Expert cooling and heating guide: Choosing the right HVAC system
So many options, but what’s the best HVAC system for my home?
In Houston, where summers are famously hot and humid and winters surprisingly chilly, a reliable HVAC system isn’t just a luxury—it’s a year-round necessity. The debate between electric and gas-powered (including natural gas and propane air conditioning and heating) systems is nuanced, involving cost, efficiency, and environmental impact considerations.
Let’s start with the most common question: Is central air gas or electric?
The answer isn’t straightforward because it depends on your specific system type.
Most traditional central heat and air conditioners use electricity to cool and heat your home, but some systems, known as gas-powered or propane air conditioning systems, utilize natural gas or propane as part of the heating process in a split system.
Understanding these systems’ differences, benefits, and drawbacks is crucial for making an informed decision. Let’s dive into these options and uncover the information you need to keep your home comfortable and cost-effective.
What are the differences between electric vs. gas-powered heating & air conditioning?
Electric heat and AC system
These units rely entirely on electricity to regulate your home’s temperature. They’re popular and convenient but can also be costly depending on electricity rates.
Similarly, electric power fuels the furnace and runs the condenser in an all-electric heating system.
Gas-powered heating and AC
These systems, often referred to as natural gas air conditioners or propane air conditioning units, use gas to fuel the heating element.
They’re part of a “split” system where cooling is handled by an electrically powered air conditioner (to run the condenser). At the same time, heating is managed by a gas or propane furnace.
Did you know?
The term “split” refers to how the unit transfers warm air outside in the summer and cold air outside in the winter.
There are no variations in the duct systems used to circulate air with either system. You can use any suitable duct system with either one.
Both gas and electric air conditioning systems are similar in terms of components. Both use a furnace to generate heat, a condenser to cool the air and a duct system to circulate the air through your home.
They also rely on a temperature-sensing element, commonly a thermostat, to determine the room’s required air conditioning.
Hybrid systems: Some systems can switch between gas and electricity for heating, offering cost efficiency and flexibility.
One notable brand that offers hybrid system HVAC units is Carrier.
Their “Hybrid Heat” system is particularly well-known. This system combines the strengths of a gas furnace with an electric heat pump instead of using a traditional air conditioner.
The idea is to optimize the energy use depending on the weather conditions – the heat pump is used primarily for cooling, but it can also provide efficient heating in milder temperatures.
The system switches to the furnace for more powerful heating when the temperature drops further. This flexibility can result in more efficient energy use and lower energy bills.
Differences in heating & cooling costs between electric and gas HVAC
Choosing an electric or gas HVAC system involves considering initial setup, ongoing maintenance, energy costs, and environmental concerns.
The upfront cost is the initial sum required while setting up the system. A gas-powered air conditioner’s total purchase and installation costs are typically higher than those of an electric-powered system.
When considering upfront cost, an electric-powered system is typically the best option.
While electric HVAC systems usually have lower purchase and installation costs, the specifics can vary based on your home’s infrastructure and the unit selected.
While electric air conditioning systems might need more frequent minor repairs, they are generally less complex and can be less expensive to fix in certain instances.
However, the maintenance of gas-powered systems, although potentially less frequent, can be more costly due to the expertise required, especially concerning safety issues like carbon monoxide leaks.
When considering long-term repairs and maintenance costs, weigh the potential frequency of electric system repairs against the costs of servicing gas-powered systems.
Natural gas has traditionally been more affordable than electricity in many locales, including Houston, making gas-powered HVAC systems often more cost-efficient to operate.
However, natural gas prices can fluctuate significantly, as seen with a recent price spike in August 2023. This volatility could affect the cost-efficiency of owning a gas-powered system.
Comparing gas vs. electric furnace: What to expect from your HVAC system
How is my home heated?
With a gas furnace, the air in your home is warmed by combusting a mixture of air and fuel.
The resulting exhaust is then used to heat the circulating air of your home before being released outside through vents.
Gas furnaces are thought to be more reliable, and depending on where you live, the price of natural gas can be cheaper than electricity.
Electric heat pump
With an electric heat pump, your heater works similarly to your air conditioner, which uses an outdoor compressor and indoor blower to adjust the temperature of your indoor air.
When you turn your thermostat to heat, the process that’s used to cool your home in summer is reversed. The indoor coil that is used as the refrigerant evaporator will now work as a condenser, which warms the circulating air passing by.
Electric heat pumps are considered very efficient and cheap to install if you’ve already got the AC ductwork. However, during periods of extreme cold, your electric heat pump may not heat your home, as well as a gas furnace.
Modes of operation
Both furnaces depend on the signal sent by a thermostat to determine whether to start heating the air.
In a gas furnace, a small flame, known as a pilot light, ignites the main burner upon receiving a signal from the thermostat. The main burner heats the air, which then circulates through the ducts.
On the other hand, an electric furnace ignites the coils inside the furnace upon receiving the signal to heat the air as required.
Advantages of a gas furnace
- Rapid, efficient heating: Gas systems can quickly heat spaces, a boon during chilly winters. For fast heating results, a gas furnace is the way to go. A gas furnace heats up faster than an electric heater and is more efficient in cold temperatures.
The Great Texas Freeze occurred from February 10 to 19, 2021, causing widespread disruptions, including power outages and road closures. The disaster’s estimated cost was around $24 billion, making it the record’s costliest US winter storm event. The extreme cold resulted in the tragic loss of 246 lives in Texas, with 158 of these deaths attributed to hypothermia and three to frostbite.
- Consistency during power loss: Gas systems are less affected by electrical outages, providing uninterrupted heat—a critical factor during Houston’s stormy seasons.
- Durability: Generally speaking, electric furnaces are more durable than gas furnaces. Gas furnaces typically last 10-20 years, almost half the lifespan of electric furnaces. Burning gas in electric furnaces can produce particles that result in corrosion if not cleaned regularly.
Disadvantages of a gas furnace
- Safety hazards: Potential carbon monoxide leaks demand professional installation and regular inspections. They require professional installation and regular inspections to ensure there are no leaks.
- Initial expense: Higher upfront costs can be a barrier for some homeowners.
Choosing the right HVAC system for your Houston home
The ideal HVAC system for your home may be electric, propane air conditioning, or a natural gas unit, depending on personalized factors like upfront costs, efficiency, safety, and potential energy supply disruptions.
Seeking expert advice can significantly assist in this pivotal decision. If you’re in Houston and require professional guidance on selecting, installing, or maintaining your HVAC system, contact the experts at Richmond’s Air today.