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Heating With Electricity or Gas?

What fuel source should you be using for heating your home? Our guide provides you with a few ideas of things to consider.

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What Type of Heating System Should I Choose?

Most Canadians use a furnace to heat their homes. This is particularly the case in Alberta, where 94% of homes are heated with furnaces, according to Statistics Canada. For comparison, about 81% of Ontario homes use furnace equipment to heat their homes, compared with 52% in British Columbia, and only 14% in Quebec. Other common heating options in Canada are electric baseboards, boilers (used mainly in PEI and Nova Scotia), heating stoves, and electric radiant heating.

Central Heating vs. Space Heating

In this article we will focus on comparing the pros and cons of gas and electric heating for furnaces, as overall they are the most common type of heating system used in Canada.

Gas or Electric: which is more efficient?

The efficiency of a furnace is measured by its annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE). The AFUE measures how efficient a furnace is in converting the energy in its fuel to heat over the course of a typical year.

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In general, electric furnaces are more efficient than natural gas furnaces, as they do not contain a chimney. In fact, electric furnaces can reach almost 100% efficiency! Gas furnaces, on the other hand, will never reach 100% efficiency as some energy is lost through the flue of the chimney. In Canada, gas furnace efficiency can range from 78-98.5% depending on the age and model.However, just because an electric furnace is more efficient does not necessarily mean that it is cheaper to run. We'll explain why that is in the following sections.

Find out more about EnerGuide and ENERGY STAR

Gas or Electric: which is cheaper?

Installation

Here we have a clear winner: electric furnaces, are cheaper to purchase and install than gas, especially if no gas line service already exists in the house. A gas furnace requires a gas service line, which may expensive to install, when the costs of construction, permits, and enlisting the help of a HVAC professional are taken into account.

Operation

However, the balance changes when we compare operation costs. The prices of both natural gas and electricity vary depending on where you live in Canada. Electricity is cheapest in provinces that rely mostly on hydro (such as British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec), but is more expensive in other provinces. Natural gas is cheapest in Alberta, the point of production for Canadian natural gas.

However, to compare the cost of running a natural gas-fueled furnace vs an electric one, it helps to have them in the same units.

Kilowatt-hour (kWh) Gigajoule (GJ) Cubic Metres (m3) Gas Milion British Thermal Units (MMBtu)
1.00 3.6 x 10⁻³ 0.096 3.4 x 10⁻³
277.778 1.000 26.800 0.948
10.278 0.037 1.000 0.035
293.071 1.055 28.328 1.00

Find out more about units for gas, and units for energy

In general, however, gas furnaces are seen to be cheaper to run, even in areas where electricity is relatively cheap. Natural gas-fired furnaces tend to be more powerful than electric, and take less time to reach desired temperatures, meaning that they use less energy to run.

Gas or Electric: which is greener?

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Again, the answer to this question depends on where you live in Canada. If you live in Alberta, where approximately half of the electricity generation mix comes from coal, choosing a natural gas-fired furnace may be a preferable alternative to an electric-fired furnace (and indeed, the majority of furnace systems in Alberta are gas-powered). Natural gas is considered one of the cleanest-burning fossil fuels, and produces nearly half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy burned when compared to coal. 

However, from an environmental perspective, using natural gas as a fuel source is not ideal. A non-renewable fossil fuel, natural gas contains is largely composed of methane, another greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Some scientists have raised concerns about the amount of methane leakage that occurs in North American natural gas production systems, and have suggested that the amount of this leakage reduces the advantages of natural gas over coal.

In other provinces where electricity generation produces relatively few emissions (such as British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario), choosing an electric furnace may be more environmentally friendly, as it supports demand for 'cleaner' sources of energy. An electric furnace becomes even more of a greener option if you have chosen to purchase green electricity (find out how you can green your energy with Renewable Energy Certificates), or if you are able to go off the grid and install microgeneration.

Gas or Electric: which is safer?

As natural gas fueled furnaces emit low levels of carbon monoxide, they can pose a slight risk to homeowners if the unit isn't functioning properly. Electric units do not pose this problem

Gas or Electric: which is more convenient?

Electric furnaces are generally considered to be more convenient than gas furnaces. They are quicker to install, easier to maintain, run quietly, and pose no risks related to combustible energy.

Pros and Cons of Gas and Electric Furnaces

Advantages and Disadvantages of Choosing Electric Furnaces

Advantages Disadvantages
  • At almost 100% efficiency (ability to convert kWh energy into heat) electric furnaces are more efficient: the maximum efficiency a gas-powered furnace can reach is 98.5%
  • Electric furnaces are generally cheaper to install, requiring no special venting, storage tanks, or fuel pipes, and are smaller than gas furnace units
  • Electric furnace units are generally quite easy to maintain
  • As there is no fuel combustion involved, they tend to be fairly safe
  • Electric furnaces have a long lifespan (20-30 years)
  • Electric furnaces are more expensive to run
  • They are often less powerful than gas furnaces and take longer to reach the required temperature
  • Depending on where you live or from whom you purchase your energy, an electric furnace may be a less green option than a gas-fueled one 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Gas Heating

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Overall, a natural gas-fueled furnace is cheaper to run (as natural gas is generally cheaper than electricity) - this is expected to continue to be the case in the medium- to long-run
  • Gas units are more powerful and can heat the home more quickly than electric units
  • Gas furnaces are more expensive to install, especially if you do not already have natural gas service connected to your home
  • The typical lifespan of a gas unit is about half that of an electric furnace, at about 10 - 20 years for gas (compared to 20 - 30 for electric)
  • Gas furnaces must be regularly maintained, particularly with respects to a slight risk of carbon monoxide exposure 
  • Gas furnace units are more complicated than electric units, and any problems generally require the assistance of a HVAC professional
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