Green Tip: Choosing a heating and cooling system

Green Tip: Choosing a heating and cooling system

If, like us and many Santa Barbarians, you thought that Santa Barbara’s mild and always temperate climate was making air conditioning systems superfluous, this last heat wave probably made you reconsider your position. With our climate getting warmer and warmer, the truth is, air conditioning is becoming more essential.

Two different types of Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning (HVACs) systems

(1) A heat pump is an appliance that moves heat from one location to another. They are typically used to pull heat out of the air or ground to heat a building, but they can also be reversed to cool a space, as well as used for water heating and refrigeration. During colder months, heat pumps move heat from the outside air into your house to warm it. As long as the temperature outside is above 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat pump will be able to pull enough warm air into your home. When the temperature drops below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, the heat pump will switch to a supplemental heat mode to provide enough heat. During warmer months, heat pumps move heat from your house into the outdoors to cool it.

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(2) An air conditioner and furnace work together to form a complete heating and cooling system. Both elements are necessary; the furnace is needed to heat a space; the most common ones are natural gas furnaces, but there are also electric, propane, oil, and geothermal furnaces. Furnaces generate heat in the burner (either through an electric resistance or through the burning of natural gas), which then passes through a heat exchanger, making it hot. Then the air from the house’s ductwork is blown over the heat exchanger, warming the air. The furnace’s blower then forces the heated air into the supply ductwork, distributing it throughout the home. An electric air conditioner is also needed to cool a space, and here is how it works: “Inside the home, warm indoor air is cooled as it blows across a cold cooling coil full of refrigerant. Heat from indoor air is absorbed into the refrigerant as the refrigerant turns from liquid to gas. The cooled air is distributed back to the house. Outside the home, the refrigerant gas is compressed before entering a large coil in the outdoor unit. Heat is released outside as the refrigerant turns back to a liquid and a large fan pulls outdoor air through the outdoor coil rejecting the heat absorbed from the house. The result is a continuous cycle of heat and humidity being removed from indoor air, cool air returning to the home, and heat and humidity exiting the home” (

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What are the differences?

Although both systems are designed to achieve the same goals, there are a few differences.

If you have a gas furnace in your home, the main difference is the energy needed to run both systems. Heat pumps are able to transfer heat running only on electricity, whereas the large majority of furnaces burn natural gas to create heat. This introduces a safety and health factor; if air quality and carbon monoxide emissions are a concern, then a heat pump is a safer choice. However, more and more households aim to become all-electric and the number of electric furnaces installed is increasing, in which case air quality and safety concerns are no longer an issue. 

With a heat pump, there is the benefit of a 2-in-1 device. There is no need to install separate systems to heat and cool your home, both can be done within the same device.

Lastly, in addition to cooling and heating, some heat pumps have additional built-in features allowing for water filtration and air dehumidification.

 Heat pump - Photo credit:

Heat pump - Photo credit:

Financial considerations

When purchasing a heat pump, there are both federal and local incentives and rebates available. The Federal Energy Efficiency Tax Credit qualifies heat pumps to receive a 30% tax credit, available until 2032. There are also some local programs available to lower the upfront cost of a heat pump. One program is offered by Central Coast Community Energy (3CE) and includes a few rebates: up to $3,500 for a heat pump HVAC equipment, up to $2,000 for electric panel upgrades and replacement, and an additional $1,000 per unit for CARE (California Alternate Rates for Energy Program) and FERA (Family Electric Rate Assistance Program) qualified customers. Another local program is the Tri-County Regional Energy Network (3CREN) Single Family Program, which enables enrolled contractors to offer discounted rates on energy efficiency upgrades to their customers, including heat pumps. All energy upgrades that result in metered energy savings are also eligible for the 3CREN discounted program. With both of these programs, you are able to benefit from a very discounted heat pump. In addition, the Federal Energy Efficiency Tax Credit qualifies other energy property costs, such as central air conditioning for a $300 tax credit, or gas furnaces for a $150 tax credit, when they meet certain efficiency requirements.

It is also important to note that in general an electric furnace will have a cheaper upfront cost, be more efficient, and it will require less professional maintenance than a gas furnace. However, the long-term costs of running an electric furnace will be higher as the cost of electricity is higher than the cost of natural gas. Electric furnaces also have a longer lifespan than gas furnaces (20-30 years vs. 15-20 years).

Finally, if you are looking to replace both your furnace and air conditioning systems, a heat pump will be more financially competitive than purchasing a furnace and an air conditioning system.

Making a sustainable choice

As burning fossil fuels is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, having a heating and cooling system that does not rely on natural gas (or other fossil fuels) is a more sustainable solution, especially when your electricity comes from renewable energy. In a recent webinar, the 3CREN explains that about half of the emissions in the Central Coast come from heating and cooling our water and space. Switching to a heat pump technology will help the efforts to reduce this environmental impact. 

If you already have or are considering going solar, making the switch to an electric heating and cooling system is a great idea. Your solar system will allow you to offset your electricity cost, giving you a combination that will make your home more efficient, comfortable and sustainable.

In conclusion

When you are faced with the decision of replacing your heating and cooling system, it is important to have all the knowledge and information to make the right decision for your home. A fully electric heating and cooling system, paired with a solar system is a great step toward a zero-carbon future. 

Thank you to 3CREN who worked in partnership with the Community Environmental Council and other agencies on this webinar. Feel free to take a look to learn more and hear from community members who made the switch to an electric home.