The Difference Between a Boiler, Furnace, and Heat Pump

Although a boiler, furnace, and heat pump can all keep your home warm, there is some confusion about which one is the best option. Although most new construction homes use heat pumps, many homes in Colorado still use furnaces or boilers. There are benefits to each choice, so you should talk with an HVAC professional to learn about your unique options. 

A boiler will turn your fuel source into hot water or steam. A furnace will turn your fuel source into hot air that will be circulated throughout your home. A heat pump pulls heat from the water, ground, or the air. Although all three can provide heat, there are big differences in the way that they do so. American Plumbing, Heating & Air can help you decide which option will be right for you.

Benefits of a Boiler

A boiler can convert various fuels, such as oil, electricity, or natural gas, into steam. This steam circulates throughout your home via radiators and radiant floor systems. Modern boilers not only ensure consistent warmth but also supply hot water for the home. Think of it as a two-for-one home appliance. 

Opting for a boiler means experiencing even heating without air drafts, maintaining better air quality, and potentially reducing energy bills. Additionally, boilers tend to operate more quietly and require less maintenance than other HVAC systems.

  • Function: A boiler heats water to produce steam or hot water, which is then circulated through pipes to radiators or underfloor heating systems to heat a space.
  • Fuel: They can be powered by natural gas, propane, oil, electricity, or biomass.
  • Distribution: Heated water or steam is typically distributed through a network of pipes and radiators or radiant floor systems.
  • By-products: Boilers produce water as a by-product. This is especially true for high-efficiency condensing boilers which condense the water vapor from the combustion gasses.
  • Characteristics: Boilers tend to provide a more even and consistent warmth across rooms as they use radiant heat.

Benefits of a Furnace

A furnace operates on natural gas, propane, oil, or electricity, converting these fuels into warm air. This air is then distributed throughout your home via ducts. This system reliably addresses both heating and cooling requirements. Additionally, the initial investment for a furnace is typically more affordable than many other alternatives.

  • Function: A furnace heats air directly and then uses a blower to circulate the heated air through a series of ducts, distributing it throughout a space.
  • Fuel: Furnaces can be powered by natural gas, propane, oil, or electricity.
  • Distribution: Heated air is distributed through ductwork and released into rooms via registers or vents.
  • By-products: Combustion furnaces produce exhaust gasses, which are safely vented outside.
  • Characteristics: Furnaces can heat up spaces quickly but might have more temperature fluctuations than boilers.

Benefits of a Heat Pump

A heat pump collects heat from the air, ground, or water to warm your home, making it efficient as it transfers heat instead of generating it. Besides heating and cooling, a heat pump also serves as a dehumidifier. Depending on your specific requirements, you can opt for either a ducted or ductless setup. Many new construction homes use heat pumps due to their more modern energy efficiency features. 

  • Function: Heat pumps don’t generate heat through combustion. Instead, they transfer heat from one place to another. In the winter, they extract heat from the outside air (or ground in the case of geothermal heat pumps) and move it inside to warm the space. Conversely, in the summer, they can extract heat from inside a building and release it outside, thus acting like an air conditioner.
  • Fuel: Heat pumps are powered by electricity.
  • Distribution: Like furnaces, heat pumps typically use ductwork to distribute heated or cooled air. There are also ductless (or mini-split) heat pumps that provide targeted heating or cooling to specific areas.
  • By-products: No combustion by-products since they don’t burn fuel. They only require electricity to operate.
  • Characteristics: Heat pumps can be very efficient, especially in mild climates. Their efficiency can decrease in extremely cold climates, but advancements like cold-climate heat pumps are improving their performance in colder regions.

In summary, while boilers use water or steam, furnaces use air, and heat pumps transfer heat rather than generating it from a fuel. The best choice depends on the specific needs of the home, the climate, and other factors such as fuel availability and cost.

Regardless of the heating system used in your home, the best way to get reliable heating all winter long is to ensure that your heater is properly maintained. At American Plumbing Heating & Air we always recommend that you invest in heater maintenance and schedule a service appointment BEFORE the harsh winter weather sets in. Contact us to schedule an appointment and avoid getting stuck in the cold.