Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner: What’s the Difference? (2023 Guide)
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When it’s hot and steamy outside, an air conditioner or a heat pump can keep you comfortable in the house. If you’re wondering which of these options is right for you, the answer depends on what kind of climate control you need and how much you want to spend.
A heat pump can pump hot air out of your home to cool you off, or it can reverse the flow of warm air into your home to heat it up. By contrast, a conventional air conditioner can only cool the air. We take a look at the key differences between a heat pump and an air conditioner along with the factors that go into heat pump costs and air conditioner costs.
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What Are Heat Pumps?
A heat pump is part of an HVAC system. Heat pumps use refrigerant to condition the air in your home by adding or removing heat through thermal exchange. To provide both heating and cooling, the heat pump reverses the direction of refrigerant flow. In essence, they move heat from one place to another depending on how you set the thermostat.
A heat pump system operates on two parts: an outdoor unit and an indoor air handler. Refrigerant lines connect the two parts, and a compressor moves the refrigerant through the system. A condenser coil or evaporator coil heats or chills the air. If the temperature outside drops below 30 degrees, heat strips add extra warmth to cold air.
There are three types of heat pumps: air-source heat pumps, water-source heat pumps, and geothermal heat pumps. Each type gets its energy from a different source. Heat pumps are an increasingly popular choice for homeowners due to their efficiency at home heating or cooling.
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What Is Air Conditioning?
Air conditioning is a cooling system that circulates cool air into an enclosed space, creating a comfortable atmosphere and improving indoor air quality. An air conditioning system works by drawing the heat from outside air in, cooling it, then transferring the coolness into the air into your home.
To accomplish this, an air conditioning machine compresses refrigerant gas that evaporates the outside air and removes the heat from it. The cooled air is then circulated through the ducts or vents in your home.
Unlike a heat pump, an air conditioner cannot also be used to heat your home. You will need a heat source, such as a furnace, to create a warm atmosphere.
Heat Pumps vs. Air Conditioners
Heat pumps and air conditioners are two popular home cooling methods. Both use electricity to circulate air and refrigerants to cool air inside a house. The main difference between them is how they operate. Heat pumps move heat from one area to another, whereas air conditioners only remove heat from a room by forcing warm air outside.
Heat pumps also use a reversing valve to reverse the flow of refrigerant and circulate warm air inside during cold months. This makes them a more efficient option as they can provide both cooling and heating.
Air conditioners, on the other hand, are better suited for hot weather when you only need to cool your home. They require less maintenance, but they are virtually useless during cold months when the outside temperature drops and you need warm air in your house.
Heat pumps are typically more expensive than air conditioners up-front. Average installation costs for a heat pump—including equipment and labor—range from $4,200 to $7,600*, depending on the size of your home and the complexity of the system. If you don’t have ductwork in place, you’ll have to pay an additional $3,000 to $7,500 to install 300 linear feet of ductwork.
Air-source and mini-split heat pumps are the least expensive to install. If you opt for a geothermal or solar heat pump, costs increase to $18,000–$34,000. While up-front costs can be steep, heat pumps provide efficient heating and cooling, often making them a worthwhile investment in the long run.
Central air conditioning has slightly lower installation costs, ranging from $3,800 to $7,500. Air conditioners are good for cooling but not heating; you’ll have to invest in additional equipment to heat your home during colder months, which will increase your overall energy costs. Up-front installation costs for an entire HVAC system (AC and furnace combination) range from $5,000 to $12,000*.
Ultimately, when choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner, consider your budget as well as your long-term energy efficiency needs.
*Cost ranges based on data from Angi.
A cooling system’s energy efficiency is measured by its seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER). SEER is calculated by dividing the total heat removed from your home by the total electrical energy consumed by the air conditioner or heat pump. A higher SEER rating means a more efficient system. The more energy-efficient your system is, the more money you save.
Heat pumps are more energy-efficient than air conditioners as they don’t consume as much electricity. They dehumidify the air better than standard AC units, resulting in less energy use. Heat pumps are also more efficient than electric resistance heating sources. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, heat pumps can reduce your electricity use for heating by about 50% compared to furnaces and baseboard heaters.
The cost to operate a heat pump will depend on its size, location, and the climate you live in. In general, heat pumps function cleanly in moderate climates but are not as efficient in cold climates.
Air conditioners generally last longer than heat pumps because air conditioners only run when the air needs cooling, while heat pumps operate year-round. That’s not always the case, though.
The life span of your heat pump or air conditioner depends on several factors, including how often you use it and how well you maintain it. The climate you live in can also affect the life expectancy of either system. Both tend to last longer in cooler climates than in warmer ones.
Note that both systems require professional maintenance every year to perform at maximum efficiency, so make sure you have a qualified technician inspect them and make any necessary repairs or adjustments. With proper maintenance and usage, both systems can provide you with many years of reliable cooling and heating performance.
DIY vs. Professional Installation
While some homeowners may feel confident enough to take on the challenge, we recommend hiring professionals to install heat pumps and air conditioners.
Heat pump installation requires an expert eye to ensure the system is properly sized for your home and placed in the best location. A professional will also know the specific requirements of your climate and local building codes. For example, you may need a supplemental heating source in cold climates when outdoor temperatures drop below freezing.
Air conditioning installation is also best left to professionals. Not only is there a risk of electrocution during installation, but AC units must be properly sized, leveled, and insulated to operate effectively. In addition, certain parts of the installation process—such as refrigerant charging and evaporator coil cleaning—should only be done by certified technicians.
In short, heat pump and air conditioning installation is not something we recommend doing yourself. It’s important to get the job done right to ensure optimal efficiency and comfort for your home.
Whether you should opt for a heat pump or air conditioner depends on where you live, how much you want to invest, and how important energy efficiency is to you.
A heat pump can be a great choice if you want an efficient way to heat and cool your home. It’s a more energy-efficient and cost-effective option than an air conditioner. However, these products are more expensive up-front and may require more maintenance.
Air conditioners, on the other hand, can be more affordable and less complex to maintain than heat pumps. They are great for cooling your home quickly and effectively during the hot summer months. However, they cannot heat your home the way a heat pump can.
When choosing between the two, it is important to consider your budget, the climate in your area, and what type of heating and cooling you need. Finally, consider how efficient you want the system to be and whether or not you’re willing to spend extra up-front for that efficiency.
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FAQ About Heat Pumps vs. AC
What is the difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner?
One major factor separates heat pumps from air conditioners: heat pumps can heat and cool indoor air, whereas air conditioners can only cool it. An air conditioner is typically paired with a gas furnace during the winter to provide heat. Together, they form a complete heating and cooling system.
Is a heat pump cheaper to run than an air conditioner?
When in cooling mode, a heat pump is not usually cheaper to run than an air conditioner. Aside from a few technical details, heat pumps and air conditioners operate similarly in cooling mode. There’s no significant difference in operation, efficiency, or energy cost. Heat pumps, however, can heat your home more efficiently and effectively than most other options, including furnaces.
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