years. Gas heating appliances also tend to heat the building more quickly than the electric resistance method because the combustion chamber inside a gas unit reaches much higher temperatures. This gives gas furnaces a decided advantage in areas that experience especially severe winter temperatures.

Since gas furnaces incorporate a variety of complex components, they are more expensive to purchase and install. Maintenance must be performed regularly by a trained HVAC professional to ensure the unit is operating properly. A cracked heat exchanger or compromised venting can create a dangerous safety hazard if not addressed promptly.

Operating Cost Comparison

In terms of installed costs, noise levels and durability, electric furnaces have an advantage over gas models. However, the considerable difference in operating costs makes gas furnaces the choice of the majority of homeowners.

Comparing an electric furnace that is 100 percent efficient with a gas furnace that is 80 percent efficient quantifies the enormous disparity in utility expenses. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) found the average cost of residential electricity was 11.7 cents per kilowatt hour in 2012. Gas was $1.01 per therm for the same period. Using those figures, the cost of generating one million BTUs of heat would be $34.32 for electric and $12.96 for gas. In essence, gas costs 62 percent less than electricity while producing the same amount of heat.

A Matter of Preference

Both gas and electric furnaces offer a variety of benefits depending on the application. To compare different furnace technologies and efficiencies, contact a qualified HVAC professional.