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Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner: What’s the Difference?

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There are lots of names out there for today’s electrical HVAC systems: mini-split AC, ductless air conditioning, heat pumps, split systems, central AC…is there a difference between them all?

It might be obvious, but let’s state that an air conditioner cools the inside of your home. But heat pumps can cool just like an air conditioner, too! A heat pump can also warm the inside of your home. This is the major difference between a heat pump and an AC unit when it comes to capability.

Let’s discuss how these HVAC systems work, what they have in common, and what you should consider when upgrading your home’s comfort systems.

What’s Similar About Heat Pumps & Air Conditioners?

Well, both are HVAC systems, so we can start there. Air conditioners and heat pumps regulate inside temperatures by transferring heat from one area to another. Both of these comfort systems can be installed in residential or commercial buildings.

Other qualities make these machines more similar than you might think.

Both machines can cool your home equally

The name makes it a bit confusing, but heat pumps have the same cooling ability as an air conditioner. When comparable models are conditioning the same air volume, a heat pump has just as much cooling power as an air conditioner.

The technology used to cool air is the same in both types of equipment. Air conditioners and heat pumps use thermodynamic principles to transfer heat from one place to another. This is done by pressurizing refrigerant, drawing heat from an existing air supply, and directing it elsewhere.

Heat removed from the air inside your home is then released to the outdoor environment. Heat pumps use the exact same process as an air conditioner when it comes to cooling. And both systems require an indoor unit to extract heat and an outdoor unit to release it.

Heat pumps and air conditioners are both powered by electricity

Air conditioners have been using electricity for decades to power the cooling process. A heat pump uses electricity for cooling and heating. This is unlike traditional furnaces, which burn fossil fuels to control the heating process.

There’s no doubt that electricity is a cleaner energy source than natural gas, propane, or other fossil fuels. Access to an electrical source is enough to keep a heat pump or air conditioner running. An HVAC specialist can help determine what sort of outlet and power is needed for the equipment you’re considering.

Homeowners with solar panels and access to solar power have a huge advantage in warming with a heat pump. The savings on energy costs can outweigh the price of converting from a furnace to an electric heating system.

Air conditioners and heat pumps can both go ductless

Central AC adjusts air temperature at a central location in your home and distributes it throughout your living space using air ducts. The same can be said for a heat pump installed in a central location. Heat pumps can use existing ductwork to send warm or cool air to multiple rooms.

Ductless mini split systems are designed to control the temperature in a single area of your house. These systems connect the outdoor and indoor units directly through an exterior wall and require no ductwork. Both heat pumps and air conditioners can be installed as ductless mini splits.

Some ductless HVAC systems also integrate heat pump technology to warm a single indoor area. It’s worth noting that ductless multi-split systems can adjust indoor temperatures in multiple areas of your home. You can simply add more indoor heads in different locations when installing a heat pump or air conditioner as a multi-split system.

The Differences Between Air Conditioners & Heat Pumps

So when it comes to cooling, a heat pump is just as worthy as its one-way counterpart, the air conditioner. But a fundamental difference separates these HVAC machines: only a heat pump can transfer heat in 2 directions.

A heat pump can warm your home; an air conditioner cannot

Air conditioners can only move heat in 1 direction. For the sake of home comfort, this direction moves heat from inside to outside. Refrigerant is passed inside the system in one continuous loop, with the inside unit blowing cool air only.

A heat pump has a special valve that can reverse this process. The reversing valve allows the condenser to absorb heat from the outside air and distribute it inside your home. This warm air is then forced into your living space.

Please note that heat pumps do have some limitations when it comes to warming a building. Most heat pumps are ineffective in temperatures below 32°F, so sub-zero climates are not ideal for heat pump installations.

So, a heat pump can do everything an air conditioner can do. But an air conditioner lacks the reversing valve that permits indoor heating. Only a heat pump can heat your home.

Let’s talk about the price

Heat pumps utilize more technology, have more components, and can do more when it comes to being comfortable in your home. So generally, a heat pump is more expensive than an air conditioner when comparing similarly-sized units.

This price difference applies to central HVAC systems and ductless air conditioners/heat pumps. There isn’t usually a huge discrepancy in installation labor costs between AC and heat pumps. But this will vary based on your chosen equipment and the exact install specifics.

Speak to a local HVAC specialist to get more information on heat pump and air conditioner prices in your area.

The component warranties may be different

An air conditioner only cools, so you’ll only ever use it when it’s hot outside. A heat pump can also warm your home, so this machine may be running through every season. The good news is that heat pumps are designed to be durable.

Both heat pumps and air conditioners should last between 10-15 years. Heat pumps are manufactured with all-year-round operation in mind. If you’re thinking a heat pump is the right choice, make sure to inquire about component warranties. Many heat pumps are installed with a 10 year warranty on components, and in some cases, a lifetime warranty on the compressor.

When comparing the price of HVAC equipment, it’s essential to consider the operating costs as well. If gas prices are higher than electricity rates, the long-term savings of installing a heat pump may outweigh initial installation costs.

Should You Choose a Heat Pump or Air Conditioner?

Determining what type of HVAC system is best for your lifestyle depends on your needs and where you live. There is not a uniform right answer for every homeowner. Consider the following questions to help you make a confident decision about your home’s comfort systems.

Do you need both cooling and heating in your area?

If you live in a hot climate and never think about needing to stay warm, then a heat pump isn’t for you. Stick with a more simple air conditioner.

The opposite can be said for climates that never experience high temperatures. If AC isn’t a concern in your region, and you want to heat your entire home, a furnace installation or replacement may be the better choice.

But for places on the map with big temperature swings from season to season, the dual-threat of a heat pump may be just what the doctor ordered. Central California is an excellent example of a climate that can utilize the 2-way abilities of a heat pump.

How cold does it get where you live?

If it’s consistently cold where you live and falls below freezing, you’re probably not thinking about AC very often. But climates with sub-zero temperatures are not appropriate for heat pumps. Heat pumps lose heating effectiveness and efficiency at about 32°F.

In these climates, you’ll require a system that makes heat, like a furnace, instead of one that transfers heat.

Does your home have solar power?

If you have a home equipped with solar panels or a solar photovoltaic system, there’s an incentive to install a heat pump. Because heat pumps operate on electricity, just like an air conditioner, the operating costs are minimal if solar power is available.

As per government mandate, new homes built after January 2020 in California are all equipped with some type of solar electricity source. A Lee’s Air, Plumbing, & Heating specialist can help determine what heating systems are most compatible with your solar setup.

Do you currently have a working heating system?

A heat pump may be redundant if you have a furnace or other type of ducted heating system already installed in your home. A central air conditioner can be integrated into your existing ductwork if you only require cooling.

Ductless HVAC can be added to parts of your home that aren’t serviced by your existing duct system. Home additions can be climate-controlled with a mini split air conditioner or heat pump.

If your furnace is 15 years or older, it’s likely due for a replacement soon. As long as it doesn’t get too cold in your region, it’s worth discussing heat pumps with a heating and cooling specialist.

Can you offset costs with rebate programs?

The world is going green, and your home heating system is no exception. Many governments are offering rebates for homeowners switching to clean-running electric heat pumps. In California, converting your heating system from gas to a heat pump will likely qualify you for government rebates.

Still Can’t Decide Between a Heat Pump or Air Conditioner?

The big difference between heat pumps and air conditioners is that a heat pump offers both cooling and heating. Other variables make either type of equipment a better choice for your home.

Lee’s Air, Plumbing, & Heating ensures that every homeowner is well aware of the rebates and reward programs available when upgrading their HVAC systems. And we’ll always answer any other questions you have about what sets heat pumps apart from traditional air conditioners.

Written by Thomas Howard

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