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When choosing a home HVAC system, most homeowners opt for a heat pump or an air conditioning (AC) system. Heat pumps offer both heating and cooling options throughout the year, while air conditioners maintain cooler temperatures during warmer months.
If you’re having trouble deciding between the two systems, we’ve created this guide to help you choose. Below, we compare the benefits, costs, and energy efficiency of a heat pump vs. an AC.
What Are Heat Pumps?
Heat pumps are HVAC systems that regulate indoor temperatures by pumping air in and out of your home. Heat pumps move hot air outside to cool rooms in warmer months; in cooler temperatures, they use a reversing valve to switch from cooling to heating. When switched, the system pulls warm air from outside to heat your home. Heat pumps work even in frigid temperatures. When outdoor temperatures drop below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, auxiliary heat turns on to add additional warmth to your home.
Homeowners can choose from three types of heat pumps for their houses. Air-source heat pumps are the most common. Geothermal heat pumps use the ground beneath your foundation as their heat source, while water-source heat pumps require a nearby body of water, such as a pond, to source their heat.
What Is Air Conditioning?
Air conditioning provides cool air to a home during warm seasons. They work by taking in warm outside air and cooling it with compressed refrigerant gas. The gas evaporates the heat and moves the air through the ducts and vents. The newly cooled air is circulated through your home in a continuous cycle to cool it effectively. Air conditioners also filter the circulated indoor air, removing allergens and improving air quality.
There are different types of AC units to fit each homeowner’s needs. Window AC units provide cooling to small rooms, while central air conditioners cool whole homes. Split AC units have indoor and outdoor units, require no ductwork, and can be installed in one or multiple rooms. Portable AC units are great solutions for homeowners that don’t need a permanent installation. You could also choose a geothermal or swamp AC unit as an alternative to central AC.
Air conditioning systems only provide cool air and have no home heating options. To warm your home, you must invest in a separate unit, such as a furnace.
Heat Pumps vs. Air Conditioning
Heats pumps and air conditioners are two popular home cooling systems. They both use refrigerant to cool air and function with electricity. However, their modes of operation differ. While heat pumps offer home heating and cooling options, AC systems are limited to home cooling. Heat pumps make excellent energy-saving options and help lower utility bills over time. On the other hand, AC units require less money up-front to purchase.
Deciding between these two systems comes down to your desired energy efficiency, climate, and budget. We’ve compared several key factors below to help you decide which option is best for your home.
Below is an overview of the rating systems used for heat pumps and AC units, plus details on each one’s efficiency.
The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) represents a cooling system’s energy efficiency. SEER ratings are calculated by dividing the total amount of heat removed from a house by the total energy consumed by the cooling system. The higher the SEER rating, the better the energy efficiency, which translates to better long-term savings. You can compare the SEER ratings for both types of systems to find the most efficient options.
You’ll also want to check your heat pump’s heat efficiency—displayed as Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF)—with the new standard designated HSPF2. This measurement represents the heat pump‘s efficiency while in heating mode. The higher the HSPF rating, the more efficient the heat pump.
In terms of cooling, heat pumps offer better energy efficiency than air conditioners since they use less electricity. They’re more efficient at removing humidity and heat from the air than traditional AC units.
Further, heat pumps are more efficient heat solutions than other heat sources. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), air-source heat pumps can reduce electricity use for heating by 50% compared to stand-alone heating systems, such as baseboard heaters and furnaces. Cost savings reduce when the auxiliary heat turns on in icy conditions. This added heat source reduces the energy-efficiency heat of heat pumps.
Both heat pumps and air conditioning systems come in Energy Star-rated models, indicating better efficiency. Energy-efficient units cost more than standard units but offer better energy cost savings over time.
The life spans of heat pumps and AC systems differ due to their frequency of use. AC units typically last 15 to 20 years, depending on their upkeep and maintenance. These systems last longer since they only operate in warm months.
Heat pumps could last just 15 years since they run year-round. This life expectancy varies by region. For example, both systems last longer in cooler climates but have shorter life spans in warmer areas.
Neglecting your heat pump or air conditioning system will impact its overall performance and life span. Both systems require regular maintenance to cool or heat your home effectively. An HVAC professional should handle any annual or semiannual maintenance.
The cost to operate a heat pump will depend in part on the location and climate in which you live. Heat pumps generally function better in moderate climates but are less efficient in cold temperatures. Residents in mild climates won’t need to run the system year-round, which will increase its life span. In addition, using heat pumps in freezing temperatures won’t offer the same energy efficiency because auxiliary heat sources are necessary.
In contrast, air conditioners work better in warm climates since they help maintain cooler temperatures throughout your home. ACs will work harder in extremely high temperatures, putting more stress on the unit and shortening its life expectancy. Since AC units only offer cool air, they aren’t useful for homeowners in colder environments.
A heat pump costs more up-front than an air conditioner. On average, heat pumps cost about $4,200 to $7,600, including installation fees. Your final price will depend on your home’s size and the system design. Ductwork installation will add $3,000 to $7,500 to your final cost. Or, you could opt for a ductless mini-split system instead.
The type of heat pump you choose will also affect its price. Geothermal heat pumps work best in most climates and offer excellent energy efficiency. However, they carry the highest price tag, with costs ranging from $6,000 to $20,000. Air-source heat pumps provide a more economical heating and cooling solution, costing between $4,500 and $8,000.
Additionally, you may qualify for federal, state, and local incentives and rebates with a heat pump system. These incentives vary by location and type of heat pump unit. Check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) for incentives in your area.
In contrast, AC installation costs between $3,800 and $7,500. Since air conditioning only offers a cooling mode, you’ll need to invest in an additional heating system for winter months. Adding a furnace could cost $2,807 to $6,783, on average. Electric furnaces run between $2,000 and $7,000, with propane options slightly higher at $3,000 to $6,000. Natural gas furnaces—the most common types used in most homes—can cost as high as $10,000.
Homeowners should consider long-term energy efficiency, climate, and overall HVAC budget when deciding between a heat pump or an AC unit.
Professional vs. DIY Installation
Installing a heat pump or air conditioner requires seasoned experience with HVAC units and electrical wiring. An improper installation could result in reduced efficiency, poor insulation, or electrical issues. To avoid complications, we recommend hiring a professional HVAC technician to perform the installation.
Heat pump installation requires knowledge of various units, setup, and proper calibration to ensure the system runs at peak performance. In addition, many companies require a licensed professional to install the product or its warranty is voided.
You’ll deal with heavy equipment, lots of manual labor, and complicated systems when installing an air conditioner. These installations also require special certifications that the typical do-it-yourselfer won’t have. Similar to heat pump manufacturers, air conditioner companies prefer installation by licensed technicians to maintain warranty coverage.
Consider hiring a licensed professional through your HVAC company or a local HVAC company to complete your system installation.
Both heat pumps and air conditioners offer excellent home heating and cooling solutions. Their differences lie in their cold air delivery methods, energy efficiency, and system options.
Heat pumps transfer air into and out of your home to achieve ideal internal temperatures. This process is more energy-efficient than an air conditioner’s and offers both warm and cool air solutions. You’ll invest more up-front for a heat pump, but you may qualify for additional savings via local incentives and rebates.
Air conditioners provide a more affordable solution and offer easier, full-home cooling solutions. They work well in the summer months but don’t offer heat solutions for the winter. You’ll need to invest in additional heating solutions to warm your home.
Homeowners should consider their HVAC budget, heating and cooling needs, climate, and potential energy savings when deciding between heat pumps and AC units.
Heat Pumps vs. Air Conditioning FAQ
Which is better: a heat pump or AC?
Heat pumps and AC units offer great home cooling solutions. While heat pumps also offer heating during winter months, AC units provide cool air only. You’ll need to pair your AC unit with a separate heating system to warm your home during cooler months. Heat pumps offer more energy-saving solutions, while air conditioners are more cost-effective and require a lower initial investment.
What are some downsides to a heat pump?
Some downsides to a heat pump include reduced heating abilities in freezing weather and a higher price point than an air conditioner. In addition, a heat pump has a lower life span since it provides heating and cooling capabilities year-round.
What is the main difference between an AC and a heat pump?
The main difference between an AC and a heat pump is their functionality. An AC provides cooling solutions during warm months. However, a heat pump offers both heating and cooling for a home throughout the year. You’ll need to add a heating source to an AC to provide a complete heating and cooling experience.