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ACs and heat pumps are similar in many ways, however, there are key differences that you need to know before making a purchase. If you’re wondering which system works best for your home’s cooling needs,  this in-depth comparison of a heat pump vs AC / air conditioner can help you make an informed decision. 

The guide will help you understand how each system works and dive into factors such as installation and running costs, efficiency, environmental friendliness, lifespan and effectiveness.

Heat Pump vs AC

What is a Heat Pump

A heat pump is a 2-in-1 heating and cooling device which functions by transferring heat rather than generating it.  Heat pumps use a similar mechanism to that of refrigerators. They simply move heat energy from cool to warm spaces. 

Working Mechanism

During the hot season, a heat pump transfers heat from the home’s interior to the warm outdoors. In the cold season, the pump transfers heat energy from the cool outdoors to the interior of your home. Heat pumps don’t generate heat or undergo any combustion process. Thus, they are considered to be sustainable and renewable energy solutions.

Furthermore, these devices transfer a significant amount of heat. Yet, their power consumption remains at a minimum to make them quite efficient and cost-effective. On the market, you will find three types of heat pumps to suit your needs: air source, water source, and geothermal pumps. 

Types

Air source heat pumps use the outside air to cool and warm your home. Water source heat pumps use water from sources such as lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Geothermal heat pumps use the earth’s underground heating as the heat exchange source.

For more information, check out our guide here.

Do I have a heat pump or an air conditioner?

When comparing a heat pump vs an air conditioner, the main difference between these two devices is how they work. A heat pump is designed to heat and cool. On the other hand, an air conditioner can cool, but it doesn’t heat. However, some people do use air conditioners for heating. They have to pair it with a furnace for a complete heating and cooling solution. 

Thus, the easiest way to figure out which system you have is by checking the heating capacity. You will not be able to tell apart the two systems just by looking at them. This is because air conditioners and heat pumps look identical. 

Turn on the heat!

Instead, there are three simple ways to check whether you have a heat pump or AC. The first option is pretty simple. All you have to do is turn on the heat on the thermostat and see if the unit works. A heat pump will start blowing hot air while its outdoor unit runs, too. If this method doesn’t work, you can opt for the second option. 

Read the labels

The second option involves reading the manufacturer’s label on your unit. If you have a heat pump, you will likely see words like “heat pump” or model numbers that start with “HP”. Alternatively, look at the classification of the device. 

If it has a SEER and HSPF number, it is, in fact, a heat pump. Since a heat pump heats and cools, it has two ratings for each season, i.e. Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio and Heating Seasonal Performance Factor. 

Check for the reversing valve

Lastly, you can do a physical check of your outdoor unit to look for the reversing valve which allows your pump to cool and heat. 

The valve is typically placed inside the condenser in the outdoor unit. It has three fittings and a reddish-brown color. A heat pump is fitted with a reversing valve, while an AC doesn’t have one.

Comparison of Heat Pump vs AC

Installation Costs

Installation cost is an essential factor when choosing between a heat pump and an air conditioner. But, the cost amongst different types of ACs and heat pumps varies depending on size and capacity. 

Generally, looking at a heat pump vs central air conditioning system, you will notice that the former fetches a higher installation cost. On average, you will pay nearly twice as much for a heat pump installation than an air conditioning unit.

This is because a heat pump alone is expensive to buy upfront. Additionally, a heat pump requires more setup with tasks such as ductwork. Overall, the higher costs associated with installing a heat pump are because it involves both heating and cooling.

Operation Costs and Efficiency

You will notice that both devices do a good job when it comes to efficiency. If the seasonal energy rating for an AC unit and heat pump is the same, it means their running costs and performances are the same. 

For the most part, a more efficient device is also less costly, so we’ll be using the terms operation costs and efficiency interchangeably during this article.

Cooling

Both heat pumps and air conditioners use a similar mechanism for climate control, so their efficiency is also quite similar. For cooling, both perform similarly. 

However, heat pumps are better suited to deal with more extreme conditions. So, if the temperature difference between the inside and the outside goes beyond 15 degrees, a heat pump will give you better efficiency.

Heating

Heat pumps are usually more efficient than conventional boilers and baseboard heaters. This is because they don't generate heat, rather they only shift energy from the outside to the inside. 

However, heat pumps become less efficient and not as effective in extremely cold temperatures, since there is very little heat on the outside. Thus, they may need an extra heating source to supplement them. 

This is why it may be a better idea to install in areas with moderately cool climates. On the other hand, air conditioners also experience a drop in their efficiency when outside temperatures are too high.

Product Life

Air conditioners have a much longer lifespan compared to heat pumps. After all, air conditioners are only used for a fraction of the year for cooling. On the other hand, heat pumps are used all year round for both heating and cooling. 

But, even with this fact, you have to examine the longevity of an AC unit and heat pump based on circumstances. For example, you have to consider the running times and frequency to which you use each device. 

Circumstantial factors

Additionally, in some cases, you may find that if you pair a heat pump with a supplemental heating solution, you can cut down its running time significantly. Furthermore, you have to think about the capacity and quality too. Higher capacity and quality heat pumps will last longer. After all, both AC units and heat pumps have a similar lifespan of about 10 to 15 years.

Climate

When doing a heat pump vs AC comparison, ultimately, you want to figure out which device works best for your climate. 

Air Conditioners

Generally, air conditioners are ideal for hot climates where homes don’t need a heater setup. Alternatively, AC units are ideal for climates like Kansas and northern California, where the summers are hot, and the winters are frigid. 

In this case, you can include an AC unit and furnace or gas-style heaters to complete your home’s HVAC system. The AC unit takes care of the cooling needs while these heaters jump in to tackle the cooler winters. After all, a heat pump loses its efficiency in very cold climates. 

Heat Pumps

On the other hand, a heat pump works best in areas with moderate climates, efficiently cooling your home during the warm season and warming it during the cold season. With a moderate climate, you don’t have to pair your heat pump with auxiliary heaters, allowing you to save significantly on additional installation and energy bill costs.

Heat Pump vs AC – The Verdict

The bottom line when doing a heat pump vs AC / air conditioner comparison for your home is to consider key factors such as costs and installation. However, you also want to pay attention to the climate where you live. Once you’ve taken these factors into account, making a decision will be much easier.

Sources

cdc.gov
energy.gov

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