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Heat Pump vs. Air Conditioner: What’s the Difference? (2024 Guide)

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Author Image Written by Brenda Woods Updated 03/21/2024

When it’s hot and steamy outside, an air conditioner or a heat pump can keep you comfortable indoors. 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, pushing warm air into your home to heat it up. By contrast, a conventional air conditioner (AC) can only cool the air. We take a look at the key differences between a heat pump vs. an air conditioner, along with the factors that go into heat pump and air conditioner costs.

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HVAC Installation

Installation costs for common air conditioning units range from $500–$2,500.

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Depending on the repair, the typical cost ranges from $100–$2,000.

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Installing an electric furnace will typically cost $1,600–$9,700.

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What Are Heat Pumps?

A heat pump is a type of a type of HVAC system that can both heat and cool your home. Heat pumps use refrigerant to condition the air in your home by adding or removing heat through thermal exchange. In colder months, the refrigerant pulls heat from the outdoor air and uses it to warm your indoor space. To switch from heating to cooling, the heat pump reverses the direction of refrigerant flow, sending indoor heat outside.

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.

For a more in-depth and visual explanation of how heat pumps work, check out this video with heating expert Richard Trethewey:

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 simultaneously doing two things:

  • Cooling indoor air: The system draws in warm indoor air and blows it across the refrigerant-filled evaporator coil in the indoor unit. The refrigerant absorbs the heat, and the blower pushes the newly cooled air back into your home, lowering the indoor temperature.
  • Sending heat outdoors: As the refrigerant heats up, it turns into a gas and moves to the outdoor unit via the compressor. The refrigerant travels through the condenser coils, where it releases heat and returns to liquid form. A fan blows the heat outside, and the refrigerant returns to the indoor evaporator coils.

Central air conditioning uses a system of ducts and registers to distribute the cool air throughout your home, while window air conditioners and portable AC units cool a single room or area. Unlike a heat pump, an air conditioner cannot also be used to heat your home. You will have to pair it with a separate heating system such as a furnace to keep your home warm during the winter.

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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 heat pumps vs. air conditioners is that heat pumps can both heat and cool indoor air. They have a reversing valve that allows them to change the flow of refrigerant, transferring heat indoors during cold months and outdoors during warm months. Their dual functionality makes them a simpler and more cost-effective option for many homeowners.

Air conditioners, on the other hand, only work one way, pulling heat air from the indoor air and sending it outside. 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.

Cost

Average installation costs for a heat pump—including equipment and labor—range from $4,200 to $7,900*, depending on the size of your home and the complexity of the system. The exact cost depends on the size of your home, the type of heat pump, and the seasonal energy efficiency ratio (SEER—see “Energy Efficiency” below for more). Prices also vary by brand and location. If you need new ductwork, you’ll have to pay an additional $25–$55 per linear foot for that.

Air-source and mini-split heat pumps are the least expensive to install. If you opt for a geothermal or solar heat pump, you could pay as much as $20,000–$39,000. 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 $3,900 to $7,900. Air conditioners are good for cooling but not heating; you’ll have to invest in additional equipment to heat your home during colder months. Depending on the type of heating system you choose, this could add anywhere from $1,700 to $10,000 or more to your total cost.

Ultimately, when choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner, consider your budget as well as your long-term energy efficiency needs.

*All costs based on contractor estimates used by Angi.

Energy Efficiency

A cooling system’s energy efficiency is measured by its 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 generally 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.

Longevity

Air conditioners generally last longer than heat pumps because air conditioners only run when the air needs cooling, while heat pumps can 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 performance.

There are steps you can take on your own to extend the lifespan of your air conditioner or heat pump. In the video below, Richard Trethewey walks homeowners through basic air conditioner maintenance:


DIY vs. Professional Installation

While some homeowners may feel confident enough to take on the challenge of installing their own heat pump or air conditioner, we recommend hiring professionals.

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 where outdoor temperatures frequently 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.


Our Conclusion

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 upfront 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 upfront 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?

The main difference between a heat pump and an air conditioner lies in their versatility. Heat pumps can heat and cool indoor air, whereas air conditioners can only cool it. An air conditioner is typically paired with a furnace to provide heat during the winter.

Is a heat pump cheaper to run than an air conditioner?

A heat pump may be cheaper to run than an air conditioner. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, high-efficiency heat pumps dehumidify better than central AC units, which means they use less energy to cool your home.

What is the downside to a heat pump?

The biggest downside to a heat pump is the higher initial cost. Heat pumps generally cost more upfront than traditional air conditioners. They may also be less efficient than a dedicated AC or furnace if you live in a very hot or very cold climate.

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