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Heat Pump vs AC: A Detailed Comparison 

by Lisa Hayden
Heat Pump vs AC

Controlling and maintaining the temperature inside your home requires a suitable device. The standard solution is to use an air conditioner and a heater. But many homeowners now choose heat pumps instead. But what’s the right choice: a heat pump vs AC?

An air conditioner is a popular cooling solution in an average home equipped with dedicated heating solutions. A heat pump uses a similar mechanism as an AC – except it can perform heating and cooling activities during different seasons. 

However, both of them have their advantages and disadvantages. But that depends on the kind of requirements a homeowner has, along with various other factors. This post will discuss each individually to help you choose the suitable device between an AC and a heating pump.

Related: Heat Pump vs Central Air – Detailed Comparison 2022

What is an Air Conditioner?

An air conditioner works to keep the indoor air cool. A standard AC can transfer heat from the indoor air to the outside. It has an outside unit and an inside unit. Both of these are responsible for different activities depending on the parts of the AC in the house. 

The indoor part of an AC is equipped to house a fan and an evaporator. The outer unit accommodates the condenser, the fan, and the compressor. The device has a fluid, i.e., refrigerant circulating through the condenser and the evaporator to absorb heat from the air. 

Thus, the machine draws warmth from the air inside the house into the condenser. It then cools this air and pumps it into the room through the ventilation system. Meanwhile, the heat extracted from the inside air is transferred outside by the AC. 

Pros

  • Affordable and readily available 
  • Easy and low-cost installation
  • Works efficiently in any climate
  • Long-lasting devices

Cons

  • Only offers cooling action
  • Frequent maintenance needed

What is a Heat Pump?

A heat pump is an appliance for cooling and heating the indoors. Like an air conditioner, this device, too, uses the technique of heat transference. The difference, however, is that a heat pump can move heat from the inside to the outside – and the other way round.

It can cool the indoor air by absorbing heat from the inside air and transferring it to the outdoors while cooling the air within. It can also reverse its action. Thus, it extracts heat from the outside air and circulates it indoors so that the room can be warm during colder days. 

Heat pumps have reversing valves to alter the movement direction of the refrigerant for the heating action instead of the cooling effect. However, you must note that for a heat pump to extract heat from the outside, the air must have sufficient heat that the device can draw. 

Pros

  • It offers both heating and cooling 
  • It can be used throughout the year
  • Energy-efficient heater-cum-cooler
  • Environmentally-friendly option 

Cons

  • Efficiency drops below 20-30 degrees
  • Higher cost of buying and installing

Heat Pump vs AC: A Comprehensive Comparison

Now that you know how the two devices work, it’s time to compare them. This will help you analyze which machine is ideal for your home. Let’s first take a quick look at what sets these two apart before we discuss the differences in detail. 

Heat Pump vs AC: Comparison Points

Features Heat Pump AC
Operation It acts as a cooler, moving heat outside Transfers heat both ways – and is a heater-cum-cooler
Weather Condition Low efficiency at less than 20 degrees Unaffected by outdoor temperature
Installation Pricey and tough installation Easy and low-cost installation process
Energy Efficiency Energy efficient, except when it’s extremely cold  Energy-efficient AC units available at a high price
Longevity Lower lifespan due to round-the-year use Higher lifespan due to seasonal use
Eco-Friendliness Eco-friendly because of no heat or CO2 emission Eco-friendly options are available at a high price
Price The higher upfront cost to buy and install the unit The lower initial cost to buy and install the unit

Let’s now analyze these points of differences between an air conditioner and a heat pump in detail – 

1. Operation 

The basic principle used by the heat pump and an air conditioner is the same. Both work on the process of heat transference. Both can perform the task of moving heat from the air indoors to the outside. Meanwhile, cool air spreads within the inside of a room. 

However, a heat pump can also perform the reverse action. It can draw heat from the outdoor air and pump it into the room to act as a heater. It can replace an AC in the summer and a heating solution in the winter – though its efficiency drops in frigid climates.   

2. Weather Condition

Both heat pumps and air conditioners are great at cooling actions. They extract heat from the air inside the room and then move it outside while distributing cool air in the room. Thus, they are efficient in cooling the indoors when the temperature is high. 

However, an AC can work efficiently irrespective of the outside temperature. On the other hand, a heat pump becomes more inefficient when the outside temperature drops. Its heating abilities take a hit below 20-30 degrees with no heat to draw from the air.

3. Installation 

Air conditioners are easier to install – compared to heat pumps. The installation involves setting up supply and return ducts on the walls – besides the AC units. While the installation cost can be $1,000-$6,000, it still costs less than installing a heat pump. 

Installing an AC does not involve a heating unit – unlike a heat pump that involves setting up ductworks. The average cost of installing heat pumps can be around $4,000-$7,5000. That’s due to the complex technique of setting heating and cooling units. 

4. Energy-Efficiency

Regarding energy efficiency, the conversation can get a little complex. As you know, an AC can only have a cooling effect. There are many energy-efficient ACs available, though they’re costly. Heat pumps match up to the energy efficiency levels of coolers. 

Now let’s consider heating solutions. A heat pump can act as a heater. But the lower the outside temperature, the more energy it uses to perform efficiently. Even small heating solutions can raise your electric bills unless it’s an expensive energy-efficient option. 

5. Unit Longevity

An air conditioner usually lasts longer than a heat pump. But that’s not a quality issue. A heat pump can be used throughout the year as a home cooling and heating solution. So it undergoes more wear and tear – and requires regular maintenance, especially the air filters. 

But the maintenance needs are minimal. It should be checked twice a year. An AC’s use is only seasonal. It becomes active during the hot months, and when the cold sets in, it gets its rest. Therefore, it lasts longer. But it required maintenance every few months! 

6. Eco-Friendliness

Heat pumps are considered relatively more eco-friendly than air conditioners. There are different types of air conditioners. While the modern ones with higher ratings are more eco-friendly, they are also high-cost. But heat pumps are preferred for their lower environmental impact. 

Studies support that heat pumps can be a change for the good because they produce fewer greenhouse gasses and no heat. Shifting to heat pumps can be a step towards reducing global warming – a pertinent problem for our planet.

7. Price

Air conditioners are more readily available and cost lower than heat pumps. The price of an AC can be anything between $150 and $10,000 – depending on the energy ratings, eco-friendliness, brand, capacity of the room it cools, location and weather, etc.

Heat pumps can be priced between $2,000 and $36,000. Air source heat pumps cost lower than geothermal heat pumps. But you must note that a heat pump can save you the cost of an air conditioner and a heating solution. 

A mini split heat pump may be a good option if you’re looking for an affordable way to heat and cool your home. Mini split heat pumps are very efficient and can save you money on your energy bills. They’re also relatively easy to install, so you won’t have to spend much on installation costs.   

AC vs Heat Pump – Factors to Consider While Purchasing

You have learned how an air conditioner and a heat pump work. So the question is, which is the ideal choice for you? The answer depends on several factors. The most important ones are listed below for you to consider at the time of buying – 

a) Upfront Cost

The initial amount for buying and installing a heat pump is much higher because a heat pump is a complex device with both heating and cooling units. It can be a good investment if you are comfortable with bearing the upfront expense. An AC is much more pocket-friendly.   

b) Heating Needs 

An AC competes with the heat pump only as a cooling solution and needs to work alongside a dedicated heating option. A heat pump can replace a heater and cooler. But if your home doesn’t need a heater due to the location or the existing setup, consider an AC.  

c) Temperature Drop

The function of an AC and a heat pump involves drawing heat from the air. An AC can work in any climate, irrespective of the outdoor temperature, in keeping the indoors cool. But a heat pump will lose efficiency if the temperature drops below 20F where you live.   

d) Existing Setup

Installing a heat pump is complex and expensive. An air conditioner might suffice if you already have a dedicated heating solution in your home or provision. However, a heat pump is a good choice for a heater and a cooler for a first-time setup.  

e) Environmental Impact 

Coolers, heat pumps and ACs can be eco-friendly – provided you choose the right air-conditioning options. A heat pump is considered more eco-friendly than regular heaters that produce heat and CO2 when it comes to heating performance. 

When to Choose Heat Pumps

A heat pump can be a great option if you: 

  • Live when the temperature stays moderately cold or above
  • Require both heating and cooling solutions in your home

When to Choose Air Conditioners

Choose an air conditioner if you:

  • Live in a cold region where the temperature drops below 20F 
  • Already have a heater at home or don’t need one at all

Final Words

The cost of a heat pump is higher, but it makes up for buying, installing, and running a heater and a cooler. But an AC is low-cost and efficient in extremely cold regions if you already have a heater. So consider all factors to find your answer to the heat pump vs AC conundrum. 

FAQ

a) Can a heat pump replace an air conditioner?

A heat pump works the same way as an air conditioner to cool a room. It draws heat from the indoor air and transfers it outside. It also spreads cool air inside the room. Thus, it is a suitable replacement for an AC – but it’s costlier as it also works as a heating solution. 

b) Does a heat pump or an AC use more electricity?

A heat pump is an excellent choice as an energy-efficient cooling and heating solution. However, when the outside air becomes cold, the device loses its efficiency and uses more energy. While low-cost ACs raise electricity bills, there are energy-efficient options, too!

c) Which is better: a heat pump or an AC? 

A heat pump is expensive but works as a cooler and a heater. An AC just cools the indoors and must be paired with winter heat. But if the temperature outside gets too cold, it doesn’t work well, and you’ll still need a dedicated heating solution.  

d) What are the disadvantages of a heat pump?

A heat pump is an expensive device – and the installation cost is high, too. Though it can replace a heater and a cooler, it doesn’t work efficiently when the outside temperature is too low. It is also not as long-lasting as ACs as it is used throughout the year.

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