After the pandemic, we started thinking a lot more about living off-grid and this means reconsidering how we get our heat. Naturally, our options are either to use a fireplace or to continue relying on our furnace. So, which one is better, and can you heat a home efficiently with a fireplace?
Overall, a furnace is the better choice for heat as it’s more efficient and can distribute the heat evenly throughout the house via air ducts. However, furnaces can be more expensive to install and run. On the other hand, fireplaces have a tough time heating up a home and usually need to be run alongside a furnace.
So, while wood-burning fireplaces can lose as much as 90% of their heat through the chimney, furnaces can be much more expensive, especially if you have a bigger home. To figure out which one is better, let’s explore some more differences between the two and weigh the pros and cons.
What’s the Difference Between a Fireplace and a Furnace?
The main difference between a furnace and a fireplace is how the heat is created and distributed. Furnaces are essentially an oven that’s heated with gas and distributes the heat evenly in the home. Fireplaces are normally heated with wood or gas, but most heat isn’t circulated and is lost through the chimney.
Sometimes fireplaces can be both gas and wood-burning.
Historically, fireplaces are an older method for heating a home. The fireplace usually is installed in a large room or individual bedrooms.
Fireplaces also need some tools to properly use and maintain them and their fires. Here are some of the most common:
- Brush and pan
- Fireplace screen
- Log storage rack
Aside from some of the main fireplace tools, you also may come across a wood-burning stove in the basement of older houses. This essentially functions as the home’s furnace, but they’re not typically used any longer with modern construction practices.
Additionally, masonry can be placed around a fireplace but is unnecessary unless the fireplace is wood-burning. On the other hand, gas fireplaces use natural gas and burn cleaner than wood fireplaces. Because of this, gas fireplaces don’t need as much ventilation (some are even ventless), while electric fireplaces can have zero clearance or need for ventilation.
One of a furnace’s key differences compared to a fireplace is the lack of carbon left behind after burning the fuel. Fireplaces will leave behind lots of soot, ash, and creosote.
There are a few different types of furnaces. The two most popular options are gas and electric furnaces. Each has its pros and cons also, but we’ll save that for another time. For now, let’s explore more into the pros and cons of fireplaces and furnaces.
Pros and Cons
Both the fireplace and the furnace have their pros and cons—everything from the cost to install and run the unit, to their average lifespan and heat output. The real decision comes down to identifying what you need in your home. Some places have both a fireplace and a furnace, while others only have one.
Due to their efficiency and reliability, furnaces are definitely more common in households. Most households also have a boiler to heat the home’s water supply. In terms of heat output, fireplaces have become more of a luxury than a need.
When comparing both a furnace’s and fireplace’s pros and cons, it’s important to consider how often you’d be running it, along with the sq. footage you need to heat. To give you a better idea, here’s a table that helps break down the differences.
|Cost to Install||$2000 average||$4452 average|
|Cost to Run (per 1M BTU)||$8.40-$19.00||$12.10-$45.07|
|Average Lifespan||20-30 Years||10-20 Years|
Now, let’s expand on the differences to help you make your decision.
Cost to Install
The fireplace is going to be the less expensive route to take. Depending on the type of fireplace you select, it can range anywhere from $1000 to $4000 to install. This estimate does not consider any major renovations that may need to be done before installation or the fireplace itself.
For example, a masonry fireplace can cost upwards of $6000 to install, while an electric fireplace may only cost $100. The price difference has to do with if the fireplace needs ventilation, a gas line, or other structural changes. Naturally, the more complex the fireplace, the more expensive the installation.
A furnace will cost significantly more money to install or replace. The average cost to install a furnace is around $5500. Some electric models may install for as little as $2000, or as high as $7000. HomeAdvisor states that a gas furnace can cost upwards of $10,000 to replace entirely.
There are some furnaces available that can cost $40,000 or more to install in a building. For example, geothermal furnaces are the most expensive furnaces to install. This is because most geothermal systems are customized for the property in which they are to be installed. For more information on geothermal systems and to see if they fit what you need, consider consulting with a contractor.
Average Monthly Cost
The fuel source for both the furnace and the fireplace can cost a similar price on average, except when considering wood-burning fireplaces (as this can be gathered for free).
Typically fireplaces have an average monthly cost of $8.40-$19.00, while furnaces can cost $12.10-$45.07. However, this is assuming a monthly burn rate of 1 million BTU. As some homes can use much more than this, finding a more accurate cost depends on the actual BTU and price of fuel, which relies on several factors.
These factors include:
- The temperature outside
- The market price of fuel
- How long you need to run the heating appliance
- The overall efficiency and heat loss of the appliance
To calculate how much BTU in heat you need, you can check out this BTU calculator.
When it comes to furnaces, gas is almost always cheaper than electricity, and as Entek HVAC points out, the installation cost for an electric furnace may be more affordable than gas, but electric furnaces will almost definitely cost more monthly to operate.
The reason that electricity cost so much more is because the amount of electricity needed for one BTU unit is around 3400KWH. So, the cost of heating with electricity is greater than the price of most other heating fuels.
Which is Safer?
Overall, wood-burning fireplaces are less safe when compared to furnaces. Even though smoke primarily escapes through the chimney, there is still some ash, smoke, and creosote that can be breathed in. Creosote buildup can also cause chimney and house fires. Because of this, furnaces are normally the safer of the two.
Health-wise, the furnace and fireplace both pose similar risks. Both gas appliances can be prone to gas leaks from faulty vents, valves, or exhaust systems. Electric systems are generally safer than gas appliances for this reason.
However, when considering each appliance’s fire danger, the most risk is an unmaintained system regardless of the type.
Due to loose embers and chimney fires, more fires are typically caused by fireplaces than furnaces. So, overall, furnaces do a better job of containing the fire. There are also more regulations for furnaces than there are for fireplaces.
Still, electric furnaces are going to be the safest option, both in health and fire-safety. There are fewer moving parts, and the heating elements are usually well contained.
Which Has A Better Heat Output?
Furnaces have a much better heat output than fireplaces as they have less heat loss and can circulate air better. Also, keep in mind that fireplaces usually only increase a house’s temperature by 15-25ºF, which isn’t enough in colder climates. This is why fireplaces are commonly used as supplemental heat sources.
A fireplace heats the immediate area and lacks ductwork to distribute the heat throughout the entire house. Depending on how cold the fireplace must combat, a fireplace may not be the best option for massive amounts of heat to be produced.
Other fuels could be used in fireplaces, such as oil, or wood pellets, that will have similar heat outputs to a furnace. Also, different wood types will have different heat efficiency and BTU ratings. According to this report, the most efficient wood to burn is wood pellets with an 80% heat efficiency.
But, overall, an electric fireplace will give you the best heat output at near 100% heat efficiency. However, they can cost a lot more to run. On the other hand, gas fireplaces will have anywhere from 70-90% heat efficiency.
When it comes to furnaces, most get between 80-98% efficiency. The same heat output applies to almost all types of furnaces: oil, gas, electric, and geothermal. Each furnace and fireplace will have a BTU rating along with an efficiency rating. You can take the BTU rating and multiply it by the efficiency rating to get the individual unit’s heat output.
In general, furnaces have a better heat output as you can control the dial’s temperature to heat the entire house via central heat air ducts. On the other hand, fireplaces can typically only heat the room where it is installed.
Which Is Easier To Install?
Compared to furnaces, electric fireplace inserts are by far the easiest to install, as you mostly just need a place to put them. While fireplaces that need a gas line or vent constructed are more complex, they’re still easier to install than furnaces. Masonry fireplaces are the most complex fireplace due to their chimney.
Some of the pre-built fireplace inserts only require a place to put them. They’re relatively easy to install, and if you do need to replace one, it’s not too difficult to do it yourself. They’re also lightweight compared to furnaces and are less complicated to install.
A masonry fireplace is rather challenging to build but not as tricky as a furnace. Aside from constructing a new chimney and firebox, fireplace inserts will fit nicely inside the older masonry openings, making it easier to install if the brickwork is already complete. On the other hand, if you’re installing a gas fireplace, running a gas line to it might be tricky.
Compared to fireplaces, installing a furnace is typically more difficult and should always be handled by a licensed professional. Furnaces are bulky and sometimes require special permits and equipment to install. In some area’s it may even require an inspection to be up to current building requirements.
Safety Concerns with Self Installation
Installing a pre-fabricated electric fireplace insert may only require an outlet and space big enough to fit it. If you’re handy enough, it is possible to install the fireplace with a minimum risk.
A gas fireplace is significantly more difficult to DIY, which includes getting the correct size gas pipe. Too big or too small, and you have a problem. Remember that the gas appliances typically need to vent as well, so if there’s no vent installed, it’s usually best done before installing the gas lines.
Installing a furnace might seem like a quick job, but it can be a lot more complicated than that. A trained HVAC specialist can install one in a few hours, whereas a novice homeowner may take a few days. The biggest concern with self-installing furnaces is any venting and clearance needed.
Because of this, it’s recommended to consult an HVAC specialist if you are unsure of what you need. Most estimates are free, and this can give you a good idea of what the job entails.
What Is The Average Lifespan Of Each?
Fireplaces can last up to 30 years, while furnaces can normally last up to 20 years. The biggest factors in both of their lifespans depend on their construction and how often you use them. Masonry fireplaces typically last longer than prefabricated ones, sometimes up to several generations.
A masonry fireplace can last for several generations if professionally installed. Masonry fireplaces normally have low maintenance costs, but the main concern is the flue and brickwork. Different issues such as water leaks and blockages can arise in the flue or chimney that can be rather costly to fix.
Fireplace inserts are designed to be used occasionally and last up to 30 years with routine maintenance. This usually means a yearly inspection and cleaning, but as many manufacturers are different, it’s best to check your fireplace’s manual.
On the other hand, furnaces are designed to last 15-20 years with regular maintenance. The furnace should also have regular inspections and be cleaned periodically. Larger furnaces also tend to break down faster, as well as poorly designed and installed units.
Some of the key indicators that it is time for a new furnace are:
- Frequent service calls
- Expensive repair bills
- Uneven temperatures
- Inability to stay at the thermostat’s temperature setting
- Furnace blowing cold air
- New or increased noises
- Increase in energy bills
What Is The Environmental Rating Of Each?
Generally, the EPA only certifies furnaces with heat efficiency of above 78%. However, each fireplace and furnace have vastly different environmental ratings, so it’s important to do research before buying a specific model or check the one you currently have.
A wood-burning fireplace will have an EPA rating on a metal tag located on the back of the device. The owner’s manual will also list the EPA’s rating for each appliance. If there is no tag, there is no EPA certification. Typically, you can check EPA certifications on the EPA’s website.
EPA-approved furnaces or centralized heaters are going to be the more common option amongst furnaces. You can always check with the EPA to make sure the contractor is installing an energy-efficient model. The EPA currently requires a minimum of 78% heat efficiency to qualify as an Environmentally friendly appliance.
There are other rating systems available such as the Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency or AFUE. This alternative rating might be in place of the EPA Efficiency sticker, depending on where the appliance is sold. The Federal Trade Commission requires that the AFUE ratings be visible to the public for comparison.
The AFUE rating measures the heat that does not escape the home through a chimney. It’s also a widely-accepted measurement of efficiency.
Keep in mind that any appliance before 1990 was not under the regulations of the U.S. Department of Energy. Because of this, appliances older than that will most likely not have any efficiency rating.
While we would love the option to provide off-grid heat if needed, wood-burning fireplaces simply lack the heat efficiency to properly heat a home.
So, furnaces win this battle because of their heat efficiency compared to overall cost. They really are the best way to provide centralized heat for the whole home, instead of one room like a fireplace.
However, a tiny house may be in our near future, and if that’s the case, wood-burning stoves are looking mighty appealing.