Technician fixing an AC unit

Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner: Which is Right for You?



October 21, 2021

Those who live in states with variable climates often have more than just one option when it comes to tackling the seasonal changes in weather.

In most cases, homeowners living in such regions find themselves debating over air conditioners and heat pumps. 

Air conditioners are appliances whose main job is to absorb the warm air that’s present in the house and replace with it cool air. Heat pumps, on the other hand, do the very same thing but they’re also capable of supplying hot air, along with being able to cool down the indoor air.

During the winter months, they can be used for heating, and during the summer months, they can be used as air conditioners. 

Those planning to invest in a heat pump or an air conditioner should know that there are several important factors they need to consider before making the purchase, such as the type and size of the unit, as well as its cost and energy efficiency. 

If you’d like to know more about how each of these devices works, as well as what are their benefits, keep reading. In this Heat Pump vs Air Conditioner comparison, I’ll be taking a thorough look at heat pumps and air conditioners, with the ultimate goal of helping you choose the right appliance for your cooling or heating needs.  

Heat Pump

Gray heat pump

While it’s true that the size and cost of a heat pump vary from one model to another, each device of this type works in the same way. Here’s everything you need to know about these convenient appliances:

What’s a Heat Pump? 

To put it simply, this would be a machine whose main job is to transfer heat between the air outside and the air inside the house or a building. During warmer months, a heat pump absorbs heat from the air inside one’s home and transfers it outside. 

As you can already guess, this process reverses in cooler climates. A quality heat pump is powerful enough to absorb heat from the exterior no matter how cold the outside air is.

And once there’s no heat left to absorb, the machine will use its electric-powered heater to heat the cold air and then bring it indoors. 

Types of Heat Pumps

Geothermal heat pump

We can separate heat pumps into two main types, and these are geothermal heat pumps and air source heat pumps.

As their name suggests, geothermal models absorb heat from the ground. Air source heat pumps, on the other hand, extract heat from the outside air. 

Depending on the design, these kinds of appliances are available in packaged and split-type units. Those who opt for a packaged heat pump will get a unit that has all of its parts located in a single cabinet.

And, as you can already guess, it’s the opposite with split-type models – these consist of separate indoor and outdoor units. 

Sometimes, a packaged heat pump will come together with a gas furnace or electric heating coils.

These are great for colder climates since they provide better performance at bringing warm air inside the house than the regular heat pumps. 

Advantages of Heat Pumps 

These are the main benefits of opting for a heat pump: 

  • Compared to traditional cooling and heating systems, such as fireplaces or wood stoves, these appliances require less maintenance (check out my post on the best types of firewood). 
  • Although this varies from one state to another, purchasing one of these appliances can make the homeowner eligible for tax rebates. 
  • Modern models are exceptionally reliable and typically have a lifespan of up to 15 years. 
  • These appliances can provide both heating and cooling. Obviously, this removes the need to install two separate systems and thus saves money. 
  • Not only are heat pumps environmentally friendly, but they also don’t consume as much energy. 
  • They’re a great choice for folks living in moderate climates since they’re significantly more energy-efficient and cost-effective than gas or oil furnaces.

Heat Pump Costs 

The cost of one of these appliances, together with its installation, depends on several different factors. Some of these include the necessary amount of ductwork, the location where you want to have the unit installed, energy efficiency rating, as well as the type and the size of the model. 

However, I think it’s pretty safe to say that one of these devices, together with its installation, can cost as low as $4,000 and as high as $20,000 if we’re talking about geothermal heat pumps.

Obviously, the best way to get the most precise details on pricing, as well expert guidance on choosing the right kind of heat pump for your house, is to simply give a call to your local HVAC technician. 

Air Conditioner 

AC unit on concrete

Just like the heat pump, this device is also available in different types and sizes, and not all models of air conditioners have the same energy efficiency. Let’s have a closer look at it: 

What’s an Air Conditioner? 

Just like the heat pump I’ve described above, an air conditioner can also perform the task of moving heat between two different places. However, an appliance of this type is only capable of cooling the rooms in one’s home.

In other words, an air conditioner can only absorb heat from the air inside your house and transfer it outside. 

The parts you’ll find in a typical air conditioner are very similar to those of a heat pump that is comprised of an indoor unit with a fan, compressor, and condenser. The indoor unit includes a fan and an evaporator.

The thing that absorbs heat from the air that’s inside your home is the refrigerant, which circulates through the evaporator and condenser. The ensuing cool air is pushed by a fan through the ducts and transferred indoors. 

Types of Air Conditioners 

AC unit on a wall

These appliances are available in several different types, including portable units, window air conditioners, split-type air conditioners, central air conditioners, and others. Despite the fact that all these types have slightly different configurations, they all work in the same way. 

A central air conditioner, for example, is comprised of a single unit that houses a compressor, a condenser, and an evaporator, and is typically positioned on the roof of a house. The appliance is connected with the special supply-and-return ducts that are placed along the building’s walls. 

Split-type air conditioners, on the other hand, consist of separate indoor and outdoor units, with the air supply coming through the ducts. A popular variant of this type is the mini-split model.

As its name suggests, this kind of air conditioner is smaller and requires no ducts to get the air. It’s a slim indoor machine that you can mount on the wall and let it blow cold air into your room. 

Wall-mounted units also often combine all the parts in a single housing that you can install to your window. Obviously, these kinds of air conditioners are perfect for all those who need something to cool just a single room. There are also portable units, which, as their name suggests, can be effortlessly moved from one room to another. 

Advantages of Air Conditioners 

The following is a list of benefits that comes with purchasing an air conditioner: 

  • Rooms that are properly air-conditioned are known to reduce dehydration. 
  • By reducing pollutants and allergens, an appliance of this type can greatly improve the quality of indoor air. 
  • Also, by keeping the room temperature stable and steady for long periods of time, an air conditioner can improve one’s sleep. 
  • These devices provide an optimum climate inside a house or apartment and therefore also provide its residents with a genuinely comfortable environment even during hot summer days. 

Air Conditioner Costs 

Depending on the type and size of the model, as well as its energy efficiency rating, the cost of an AC unit can vary greatly – from a mere $100 to as much as $10,000. 

An important thing to mention here is that one also needs to take the costs of installation into account. These depend on the amount of ductwork needed to set up the whole system, the location where you want to install the appliance, as well as the size of the unit itself, and can range between $1,000 and $6,000. 

If you’re looking to save money, make sure to consult your local HVAC technician for accurate AC pricing. Also, keep in mind that opting for one of the newer and more energy-efficient units is guaranteed to save you quite a bit of money in the long run. 

So, Which Appliance is The Right Choice for Me? 

Two heat pumps

In my opinion, the factor that should carry the most weight when choosing between one of these two systems is the heating capacity. After all, the cooling capacities of both the air conditioner and a heat pump are quite similar. 

Standard air conditioners are less expensive to buy, operate, and maintain. However, heat pumps are more efficient when it comes to providing conditioned air, and that can greatly reduce energy costs. 

The coldest regions, i.e. the ones going through extended periods of truly freezing temperatures (below 40 degrees) every year, are undoubtedly better suited for standard AC units supplemented by alternative heating sources. A heat pump, on the other hand, is an ideal choice for folks living in regions with mild winters.

Now, if you are wondering where do air handlers fall into the mix, check out my Heat Pump vs Air Handler comparison. And if you want to learn more about your HVAC system, I suggest reading my MERV 13 vs MERV 8 filter comparison and my Condenser vs Air Handler comparison as well.

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