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HVAC Resources

Heat Pumps vs Air Conditioners

When it’s time to install or replace a new HVAC system in your home or business, you often face the difficult decision of choosing between a heat pump or conventional air conditioning system. While these systems generally work the same when cooling your home, there are some major differences on the heating side. This post will cover the basic differences between a new heat pump system and central air conditioning unit installation, how they work, and the factors you should consider before purchasing a new system, including price, energy efficiency, and climate so that you can make the best decision possible between a heat pump vs AC.

heat pump vs ac

AC vs. Heat Pump

Both a central AC unit and heat pump systems are considered a type of central air HVAC system as they transfer (or pump) heat from inside the structure to the outside to cool inside temperatures.

Heat Pump

Average Cost: $3,875-$10,000
  • Energy-efficient
  • May qualify for tax rebate
  • Condition air more efficiently, which reduces utility bills
  • Not ideal for cold climates
  • More expensive base price
  • Shorter lifespan than conventional AC

Conventional AC

Average Cost: $3,200-$7,800
  • Work in any climate
  • Less expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate
  • Longer lifespan than heat pump
  • Higher monthly utility bills
  • Needs a heat source like a gas furnace
  • May not qualify for rebates

The major difference between a heat pump vs AC is that heat pumps can reverse their air flow direction. That means it can transfer heat from the outside to raise indoor temperatures.

A conventional air conditioning system on the other hand must rely on electric resistant heat strips within the air handler or utilize a gas furnace unit to produce/distribute warm air.

Heat Pump vs. AC Costs

Heat pump costs

  • No additional costs for separate heating unit
  • 5% more expensive than the base cost of an AC unit
  • Shorter lifespan since they need to be working year-round

AC Costs

  • Only need to provide cool air, so they do not need to work year-round
  • A bit cheaper to both install and maintain
  • Need a furnace unit or other heating element, significantly driving up initial costs as well as maintenance

While most heat pump systems cost only about 5% higher than the base cost of central air conditioners, you can expect to pay slightly more for heat pump installation. Since heat pumps handle both cooling and heating, they run year round—which shortens their lifespan when compared to a conventional air conditioner.

This could also lead to higher prices for service contracts through your HVAC contractor and affect the overall warranty due to the wear and tear on the system.

However, with all that said, you must take into account that a home with an air conditioner unit will also need a furnace unit installed to provide heat. Combined, that is more expensive than a heat pump.

Check out our HVAC cost calculator to get an idea of what the project will cost and then follow-up by contacting your HVAC contractor for the most accurate estimate for HVAC installation. To get exact pricing, talk to local heat pump installers today about your project specifics.

How a Heat Pump vs. AC Works

While heat pumps and conventional air conditioners differ, they rely on the same principals to condition inside air temperatures:

  1. Both systems utilize a compressor to compress refrigerant contained within the system.
  2. There, gas is compressed, causing its temperature to rise significantly.
  3. The gas then flows through the condensing coil where it cools to ambient temperature.
  4. As the gas enters the evaporator coil—located inside the house—it expands, causing its temperature to rapidly drop and cool the evaporator coil.
  5. A fan or blower assembly within the air handler draws air through the cooled evaporator coil to provide conditioned air to the home’s interior.

The main difference between the two systems is that a heat pump can reverse the process by switching the function of the evaporator and condenser coils to raise inside temperatures.

Choosing the Best Option

Choosing between a conventional central air installation and a heat pump depends on several factors with the most notable being your climate.

Areas of the country subjected to temperatures 40-degrees and lower for extended periods are not ideal for a heat pump installation.

Why? Well, as the temperature drops, heat pumps work harder to maintain desired comfort levels. This results in more energy use, driving up your utility bill.

In addition, once the temperature drops below 40-degrees, most heat pump systems lose their heating efficiency and must switch to emergency heat mode, which utilizes electric resistant heat strips that use more electricity.

Best Air Conditioner Brands

Think central AC is the best choice for your home? These are the brands to consider. Most of these offer a heat pump, too.

Take Me There

Energy Efficiency of Heat Pumps

Since heat pump HVAC systems are more energy-efficient than central air conditioners, purchasing one of these systems may qualify you for a tax incentive or rebate from the federal government, state, or local utility company, which will reduce the overall cost of the system.

To search for rebate and incentive programs in your area, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency. DSIRE is the most comprehensive source of information on rebates and incentives that support energy efficiency and renewables in the country.

Since the cooling capacities of both a heat pump and conventional air conditioner are about the same, the heating capacity should carry the most weight when choosing one system over the other.

Conventional air conditioners are less expensive to purchase, maintain, and operate, while heat pumps provide conditioned air more efficiently which reduces monthly energy costs.

The coldest regions of the country—those with extended periods below 40-degrees—are better suited to conventional air conditioning supplemented with an alternative heating source. Regions of the country with milder winters are ideal locations for heat pump installation.

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